At the 2018 Midwinter Conference of the American Library Association, the President’s Program was a panel discussion titled, “Are Libraries Neutral? Have They Ever Been? Should They Be?” There were debaters and commentators assigned to represent both sides of the argument. This debate inspired a vigorous parallel discussion among librarians and library professionals on Twitter.
I approach the issue of library neutrality from two different directions: ideology and pragmatism. Let’s start with ideology.
When we talk about neutral library spaces and services, we talk about being a place where everyone is welcome, where all views are represented, where everyone has the freedom to make their voices heard and have their needs met. As James LaRue stated for the pro side of the debate: “Everyone gets a seat at the table.”
I passionately agree with Mr. LaRue on this point: libraries should be spaces where everyone gets a seat at the table.
But these words don’t describe neutrality—they describe equality. They envision a space where everyone is equal in access, representation, voice.
All of the data that follows was collected by me throughout the year using a combination of Google Sheets and Google Calendar. All seasonal and monthly calculations are based on the date each title was begun. Average days to read titles are based on the number of days actually spent reading each title, and not necessarily the full span from begun date to completed date.
The Academy has been shuttered and Priscilla Hutchins (Hutch) is adjusting to life on Earth. Humanity has become fearful of continued space exploration—there’s a growing paranoia that someday such expeditions will bring back something too dangerous. The President herself is campaigning for reelection on a platform of ending the space program.
When an astronomer discovers a signal from deep space which clearly indicates the presence of an intelligent, technologically sophisticated alien civilization, he recruits a team to seek out these aliens and Hutch is put in command. But people don’t want them to go and the team must race to take off before the government can shut them down.
December 10th is Dewey Decimal System Day. Maybe it’s only librarians who care much about it but to us it’s a big deal.
The entire history of our profession has been a quest to organize information. Sometimes organizational schemas were focused on preserving resources, on merely keeping a list of a collection’s holding, and sometimes systems were intended to restrict access. Indeed, for most of our history, knowledge institutions were exclusive and exclusionary.
But beginning with the birth of public libraries in the 1800s, we conceived the idea that knowledge should be accessible for the betterment of all people. The challenge was—and continues to be—to find ways to accomplish this goal through practical application in real-world situations, in day-to-day activities.
Melvil Dewey’s system was a massive paradigm shift. It seems like such an esoteric thing to celebrate but realize this: before Dewey’s organizational scheme, there existed no universal method for organizing collections of materials, and too many systems were obscure and overly complicated, to the point where people were often discouraged from attempting to access them.
Dewey created a system that anyone could understand and use. For the first time, people could walk into a library and find what they wanted on the shelf, or explore the catalog, without the mediation of a specialist. In a real sense, the Dewey system effectively transferred our collections of knowledge out of the hands of specialists and into the hands of the general populace. *
Still, for all my appreciation and admiration of Dewey’s achievement, when a coworker asked if I wanted to participate in Dewey Day activities at my library, my response was this:
“I have no interest in celebrating the Dewey system. It’s an archaic monument to Western superiority and colonial oppression which obscures the diversity of human cultures and silences diverse voices.”
On November 28, 2017, the author Seanan McGuire posted an excellent tweet thread about classic SF and entry points for readers new to the genre. She addresses crucial issues of diversity and inclusion. This perspective is important. Please take the time to click through and read it.
As a community, SF fandom seems to be terrified that if we don't sit every spaceship or dragon-enthralled child dow… twitter.com/i/web/status/9…
Conclusion: classic SF will always be important but it’s not a good way to bring in new readers.
Introducing new readers to science fiction can be tricky. It’s a challenging genre to learn and get used to. I decided years ago (long before I became a librarian or knew anything about readers advisory) that it doesn’t work to get people started in the genre with classic Asimov, Clarke, et al.
I’m ashamed to admit my reasoning at the time had nothing to do with the narrow Western cultural male whiteness of the work. It was because of the writing and the science.
I was talking to my parents recently about some of the poetry I’ve written in the past few years. I mentioned how I’d developed a fascination with ways to integrate technology into poetic experimentation. I explained how much I enjoy Google search poems. I told them how I created a method of generating something akin to found poetry, using my smartphone’s auto-suggestion typing feature.
Aaron Mahnke’s Lore podcast is one of the more fascinating and informative podcasts available. He explores the world of lore: folktales and legends—usually creepy or macabre—and shares the interesting things he finds. He’s an accomplished and entertaining storyteller.
Podcasts are subject to time constraints: there’s only so much you can fit into each episode. While the stories he shares with his listeners are clearly well researched, he doesn’t go into much depth with them. And that’s OK for a podcast—the point of these stories is to share them and entertain his audience. While he occasionally asks the Big Questions (“Why are we drawn to myths and legends like these? What purpose do they serve?” etc.) he never offers much more than cursory, broad strokes answers. Again, that’s fine for a podcast—he needs to focus each episode on telling the cool stories he finds.