The Problem of Neutrality

I’ve written before about my misgivings regarding the ideal of neutrality in public libraries. I recently read an excellent post by Dr. Donna Lanclos titled, “Maybe We Shouldn’t Talk About Diversity Anymore.” There’s a quote in this piece which echoes the argument I’ve made about why neutrality is a problematic concept:

What about notions of ‘neutrality’ and ‘nice’ that talk about the importance of ‘all voices’ when we really should be protecting voices that historically have no platform. Let’s end false equivalencies, and recognize that people who have traditionally had power and influence (especially white men) don’t ever really lose their opportunity to participate just because we make sure that people and especially women of color get to take up space and have their say.”

(http://www.donnalanclos.com/maybe-we-shouldnt-talk-about-diversity-anymore/, posted June 30, 2018)

I want to explain a bit more about why neutrality makes me uncomfortable.

By insisting on not taking sides, neutrality takes the side of the status quo by default. Neutrality can’t avoid upholding and perpetuating the existing structures of power within a society. It defaults to the cultural default—which, in most cultures, privileges certain kinds of people and ways of being more than others.

Neutrality can’t be neutral.

Neutrality also carries strong connotations of disconnection and passivity. These are two words which in no way describe the work of public libraries. Libraries work hard, every day, to connect with and serve our communities. Librarians are among the most passionate and committed people I know.

Implications of passivity and disconnection should be avoided at all costs.

So there are both epistemological and semantic objections to the belief that public libraries can or should be neutral. But I also believe, fully and firmly, that public libraries must be spaces where all members of our community are welcome and free to explore any and all ideas.

What should we call that, if not neutrality?

This article, “What Is a Library” by Dawn Finch, offers and excellent answer:

The only place in our communities that serves all of these people, all people, without bias or judgement is the local library.”

(A Medley Of Extemporanea, https://dawnfinch.co.uk/2018/06/30/what-is-a-library-by-dawn-finch/, posted June 30, 2018)

Without bias or judgement. This is the language of active and engaged people, it takes a stance, and it’s a far more accurate description of what we do every day. If I accomplish nothing else in my career as a public librarian, if I leave no other lasting legacy, let it be this:

We all stop calling our profession “neutral” and henceforth only ever refer to our work and our spaces as nonbiased and without judgement.

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