Can libraries be considered neutral institutions?

Friday, March 2, 2018 5:03 PM

Are libraries neutral? Should they be? What does neutrality mean in terms of a library?

Neutrality in a library can be defined as “not denying access to library services and resources, and not seeking to silence people on the basis of their backgrounds or beliefs,” said Jamie LaRue, Office of Intellectual Freedom, American Library Association. This is actually a legal definition, as courts have ruled the mission of libraries is to provide a “neutral platform” that treats everyone the same. (Courts have, however, made a distinction between speech/ideas and behavior, the former being protected and the latter, not.) So, if a library allows a Christian church to hold a Bible study in its meeting room, it also has to allow a rastafarian to practice a “Livity.” Librarians have been trained that remaining neutral is an important ethic of the profession.

I recently attended the Midwinter American Library Association Conference in Denver, and several sessions debated the topic of neutrality. Whereas some speakers held fast to the long-standing ethic of the profession, others did not.

Holding fast to neutrality was Em Claire Knowles from the Simmons School of Library and Information Science when she said, “Libraries must be safe, responsible spaces for diverging opinions. I think an active, engaged, reaffirmed neutrality is the first rung on the ladder to ... social justice.”

Speaking contrary to this was Chris Bourg, director of libraries at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who argued that the idea of the library as a social institution that provides resources is, by nature, not neutral. Libraries make daily decisions about what resources to provide and how much funding is allocated to these resources. She concluded that, “If we believe that libraries have any role to play in supporting and promoting truth in our current post-truth culture, then our work is political and not neutral.”

A previous column of mine dealt with “fake news.” How do our community libraries remain places of education and truth and information portals ... and stay “neutral” in the face of “alternative facts” or enmity? In fact, our communities are not neutral, and if libraries are to advocate for and partner with our community organizations, it becomes increasingly difficult to claim to be neutral. In a way, neutrality is a kind of non-position, which, in itself, could endanger the library as an institution.

Libraries are taking a more prominent role in facilitating discussions in our community about controversial topics such as health care, gun control and immunizations. These discussions are meant to find some common ground at the same time we celebrate our differences. For example, the Pine River Library has a “Dinner and Documentary” series for just this purpose.

Neutrality in the 21st century has taken on new meaning, and libraries must find their way within impartiality, objectivity, indifference, inequality and justice. Many in the profession are now pondering their role in examining and even fighting attempts at social oppression. Does a commitment to social justice mean that libraries can no longer be neutral?

Shelley Walchak is director of Pine River Library.