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.
In my post about hatred the other day, I mentioned my life motto: “I am human: nothing human is alien to me.” (In the Latin, “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.”)
And all at once it strikes me—this is why I have always loved libraries.
Libraries give me access to the full depth and breadth of humanity. All of our thoughts and ideas, our hopes and dreams, our fears, our creativity and cultures, our histories, our plethora of worldviews and philosophies and beliefs.
All our stories.
I can access all of this through my library. If my library doesn’t have it on the shelf, they can find it and get it for me.
Libraries are where I go to learn how to be human, in all our myriad aspects.
Normally, we talk about diverse books in terms of the ethnicity and cultures of characters, authors, and story traditions. What speaks to me about the two articles linked above is the call to increase the diversity of the genres I read. The call to “read outside [my] own taste and interest” (from Bookriot), to read things I dislike or that scare me to try (as per the RA for All post).
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.
April Roy is the branch manager at the Lucile H. Bluford Branch of the Kansas City Public Library. April is a 2015 winner of the “I Love My Librarian Award” from the American Library Association in recognition for her work at Bluford.
I’ve been rather silent on this blog lately. That happens sometimes. In this case, I’ve been worn out from working on projects around my house. Totally worth it, though, because I now have (among other things) a whole floor-to-ceiling wall of built-in bookshelves!
I’m also excited to announce that I’m now reviewing for Booklist Online. My primary focus for them will be adult SF with an occasional nonfiction title thrown in. So… not all that different from the kind of books I review here.