Can libraries be neutral? Should they strive to be neutral?

Can libraries be neutral? Should they strive to be neutral?
The short answer is yes. The long answer: It’s complicated.

As someone who has been a library professional for 40 years, and who has served for 10 years as a commissioner of libraries in my state and who now serves as Vice President of the Freedom to Read foundation, I am strongly committed to the core value of intellectual freedom. I further believe that we can achieve, or aspire to achieve intellectual freedom only by beginning with a commitment to neutrality.

Too often “neutrality” is presented as if it is what occurs when we don’t do or think anything. It’s called an intermediate state or condition, not clearly one thing or another, a middle ground where we don’t take a side; where we have an absence of decided views, feeling, or expression. Synonyms for neutrality are indifference; impartiality, dispassionateness.

I would suggest quite the opposite. 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.

Another thought leader in information literacy, Laura Saunders, suggests that an aspiration to neutrality be coupled with an attempt to achieve “objectivity” in our practice. What she means by “objectivity” is this: we must be able to consider or represent facts, and other information without being influenced by personal feelings or opinions. Clearly, libraries are experienced in information assessment, and our capacity for presenting valid and vetted materials, even when they do not comport with our personal opinions, is a key requirement for a successful career in the profession.

Neutrality of this sort, coupled with balance and objectivity, is in my opinion, the best position to work from to foster intellectual freedom and to observe both the Library Code of Ethics and Library Bill of Rights.

So how do we work toward neutrality?

I believe we need to focus our attention on three matters of open access:
Equal access to materials.
Equal access to meeting space.
And equal access to services.

Equal Access to materials: In libraries, when we select materials, we should strive for balanced and unbiased choices. In doing so, we must use not only the traditional selection tools and commercial resources, but we must consult alternative tools, including recommendations from the public.
A good starting point would be with a plan, or a collection development policy, which explains our process. It has been documented that a clearly stated, unbiased and balanced collection policy statement may prevent challenges to library materials.
In selecting materials that describe the making of America, for example, many diverse authors should be included. We must not shy away from controversial topics such as hate speech, religion, science, materials that provide clearly delineated issues.
If materials are inaccurate or products of fake news, they must be excluded, of course. But we must explain, and justify, their absence if challenged. If we should explain those absences too. In collection development, then, a clear plan and a transparent implementation of it contribute to a neutral environment. Our role as librarians should be to allow users to access and explore all ideas without judgment and to balance it with the understanding of difference of opinions and resisting censorship.

Equal Access to meeting space: We also must make sure that our libraries are safe spaces for diverging opinions. We must further acknowledge that our provision of access is not an endorsement of content or of the host group. Many libraries provide space for groups that might be quite controversial, but it is important that these groups are using the meeting spaces. As long as they understand the regulations for using the space. In this way, the space is being open to the full community and all groups using it are abiding by the value of equal access.

Equal access to services: We must offer access to service to all people in the community and sometimes beyond. As we do so, we must demonstrate respect for cultural expressions and understandings while we also offer new ideas and help to explore new ways of thought. Thus, we are providing help while we are also engaging in an exchange of information and gaining new insights that could benefit and sere other users in our communities.
And again, let me emphasize that strong polices will be the most effective guide for the implementation of open access so that the materials provided are vetted and inform rather than stoke passion, so that one person or group’s access to library space doesn’t close the door on another’s, and so that library workers attend to all needs equally.

But here is where things get complicated.

Because policies have to be written by people, and librarians cannot check their opinions, priorities, and passions at the door to their institution.
So it is in the writing of policy that we have to be most actively striving for neutrality.

In order to write good policy, we must ensure that librarians are well-trained and attentive to the importance of open access to materials, space and services. We also must ensure that there is diversity of opinion among those writing the policy, and we must ensure that policy is written in a work environment where differences of opinion can be freely expressed and ultimately included in the final product. Even with the best of policies, however, we have to acknowledge that community passions may hamper the library’s ability to implement policy.

I am sure all of us can think of examples challenges that threatened our ability to be balanced! But there are also examples of good policy that has been able to withstand the challenges. Let me give you one example from my home city of Boston.

A branch library in the Boston Public Library system once served a white, immigrant Irish population. It was given an endowment that would serve the community for years to come. A policy was written to guide the way funds would be sued to purchase materials for the community. It was a good – and neutral – policy. The community served by that branch library is now predominantly African –American, and the acquisitions policy now serves their community needs and priorities. Not only did this policy easily translate its service from one population to another, but it also protected the endowment from being diluted to pay for services beyond its scope.

We all can agree that what we do as librarians is guided by our passionate commitment to educate, inform, and enrich library users. How we do that, though, must be guided by sound policy which ensures we are open to and useful to all members of our community.

That’s what I mean by being a neutral organization.

I am not suggesting that we do not have social goals. I don’t think we should ever be indifferent to injustice. We do not have to be all neutral or all for advocacy/social justice.

I can imagine that there is a middle ground, but I would err on the side of neutrality as a starting place for all communities. In fact, I want to go a step further and say that I think an active, engaged, and continually reaffirmed neutrality is the first rung on the ladder to advocacy and social justice.