What We Really Talk about When We Talk about Library Neutrality

The traditional definition of library neutrality holds that the library is a space where everyone is welcome, where all views are represented, and where everyone has the freedom to explore ideas and make their voices heard.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: This definition doesn’t describe a neutral space. It describes a space where everyone is equal.

Equality is a direct concern of libraries—especially public libraries. We pledge to serve all members of our community equally, without bias or judgement. We commit to making space for all voices, perspectives, and cultural traditions of the communities we serve. Equality is built into our professional values.

Let’s say you have two lines that are unequal in length:

Two lines of unequal length

In order to make these lines equal each other, you either need to add length to the shorter one or remove length from the longer (or some combination of these):

Two lines of equal length Two lines of equal length

Giving more to one but not the other, taking from one but not the other: these acts aren’t showing preference or bias. They’re necessary to make the lines equal. They’re how you correct the existing inequality between them.

The traditional definition of library neutrality describes a library which maintains equality in its collections, services, spaces, and staff:

Two lines of equal length labeled Library

Part of the issue at hand is that few, if any, libraries actually achieve this level of equality and we tend to overestimate how well we’re doing in this regard. But imagine a library that does manage it: complete equality of all voices and perspectives. This library serves a community—a community, like all communities, which is riven with historical and structural inequality. A community in which some voices are strongly dominant and others are marginalized:

Two sets of two lines, one set unequal and one set equal in length, the unequal set labeled Community and the equal set labeled Library

What does the library contribute to the voices and perspectives of this community? Yes, the library amplifies the voices of the marginalized but it also amplifies the voices of those who are already dominant. The result:

Two lines of unequal length, both lines with differently shaded sections to show the contribution of library services on community voices.

The community remains unequal. The library did little, if anything, to help balance the voices and perspectives within the community it serves. Library neutrality reinforced the unequal status quo of the larger community.

Every argument I’ve encountered in favor of the traditional understanding of library neutrality is concerned with maintaining the equality of the library’s collections, services, spaces, and staff.

Most of the arguments I’ve encountered which critique the traditional understanding of library neutrality focus on the effect libraries have on the equality of our community.

This is the core of what we’re arguing about: What are the limits of the library’s responsibility?

Are we only responsible for the equality of our own collections, services, spaces, and staff? Or do we have an obligation to help redress inequality in the communities we serve? Does our responsibility as librarians end at the doors of our buildings or extend beyond them into the larger community?

I worry this essential question gets obfuscated by the current rhetoric and rubrics of the ongoing debate in our profession. We’re talking around the issue without naming it as clearly as we should.

Do libraries have a role in making our communities more equal? Or is our work best focused on creating and maintaining equality within the library?

What are the limits of the library’s responsibility?

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