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.
The world we all live and serve in is not equal.
We can’t achieve neutrality without equality first. No matter how much we want to be neutral, no matter how hard we try, neutrality isn’t possible in a society riven with historic and structural inequality.
The first job of any library should be to work to establish greater equality in the communities we serve. This is necessary if we ever want neutrality to be an option for us. It’s necessary if we want to make our communities healthier and better places.
To create greater equality requires us to actively work to correct historic, persistent inequality. At this historical moment, that work requires us to amplify some voices more than others.
This isn’t a remotely neutral act. But it’s requisite if we want to establish equality in our communities, which is prerequisite to the possibility of neutrality.
Equality has to come first. That’s our job here and now.
In pragmatic terms, I think of it like this:
The job of public librarianship is to identify needs in our community and seek ways to serve those needs through our collections, resources, and programming.
I look at my community and it’s clear to me that cishet white men don’t need any help to tell their stories or make their voices heard. Their presence commands disproportionate power by default. Society grants them more space and a bigger platform than they know what to do with.
The people who need help to build a platform and claim community space to tell their stories are non-white, non-male, non-cishet people. Members of our community who have too long been actively excluded from civic and cultural conversations and exchange.
My job as a public librarian is to serve the needs of my community. Cishet white men don’t need my help.
Of course, I would never bar them from use of the library, I would never actively work to their detriment. But there’s also no need for me to put effort into promoting their voices. Their voices are already heard in our community loud and clear.
My responsibility is to help the people in my community who actually need my help. My efforts need to be dedicated to those whose voices need to be amplified. To those who need to create a space for themselves, who aren’t granted a platform by cultural default.
That’s the need, so that’s my job.
Thus, we come full circle: the most pressing need in my community is to do the work to promote greater equality and establish better representation for underserved, underrepresented people. Pragmatism and ideology merge.
Equality must come first.
A two minute highlight video of the ALA Midwinter President’s Program discussion is here:
I saw several references online to a full video “coming soon” but it hasn’t been posted to the ALA YouTube channel as of this writing.
Here are all the links I can find to published comments from the participants in the President’s Program. Please take the time to read them. These are all erudite and intelligent people with essential ideas:
- James LaRue: http://www.jlarue.com/2018/02/are-libraries-neutral.html
- Emily Drabinski: http://www.emilydrabinski.com/are-libraries-neutral/
- R. David Lankes: https://davidlankes.org/my-remarks-on-library-neutrality-for-the-ala-midwinter-presidents-panel/
- Chris Bourg: https://chrisbourg.wordpress.com/2018/02/11/debating-y-our-humanity-or-are-libraries-neutral/
- Emily J.M. Knox: http://emilyknox.net/media/remarks-ala-midwinter-2018-presidents-program/
Here’s a link to a reading list on the subject compiled by ALA President’s Program Panelist, Kathleen de la Peña McCook:
Here’s a summary article about the panel debate from American Libraries: