Debating y/our humanity, or Are Libraries Neutral?

Below are my prepared remarks for the ALA MidWinter President’s Program, billed as a debate on the question of Are Libraries Neutral? I was on the Hell No side. Please be sure to also read Emily Drabinki’s remarks — she was a designated commenter and she slayed.

There will apparently be a video available later, which will be great because some of the questions were amazing, and there were some really incredible people who told brave truths.

(There was also the dude who chastised the debaters by claiming none of us talked about libraries as institutions or organizations. I basically responded with “yeah, actually I did. I guess I could read it louder if you want.” Too snarky probably, but at least I didn’t actually flip any tables.)

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~`

Merriam-Webster and the OED both define neutrality as:

“The state of not supporting or helping either side in a conflict, disagreement, or war.”

Neutrality is about not taking sides.

Now my opponents are likely to use a different definition of neutrality, and may try to convince you that to be neutral is to equally support all sides.  But … well, they’re wrong.

I’m going to argue that libraries are not now, have never been, and cannot be neutral by addressing 3 levels of analysis:

  1. Library as a social institution
  2. Librarianship as a profession
  3. Libraries as organizations

In the interest of time, I’m not going to talk about whether librarians as individuals can or should be neutral, other than to say that one of the most robust findings over decades of social science research is that individuals are prone to multiple types of bias across a wide range of contexts and in nearly every kind of decision-making. Humans are not neutral, and neither are librarians, archivists, or other library workers.

But I want to start by talking about Libraries as social institutions.

A library is a social institution that provides access to a pool of information resources for a given community. The very notion that shared, consolidated community resources ought to exist is not a neutral idea.

In 2011, a Chicago paper ran an op-ed, possibly tongue-in-cheek, but none-the-less relevant, that equated libraries with socialism:

“I can’t think of a more egregious example of government-sponsored socialism than the public library. Unproductive citizens without two nickels to rub together are given access to millions of books they could never afford to buy on their own — all paid for with the tax dollars of productive citizens. …why should the government pay for people to read books and surf the Internet for free?”

A library as an institution represents a decision about how a community spends its resources and those decisions are never neutral – they are value-laden and they reveal what the community (or at least the powerful actors in that community) thinks is important. Decisions like how much funding a library gets, who should have access to the library, and even where the library is located are not neutral decisions.

And I can’t talk about the lack of neutrality in the very notion of libraries as social institutions without acknowledging the fact that the origin of public libraries in the US is inextricably tied to the fact that the history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism, slavery, and segregation.

For more on this argument, I recommend an article titled Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression, by nina de jesus.

In the US, Libraries were created to spread knowledge and culture and to educate citizens in support of a new nation, a new democracy  — a nation conceived via the displacement and genocide of indigenous peoples, and a nation that was built on the backs of enslaved black people.

Libraries as social institutions have never been neutral.

Let’s turn to librarianship as a profession.

We are over 85% white as a profession, in a country where non-hispanic whites make up only 63% of the population. A profession doesn’t become so disproportionately white by chance, and there is nothing neutral about that fact that our profession, and most of our organizations have remained stubbornly white for decades, despite changing national demographics and despite all our rhetoric about how much we ‘value diversity and strive to represent the diversity of the communities we serve’

“Professionalism” itself, and how we define and defend it in librarianship, is not a neutral concept. It is rooted in white, middle class, heteronormative and able-bodied ideal-types

My 2 colleagues describe and explain this better than I can, so please read their articles:

Soliciting Performance, Hiding Bias; by Angela Galvan

White Librarianship in Blackface; by April Hathcock

And if you want to fully explore the topic of whiteness in librarianship, I recommend the Library Juice Press book: Topographies of Whiteness: Mapping Whiteness in Library and Information Science.

Turning to libraries as organizations, I’m going to talk about collections and about programming.

The pro-neutrality folks are going to argue that a neutral collection is one that includes items reflecting all sides of contentious issues. But the idea that our collections should be inclusive of all or many points of view – even those points of view that some members of our community find repellent — is not a neutral stance.

According to the 2016 General Social Survey:

  • 51% of people would favor removing a book written by a Muslim clergyman who preaches hatred of the United States from their public library.
  • 35% favor removing a book that argues blacks are inferior
  • 25% favor removing books by communists
  • 17% favor removing books by homosexuals

How does a library remain neutral on these questions?

One side says keep the book, another side says remove it.

You can’t have and not have the book simultaneously – you have to take a side. As far as I know, none of us work in Schrodinger’s Library.

A library that includes books by anti-American Muslims, communists and homosexuals is not a neutral library. Likewise including racist and/or homophobic books in your collection is not a neutral decision.

AND , you can’t just include everything and claim neutrality – because doing so means you are taking the side of those who say include them over those who want certain books and authors removed from libraries.

Not only does including multiple points of view not equal neutrality, but we also make collection development decisions within a context and a publishing landscape that is riddled with systemic bias.

In an essay titled, All the sad young literary women, Ta-Nehisi Coates, describes the “ways that our reading is shaped and limited by the biases of the dominant literary gatekeepers”. Publishers, book reviewers, book sellers, and yes libraries and librarians favor works by and about men – especially white men.

Some examples:

The NY Times summer reading list for 2015 was all white authors (I haven’t checked the 2016 or 2017 list); and None of the pulitzer prize awards for fiction in this century has gone to a book by a woman about women (for more data on bias in book stuff, see vidaweb.org)

We also know that the search tools and other technologies we use are not neutral.

Two books you have to read on this topic are:

Our classification systems are also not neutral.

We use subject headings that center the straight, white, male, European experience; and are often racist and dehumanizing.

And a quick note about programming …

Let’s talk about Nazis, and whether libraries have to provide a platform for Nazis and white supremacist ideas in order to maintain some mythical claim to neutrality?

I hope others will tackle this topic more fully, but let me simply say that allowing those who deny the humanity and basic dignity of others to coopt the legitimacy of our libraries and our profession to spread their hatred and intimidation is not in any way a neutral choice.

I’ll end with two relevant  quotes.

First, from historian Howard Zinn, who wrote in Declarations of Independence: Cross examining american ideology:

“Indeed, it is impossible to be neutral. In a world already moving in certain directions, where wealth and power are already distributed in certain ways, neutrality means accepting the way things are now. It is a world of clashing interests – war against peace, nationalism against internationalism, equality against greed, and democracy against elitism – and it seems to me both impossible and undesirable to be neutral in those conflicts.”

And, to close this out, I’ll share a favorite quote from the black, bisexual feminist poet and activist, June Jordan, who said,

“poetry is a political act, because it involves telling the truth.”

I submit to you that if we believe that libraries have any role to play in supporting and promoting truth, especially in today’s post-truth culture, then our work is political and not neutral.

4 Responses to “Debating y/our humanity, or Are Libraries Neutral?”


  1. 1 Terri Berends (@TerriHonk) February 14, 2018 at 7:15 pm

    As a newly-minted librarian this is so good to read. Thanks for saying it better than I have been able to and for incuding such amazing further reading.

    Liked by 1 person


  1. 1 An Awkward Conversation – Stacy Torian Trackback on February 19, 2018 at 7:47 pm
  2. 2 a year of critical reflection and study | the feminist librarian Trackback on February 15, 2018 at 6:42 am
  3. 3 My Remarks on Library Neutrality for the ALA MidWinter President’s Panel – R. David Lankes Trackback on February 14, 2018 at 5:46 am

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s




Enter your email address to follow Feral Librarian by email.

Join 11,058 other followers

Follow me on Twitter


%d bloggers like this: