“And on the subject of burning books: I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength or their powerful political connections or their great wealth, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and have refused to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.
“So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.”—Kurt Vonnegut
The Denial of Neutrality and Apolitical Inquiry: Earmark of the Fanatic
In the mindset of the convinced, there can never be a neutral public space; there can be no place where people are free from the agendas or counter-agendas of the political, social and perhaps even spiritual forces at work in society, forces vying constantly for power, control and influence over people’s minds and lives. This mindset is an earmark of the Fanatic.
To those of this mindset, the mere seeking of an apolitical or ideology-free space or the taking of an observer’s stance makes the seeker or observer suspect, for in the minds of Fanatics, the neutral party in any controversy always represents either some degree of disagreement with their own cherished viewpoints or some degree of agreement with the “other side.” The possibility of the “other side” making and supporting a convincing argument that counters their own or, even worse, wins an adherent, is a perennial threat to Fanatics. They glibly—and falsely–equate words and ideas with physical violence or destruction. They also maintain that failure to speak up and positively agree with them—silence, as they call it—is also violence and destruction. Thus does the modern Fanatic coerce agreement from the uncommitted or self-consciously under-informed.
The “neutrality-denial” mindset is antithetical to intellectual freedom. This doctrine is designed to impugn and deny the very possibility of intellectual freedom or free thought, insisting as it does that the worldview of the individual mind cannot be the result of that individual’s own reflection or discernment, but rather that each person’s ideas are instead resultant of a sort of meta-programming dumped into the masses by powerful concerns bent upon exploiting, controlling, and perhaps even polluting or destroying them. This mindset is a paranoid one that gives greater credit to powerful, shadowy conspirators as (mis)educators than to individuals as thinkers and learners. In this, it is a grave insult to free thinkers.
In its determinism, the mindset is virulently anti-human, anti-democratic and anti-intellectual and denies an individual’s ability to explore and self-cultivate. Indeed, it denies and mocks the very possibility of exploration and self-cultivation, blithely reducing every human being to the status of mere mechanism in a “system,” an unwitting and perhaps unthinking cog in a great social and historical machine. But the human being is no cog, no mere mechanism. Those who contend otherwise must be opposed and resisted in a free society, and a society of the free.
The Need for a Censor Class
In this mindset, there must be a censor class with the “best interests” of the downtrodden and easily mislead masses at heart, willing and able to strategically and selectively interpret, re-frame, highlight, endorse, affirm, hide or destroy any and all information the purveying of which challenges a “correct” way of thinking or believing and/or furthers an “incorrect” way of thinking or believing as codified by those with the power to define the terms involved. They seek to make their definitions part of the common vernacular and enforced orthodoxy of a given historical moment. In the minds of those who seek control and power (and those who would cooperate with them), public librarians could—and perhaps SHOULD– neatly and properly play the role of both censor and mentor.
This last point illustrates the relationship messianic and totalitarian movements of all bents and stripes, whether religious, social or political, have with information and with those who work to make it available, always and everywhere and necessarily. Thus far in human history, there are no exceptions to this rule.
Guiding Ethical Principles Reaffirmed
Thus, as long as Intellectual Freedom is defined by the American Library Association as: “the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction… provid[ing] for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored,” and as long as the “Freedom to Read Statement” states that librarians “do not foster education by imposing as mentors the patterns of their own thought,” then:
- A public library must not allow any staff at any level to evaluate a work or source of information’s suitability for inclusion using any political or ideological standards applied to either the creator as an individual or the work’s content;
- A public library must not allow material selectors to link the authority of a source to the viewpoint of its creators;
- Public library administrators and Boards should resist calls to either avoid or withdraw works from library collections on ideological or political grounds;
- A public library must work to avoid the appearance of political or ideological bias in its publicly-funded outreach or programming; a public library must not appear to favor any political or ideological worldview over another;
- A public library must be viewpoint-neutral in its official policies regarding outside programming or public meeting space—restricting facility usage on ideological or political grounds is an ethical failure as well as a legal one;
- A public library must not allow staff of any conviction to use the institutional voice of the public library to amplify their own viewpoints or beliefs or to counter viewpoints or beliefs they oppose;
- A public library must write, publish and abide by a regularly-reviewed collection development policy, and this policy must be written in such a way as to avoid the appearance of ideological, political and viewpoint bias;
- Any public library which employs a director or administrator who discharges his/her duties in such a way as to run counter to the ideals of Intellectual Freedom or the Freedom to Read as defined by the American Library Association fails in its mission;
In sum, a public library’s collections, slate of services and programs must be administered without regard or, insofar as possible, the appearance of regard for any political orthodoxies or ideological shibboleths.
Those who counter or deny the possibility of neutral, ideology-free public libraries and seek to use public libraries as either springboards for their agendas or clearing houses for information supporting them must be opposed and resisted. Those who seek to use public libraries as bulwarks against agendas they oppose or clearing houses for information meant to inoculate the public against them must be likewise opposed and resisted.
Neutrality vs. Inaction, Detachment vs. Disinterest
Contrary to Fanatical platitudes afoot, library neutrality does not mean inaction in the face of what one swath or another of the population determines to be “right” or “wrong” or “unjust” or “just,” or “oppressive,” or “subversive,” or “patriotic,” or “pornographic” or “appropriate,” however those terms are defined at any given historical moment. Making a balanced collection of information available and offering a variety of services without conscious regard for the backgrounds, experiences or statuses of those served is itself a “political” act under the purposely and consciously non-partisan ideological umbrellas of “intellectual freedom” and “public accommodation.”
Public libraries by their very nature and mission as public accommodations and storehouses for information influence the minds of those who use them. Public librarians have faith that fair and equal access to information leads minds out of what most people would think of as ignorance but must be equally willing to accept that it may not. Some people will use information for no other purpose than to defend and perhaps even more deeply entrench notions that the moment’s majority either detests or reveres, but library neutrality means making information and services available with a conscious effort to avoid letting popular opinion, however agreeable or disagreeable, impact collection development decisions or the accessibility or availability of materials or services. Neutrality means a conscious and purposeful effort at religious, ideological, sociological and political disengagement; neutrality means being all-available, all-welcoming, all-serving and existing in a state of institutional detachment from—though not disinterest in– the social, political, ideological and religious contentions of a world steeped in warring convictions, both noble and ignoble.
Indeed, neutrality is not inaction: in a society and world roiled by constantly clashing worldviews and stubbornly convinced minds, neutrality itself is revolutionary.
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