Neutrality of Public Libraries: Compiled Reading List and Jists

All of these writings are by librarians or library school instructors. This is by no means an exhaustive list.

Libraries Cannot be Neutral About Human Rights by Alex Brown

Quote: “Library workers can fight back right now by updating our policies—not just for collection development, but all guiding documentation. If someone comes for your collection, you want a policy sturdy enough to resist. Language upholding neutrality should be removed, and language reaffirming a commitment to social justice and defending vulnerable and marginalized patrons should be added in.”

“Ensure your library is curating a collection, not just warehousing everything being published. This means not auto-buying books just because they land on a bestsellers list or are nominated for an award. It means proactively weeding out dangerous or inaccurate information. It means promoting materials representing marginalized identities and experiences. And it means holding accountable third-party library services like Hoopla that use the Library Bill of Rights to justify keeping anti-LGBTQ+, anti-vax, and Holocaust denial books in its collection.”

“Neutrality inevitably prioritizes the majority at the expense of the minority. Defending it will not save libraries from book bans, especially not as bad actors use it as cover for the real purpose behind their attacks: to cement their control over how we access information and erase any visible traces of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ and other marginalized people. It’s time for library workers to rethink how we operate and whose needs we prioritize. There is no one right answer as to what a neutrality-free library looks like, but the cost of upholding the status quo is too high.”

Jist: Neutrality endangers marginalized people, and dangerous information needs to be removed from library collections. An ethos of neutrality is grounded in oppression.

Libraries and the Contested Terrain of “Neutrality” by Rick Anderson

Quote:For example: if the question is ‘Do libraries take a neutral stance on the issue of literacy?’, then the answer is clearly no. Libraries actively promote literacy, and treat illiteracy as a problem to be solved. If the question is ‘Do libraries take a neutral stance on the issue of racial diversity?’, then again the answer is clearly no—the American Library Association’s Core Values Statement is admirably clear and forceful on this point, and I don’t think I know a single librarian who would disagree with it. The same can be said for questions about equity of access, social responsibility, the value of education, and the importance of privacy. On all of these issues it can confidently be said that libraries take a non-neutral stance, in that we stand in support of these things. In the context of these and other broad and very important questions, the library is not – and arguably must not be – neutral.”

“Why does this matter? Because the fact that there are some ways in which the library is not and must not be neutral should not give cover to practices or programs that create bias in areas where the library is and must be neutral. And if the ‘libraries are not neutral’ position is given a halo of righteousness, that of course implies that those who support important aspects of library neutrality are unrighteous: defenders of the status quo, agents of oppression, etc.”

Jist: On some things, libraries ought not be neutral. On some things they should.

Once More for Those in the Back: Libraries Are Not Neutral by Nicole A. Cooke, Renate Chancellor, Yasmeen Shorish, Sarah Park Dahlen, and Amelia Gibson (a response to this piece in the New York Times by Stanley Kurtz).

A 2017 paper by the same five authors: Libraries on the Frontlines: Neutrality and Social

Quote:Throughout his essay, Kurtz struggles to align his personal understanding of ‘library neutrality’ with the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, which, in its first tenet, states that library resources should be provided for the “interest, information, and enlightenment of all people” in the community. ‘Library neutrality shares the classically liberal presuppositions that informed America’s founding,’ Kurtz states. ‘Human beings enjoy equal rights and free individuals can be trusted to make their own decisions about what to read and believe.'”

But in unironically grounding his idea of library neutrality in the values held at the founding of America and venerating the traditions that protected the ‘equal rights’ of ‘free individuals,’ Kurtz conveniently ignores reality: most people at the time of our nation’s founding—and for much of our history—were not free.”

Jist: America’s libraries exist in a society in which racism, oppression, etc. exist and within a framework of pervasive injustice going back to the founding of the nation. Thus, libraries by their very nature are oppressive and not neutral. To make them purposely “counter-oppressive” and “antiracist” is an ethical and professional imperative. Standard post-structuralist stuff.

Librarians in the 21st Century: It Is Becoming Impossible to Remain Neutral by Stacie Williams

Quote: “I tend to eschew the idea of neutrality because nothing about my lived experience, as a black librarian, is neutral. When a patron came into the public library I worked at a few years ago and requested a copy of Mein Kampf, I feared for my safety. I knew the book was located in a section of the stacks out of view from security cameras. And the patron was a young man with a close-cropped haircut. Close-cropped enough to give me pause. But I didn’t feel comfortable turning down the request, because I wasn’t 100 percent sure as to his motivations, and because as the only librarian at the reference desk I felt like I didn’t have the option to not help him. I compromised in that instance by walking him to the section and pointing out the exact shelf in the corner where I knew the book was. The patron grabbed the book, said thanks and that was the end of the interaction. But I had no way of knowing how that was going to work out.”

“An allegiance to blind neutrality leaves us with without the ability to confidently challenge wrong things. And leaves those of us living in different bodies—black bodies, Muslim bodies, trans bodies, differently abled bodies—on the margins of librarianship, mirroring what it feels like for us in society.”

Jist: The ethos of neutrality endangers librarians who are not white, able-bodied or heterosexual and makes it impossible for librarians to correct (or perhaps refuse service to) people who think in ways some librarians might feel are evil or harmful or dangerous, such as white dudes with short hair, whose haircuts may hint at fascist leanings.

Are Libraries Neutral? by Emily Drabinski

Quote: So I told that student that I was struggling because I simply didn’t believe in the position her professor was asking her to take. But that I could think up the words that my opposition might say: individual responsibility. We used that keyword to unlock a universe of information sources that might very well imagine they were presenting to the world a clear, unbiased, and neutral point of view. Even as they weren’t.

I have had many reference interactions like this one: students seeking evidence that Israel is not producing a violent apartheid state in Palestine. Students seeking evidence that homosexuality is linked to genetic defects. Students seeking evidence that social service programs produce dependencies. I am sure many of us in the room have stories like these. A discussion about how we navigate these professional, material, concrete and real situations is urgent and necessary. How might we make a world where the link of poverty to public health outcomes was addressed, not taken as an issue for debate?

Jist: People doing research for debates in which a librarian knows he or she has a correct personal position must be tolerated for now, and in the future, librarians may help to create a world wherein they may not have to deal with contentions against their viewpoints or consciences.

The Myth of Library Neutrality by Candise Branum

Quote: “It is oppressive of the library profession to ask people from marginalized groups to adopt a neutral point of view. In doing this, we are asking them to ignore their community history, struggles and identity. We cannot ask librarians of color to neutrally assist a patron in searching for information supporting Eugenics, just as we cannot as a queer librarian to be neutral on the subject of gay hate crimes. Oppressed groups do not have the option of neutrality. Neutrality is a privilege afforded to those who do not live in fear, have not experienced genocide and war, do not have to daily face the effects of institutionalized racism. Neutrality is seeing people who suffer and choosing turning your back. It is seeing institutionalized racism and not having to form an opinion on it (or not even noticing it in the first place). It is seeing queer youth being taunted and turning our heads. All hatred is on a continuum, and on the far end, it is seeing explicit racism, gay bashings, or even genocide, and deciding to say and do nothing. This is what neutrality is: an excuse to not care.”

Perhaps it is time that the profession begins to formally move away from the social science model and towards a social work community-based practice one.”

Jist: No further comment needed.

Can Libraries be Neutral? Should They Strive to be Neutral? by Em Claire Knowles

Quote:Neutrality is a process to which libraries and librarians must actively commit, a goal that must be continually sought, an aspiration that must be regularly renewed and reimagined so as to remain relevant to the institution and to the community it serves. There is nothing, to my mind, dispassionate about neutrality.

Heather Douglas, an authority in shaping policy on issues of great moral and cultural significance, illustrates my point about active neutrality. She argues against a passive version of neutrality because it is not adequate to meet the challenges of, for example, racist or sexist speech. She urges us instead to take a “balanced” position with respect to a spectrum of values. We – and I include ALA and libraries in that “we” – can establish a set of core values and implement respect for those values in such a way that we ensure respect for all members of our constituencies.

To be specific:

  • we must promote the importance of reading and learning to keep our residents informed;
  • we must respect people’s cultural views and understanding, but we must also help users to explore new perspectives;
  • we must be open to reasonable accommodations to concerned patronage, and be prepared for any controversy created by those accommodations;
  • and lastly, we must use all the available PR and marketing efforts to get our message out to the widest audience and to emphasize the positive role libraries and librarians play in a civil society.”

Jist: No further comment needed.

When Libraries and Librarians Pretend to be Neutral, They Often Cause Harm by Meredith Farkas

Quote: “[A] thing came up this week on an occasion that should have been such a positive one. OLA Quarterly, the official publication of the Oregon Library Association (of which I’m a member and served on its Board last year) came out with a mostly fantastic issue focused on Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. I’ve read it cover to cover and was so impressed with the way library workers in our state and in all sorts of positions in their organizations have made efforts (big and small) to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion. There’s some great stuff in the issue. Unfortunately, it ended with an article entitled “Yes, but … One Librarian’s Thoughts About Doing It Right” by Heather McNeil. I’m sure most of you can guess that with a title like that, no good can come, and you’d be so very right.

“Honestly, the only positive thing I can see ever coming from this article is that when someone asks in the future what people mean by white fragility or by the idea of white people centering themselves in conversations about diversity, I have something to point to. Truly, I’ve seen no clearer example. It’s hard for me to imagine what would possess a librarian with a long and celebrated career as a children’s librarian to write something so uncollegial, offensive, and dismissive of diversity (not to mention poorly written and supported) as her parting gift to the profession upon her retirement. I can only imagine that her feeling that we have “overcorrect[ed] ourselves” on issues of diversity was so strong that she believed she was doing us all a favor in sharing it. And if that isn’t whiteness in its purest form, I don’t know what is. Her misrepresentation of criticisms of Dr. Seuss books, Dr. Debbie Reese’s speech (the text of which is available so you can form your own conclusions), the blog Reading While White, and others trying to improve the diversity of books in libraries, celebrate diverse books, and critique whiteness in libraries were egregious and mostly unsupported.”

Jist: Farkas takes issue with several things in this piece: Toronto Public Library allowing a speaker who questions ascendant gender theory to speak, (white) librarians offering views on “EDI” that run counter to hers and the notion that a work of literature can be judged by white reviewers in anything but a racist way. This is pretty standard anti-library neutrality thought, if on the more ideologically extreme end. When it comes to critical librarianship, Farkas is among the truest of True Believers.

The Complexity of “Neutrality” at Your Library by Ben Hunter

(Note: This is another response to Stanley Kurtz’ piece in the New York Times.)

Quote: On the surface, this all sounds very reasonable. Neutrality as a loose concept is easy for most of us to get behind. We may differ from our friends and neighbors in how we see the world, but a free and democratic society hinges on the ability for people to encounter different viewpoints and come to their own opinions. And we can agree that there are materials that are inappropriate for children, and some specific topics that are completely beyond the pale for any age (see Terrorism — How To).”

“Kurtz’s examples hinge on the idea that there are two sides to any argument. This grossly oversimplifies the diversity of thought and the diversity of voices on just about any given topic of any substance and ignores the continually changing nature of scholarship and knowledge. As dualistic as much of today’s political rhetoric is, our society is in fact a pluralistic one with many, many voices and opinions, and libraries have a responsibility to reflect that.”

“Libraries are essential to our democratic society. Library collections are best improved through additive, not subtractive, processes. Library collections should reflect their communities. Most librarians are going to agree with Kurtz on those topics. What a good librarian knows, though, is that this is complex, difficult, and continually changing work. This is why experienced, well-trained, and intelligent librarians capable of deeply nuanced thinking are necessary in our communities and universities.”

Jist: Hunter comes very close to heresy in contemporary librarian thought. First the notion that material can be “inappropriate for children.” I notice he was very careful with his example: terrorism. Next, he says that collections are improved by “additive, not subtractive processes.” This is definitely not typical of many ideologically convinced librarians who, judging from some of the other selections here, would arguably be pretty comfortable throwing “transgressive” or “problematic” works in a righteous bonfire.


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