My Remarks on Library Neutrality for the ALA MidWinter President’s Panel

Here are my remarks for Jim Neal’s Presidential Program was “Are libraries neutral?” I was on the “con” side of the debate. tl;dr version – no they are not.

The video of the session should be available soon, but some of the participants have posted their remarks (I’ll add as they come online here):

Chris Bourg (con):

Jamie LaRue (pro):

Emily Drabinski (Responder):

Kathleen McCook’s Booklist (Responder):

My Remarks

My fellow librarians I want to get up here and deliver an impassioned speech, full of alter calls and homilies on how you cannot be passionate advocates for the good of your communities and still claim to be neutral. I want to appeal to your emotions and throw out tweetable lines like “I’d rather be damned for honest efforts to improve the world, than lauded for my objectivity.” I want to point out that freedom of speech, that we take as a given, was once a treasonous concept and has never been equivalent to endorsing speech nor a guarantee from consequence of that speech. I want to remind you that you became librarians to make a difference, to uphold a core of values and that you are professionals, not neutral clerks in a library machine.

I want to do that, but I won’t. It would make us feel good. Well, it would make me feel good. But it would ignore the very real consequences of accepting that librarians, and the libraries that we build and run, are not neutral organizations. Nor will I have a philosophical debate on whether human neutrality is even possible as my colleague has already done so including citations to studies and better thinking than I am capable of.

Instead, I will make a single proposition, and ground it in the pragmatic nature of our profession.

That proposition is this: the myth of neutrality prevents an engaged professional conversation with our diverse communities to define the aspirations of that community. Under that proposition I would add a stipulation: that all communities, no matter how diverse, seek a better world for themselves. They rarely do this with a single voice, and contradictory definitions of “better” lead to discord, strife, and inequity. And if we, as librarians, do not seek to addresses those inequities as well as the shape the definitions, then we are not neutral, we are harmful and instruments of oppression.

Let me break my proposition down. First, we are professionals engaging with our community. As professionals we have an obligation, empowered by the communities we serve through charter, law, or simply a place on the organizational chart, to critically look across our communities and use our expertise and experience to further the aims of that community. We have long ago rejected the notion that this means we treat all equally, and instead seek to serve equitably. A poor child needs a different level of service to meet our mission than a college educated adult in terms of literacy for example. We make this decision, and then advocate for the resources to do this. Equity is not neutrality. If you differentiate or prioritize service in any way to those you serve, you are not neutral.

Second, our profession is not a uniform set of professionals with a single point of action. We are grounded in our communities; be those communities towns, or schools, or hospitals. We are designed that way not for efficiency, but because we believe local knowledge – of culture, of resources, of people- makes us more effective. That very locality cries out for us to engage with our communities to determine their needs and desires, and to be participants in the ongoing dialog on how that community defines “better.” This will look different in different communities because our communities are not neutral. I have seen public libraries implement content filters to reduce police surveillance and thereby improve access and privacy. I have seen school librarians refuse to print out Wikipedia page, not because they are pre-determining the validity of the source, but because they know a Wikipedia citation will result in a failing grade for a student. I have seen libraries organize brutal conversations on racism that have included views of white supremacists, not to ensure neutrality, but to directly counter hateful ideas. That is not neutral. That is being part of improving the very unique community before us.

You may talk about collections. There is no place more full of lies, distortions, and bias than a great academic library. However, that collection is not there because it is neutral, but because it seeks to advance science, and theory, and the humanities –  the very knowledge of society. To counter climate change, you need to know about climate change deniers…but that doesn’t mean the collection goal was neutrality. Scientist strive for intellectual honesty, never neutrality.

Here’s the crux of it: people, librarians, you, are not collections. Your age, your color, your religion, your upbringing, your education, the zip code of your place of birth have all shaped you. Simply by moving through the world, you were shaped, and shaped yourself. And no code of ethics, and no university class, and no presidential debate can wash away your unique quest to improve yourself and the community to which you belong. Nor should it. What we can do as professionals is acknowledge that truth of bias – not that flaw of bias, for no one’s life should be seen as a flaw – acknowledge that truth and seek to embrace those we seek to serve – always aware that they too have their truth. And then in an open and respectful way, seek to serve that person. That is not neutrality, that is respect for diversity.

But let us get to the pragmatics. Removing neutrality does not mean that we will all agree. It does not mean that we won’t argue. There are at least two people on this very stage that I greatly respect that also have very legitimate grievances with my words and deeds outside of this debate. So we should argue, but where we agree we must proactively speak out on the areas we claim authority, expertise, and professionalism.

Some equate rejecting neutrality as equivalent to an embrace of partisan politics and ideology. We are not masters of political ideology. We are, however, expert in knowledge and the cultural transcript and should be forward in fighting for our values in those domains. Not as Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives, but as librarians. We know about the effects of surveillance on learning. We know about the social cost of a privatized scholarly communications infrastructure. We know about the role of early literacy in socioeconomic mobility. That’s why we are not neutral, for example, on issues of certified school librarians. And if you want to say that advocating for school librarians is neutral then I have a score of legislators I’d like to introduce you to.

So there you are. We are not neutral because not only are we human, but those we seek to serve are humans as well. Libraries are not buildings or collections, but communities seeking the most fundamental human quest: meaning. And to find meaning they need professionals who are not neutral, but advocates. Are not unbiased, but trusted. Professionals who unshackled the chains from books, stocked diverse fiction in the face of elitist outcry, and took on the Patriot act in the shadow of 911. Let us stop debating over how to be neutral and start arguing about how to use our power as a profession to shape a better society. Thank you.

4 Replies to “My Remarks on Library Neutrality for the ALA MidWinter President’s Panel”

  1. Dear Professor Lankes, this is excellent and stresses your book which is in German translation a good success,. I willl ciruclate it as well on our website as well as a blog. Tnank you Elisabeth Simon

    1. I know several speakers have posted their prepared comments. I also know the video of the whole session will be posted. I’ll post it to my blog when it comes out.

  2. Personally, I think should strive to be neutral, while recognizing that we are not. That is not an easy spot to be in. It will cause internal conflicts when we’re confronted with something that is an affront to what we believe and what we believe is correct for our communities. Yet that conflict – that internal conversation – might move is beyond a “knee jerk” reaction and to something more powerful and more inclusive.

    In that “not neutral” space, can our constituents see their relationship to us and see it in a positive way?

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