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:
Continue reading “What We Really Talk about When We Talk about Library Neutrality”
Or: OK, I Lied—My Previous Post Wasn’t the Last I Had to Say on This Subject. Honestly, I Won’t Ever Run Out of Things to Say about This Issue.
It’s illuminating to peruse the history of judicial interpretations of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America. Time and time again, it’s noted that the goal of the freedom of expression is to enable and promote the free exchange of ideas.
The free exchange of ideas is the fundamental purpose of public libraries.
The freedom of expression requires us to engage with the presence of hate speech and the various expressions of hate groups in our communities. As we debate the proper approach to and place of hate in society—and more specifically within public libraries—we must at least acknowledge that hate groups don’t care about participating in the free exchange of ideas. If we believe we must allow hate groups and hate speech in libraries because we believe that we should provide access to all ideas, and a platform for all members of our community, it should matter to us that hate groups don’t care about any of that.
Hate groups have no desire to engage in discussion or debate. That’s not why they speak their hate.
They speak to cause harm.
Continue reading “Free Speech & Hate Groups”
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.
Continue reading “The Problem of Neutrality”
I’ve written three posts over the past few weeks exploring lessons I’ve learned about customer service through a variety of past jobs and experiences, as well as from my more recent years as a public librarian. I’ve spent a lot of time lately looking back over my working life and mining it for all the wisdom I can.
There’s a reason for this retrospection:
On June 11th, I begin a new job. I’m leaving the Kansas City Public Library—today is my last day, actually.
I’ve accepted a position with the Johnson County Library system in Johnson County, Kansas (the Kansas side of the KC metro area). I’ll be the Branch Manager for three of their locations: Gardner, Edgerton, and Spring Hill.
Continue reading “Onward & Upward”
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.
Continue reading “Some Thoughts on Libraries & Neutrality”
I’m so bored by this question. Let’s talk instead about some things Amazon can’t do:
- Amazon can’t be part of a community.
- Amazon can’t build meaningful, multifaceted relationships with people at a local level.
- Amazon can’t provide communal space.
- Amazon can’t provide boots-on-ground, in-the-trenches, front-line community services.
- Amazon can’t provide anything beyond purely commercial transactions.
- Amazon can’t be assumed to care about the common good.
- Amazon can’t build trust with people.
Libraries do all these things. Libraries do so much more than these things. All without ever advertising to you, without leveraging your needs for commercial gain.
Amazon values monetization. Libraries value people.
Can libraries compete with Amazon? This isn’t a legitimate question. If you think Amazon is competition for libraries, then you fundamentally don’t understand what libraries do.
The truth is this:
Amazon can’t compete with us.
A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with a gentleman who insisted that public libraries are going to disappear soon. He voiced the standard arguments about how everything is online now, and how ebooks are going to replace print entirely. His conclusion: libraries are irrelevant in the modern digital age.
Like so many people who take this position, this gentleman personally loves libraries and sees their inevitable passing as a loss to society. It makes him sad to think that there won’t be any more neighborhood libraries (even though he freely admits that it’s been years since he last set foot in his local library).
Of course, I spoke up to correct him. The stats make it very clear that libraries are as relevant to their communities as ever. Public library usage has actually increased with the advent of the digital information age, increased yet more during the recent economic crisis, and popular approval ratings are as high as they’ve ever been and holding steady. I shared all these stats with him. I shared multiple calculations of the economic impact of libraries and the ROI for every tax dollar invested—libraries are the single best public investment most communities can make. I talked about how libraries bolster and expand educational opportunities for kids and adults, citizens and immigrants, and the illiterate. I talked about how libraries can function as neutral gathering places during times of community upheaval. I talked about the library’s role in upholding the freedom of information and expression in our society. I talked about our computer labs and maker spaces and coding sessions and 3D printers and recording studios, our creative writing groups, our book groups, and our art spaces. I talked about our public programming and community discussion forums.
It was so clear to me that this gentleman would be happy to know that libraries are doing very well, adapting more-or-less adeptly to changing circumstances as they’ve always done, and they remain well-used and beloved by their communities.
That’s not what happened.
Continue reading “Conversations about Libraries, Conversations about Privilege”
In his book, Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library, Dr. Wayne Wiegand groups library services into three major categories:
- Information access
- Reading materials
- Public space
These categories clarify a nagging issue I have with the language we use to talk about the importance of internet access in libraries. The following quote from a recent article by Larra Clark is a good example:
Continue reading “Internet Access as Public, Social & Cultural Space”
I spoke to a gentleman recently about the efforts of public libraries to bridge the Digital Divide, both in terms of offering broadband internet access to those who otherwise don’t have it, and teaching digital and information literacy to those who need it.
This gentleman told me that he thinks the internet is useless. He’s been online, tried the social media thing, wandered around the web, and he sees no value in any of it. He concluded that it’s all just a flood of unreliable, unverified information, and people being mean and wasting time. He believes that we’d all be better off without it.
He told me that he can’t understand why we work so hard to provide access to something that people don’t need and shouldn’t be using in the first place. I don’t believe this man was intentionally exclusionary or prejudiced—he sincerely couldn’t understand why anyone would value something which, to him, is so obviously value-less.
Rather than argue with this gentleman’s opinions regarding the supposed value of the internet, I responded:
Continue reading “Bridging the Digital Divide: A Matter of Equality”
In his book, Part of Our Lives: A People’s History of the American Public Library, Dr. Wiegand challenges the traditional theory that public libraries are institutions which promote an informed democracy. He correctly points out that it’s “hard to prove that American public libraries are essential to democracy.” I’m certain it’s difficult, just as it’s difficult to prove many of the intangible benefits that libraries present their patrons.
Public libraries were conceptualized in large part to provide citizens access to information and “useful knowledge” which would help them to become more informed voters and civic actors. This theoretical framework is a political version of Ben Franklin’s ideal of the “self-made man”.
But historical data of public library usage makes it abundantly clear that very few people use their library this way. The maintenance of an informed democracy via access to “useful knowledge” isn’t something our patrons are all that interested in.
So it’s appropriate and useful to question this orthodoxy.
Continue reading “Do Public Libraries Promote Democracy?”