by Sarah Lamdan and Nick Szydlowski
Many libraries and librarians have long claimed or aspired to be neutral. Librarians often invoke neutrality when they try to curate balanced collections, create inclusive spaces, and evaluate and recommend information resources objectively.
At the same time, many librarians argue against neutrality as a professional stance. Some librarians believe that libraries, like most other spaces, cannot truly be neutral. Librarians make decisions every day. Every choice, whether to purchase a book, highlight a work in a display, or offer a reference response, prefers one option over another. Librarians sometimes suggest the profession should advocate on issues like censorship, privacy, open access, and intellectual freedom that affect libraries and their users.
Skepticism towards library neutrality is experiencing a renaissance. In February 2018, the American Library Association (ALA) President James Neal asked librarians whether libraries are truly neutral spaces, and whether they should be. The answers were diverse and varied. Champions of library neutrality described libraries as “content neutral” spaces where librarians treat everyone the same. They equated library neutrality to free speech: everyone has the right to explore materials in the library, and that right should not be tempered by the topics people choose to view.
In contrast, librarians argued that discussions about library neutrality are theoretical. Aspirational neutrality ignores the political actualities of library work. Chris Bourg, Library Director at MIT said “If we believe that libraries have any role to play in supporting and promoting truth in our current post-truth culture, then our work is political and not neutral.” Many of our libraries are housed in organizations that are part of, or deeply invested in, local and national power structures. Our largest vendors are multinational corporations moving rapidly towards a business model focused on analyzing data, including data about our users. Do we think of our law schools, firms, vendors, and courts as neutral institutions? What would it mean to achieve neutrality within a non-neutral institution?
Moreover, library professionals are 85% white and a growing pool of scholarship suggests that our professional culture, including the self-perception of libraries as neutral, presents obstacles for librarians of color. David Lankes, director of the University of South Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science, added, “If we do not address inequities, we are not neutral—we are harmful and instruments of oppression.”
The conflict over library neutrality is not new. In 1972, David Berninghausen published “Antithesis in Librarianship: Social Responsibility vs. the Library Bill of Rights” in Library Journal. The article proved to be a turning point in the library neutrality debate, asserting that “social responsibility” ideals, such as racial justice, environmentalism, and LGBT rights cannot coexist with the principle of intellectual freedom. Berninghausen argues that librarians and library organizations cannot effectively support both. Pitting social responsibility ethics against the principle of intellectual freedom became known as the “Berninghausen Debate.” The idea that librarians expressing their views detracts from the intellectual freedom of library users has lasted for decades, despite major social responsibility problems. As in 1972, librarians are divided on whether to remain neutral or speak out against problematic information practices in the digital data era.
These debates, while engaging, suggest that we will not soon reach a consensus on library neutrality. But a stronger and more diverse profession will make space for those with different approaches to this ethical and political question. There is, and always has been, more than one way to be a good library or a good librarian. With that in mind, it is worth asking: how can librarians with different opinions and orientations work together within our libraries and professional organizations? Perhaps there is the opportunity within AALL for a different type of conversation about library neutrality.