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Are libraries neutral?

Here are my remarks at today's American Library Association Midwinter Conference. Jim Neal's Presidential Program was "Are libraries neutral?" I was first on the "pro" side of the debate.

In 1938, a time with an eery resonance to today, some citizens in Des Moines, Iowa protested a book we would now call hate speech: Hitler's Mein Kampf. Director Forrest Spaulding drafted "A Library's Bill of Rights" to establish for the first time the library's endorsement of intellectual freedom -- the right to access even uncomfortable or offensive content. Maybe, Spaulding said, we needed to know what was going on in the world.

In 1939, ALA Council approved the statement for the entire association.

Implicit in intellectual freedom is the principle of neutrality.

Let me make two things clear.

Neutrality does not mean that librarians have no values. We do. It doesn't mean that institutions don't exist to advance certain goals. Libraries actively advocate for literacy, for learning and knowledge, for self-actualization, and for civic participation.

Nor does believing in neutrality mean we always live up to our values. We don't. Some white librarians actively supported the segregated south. Even today, we get regular reports of library administrators who pull LGBT displays, school librarians who won't buy graphic novels that show kissing, and librarians who say they would punch any neo-Nazi shameless enough to walk into their branch.

But the failure to consistently walk our talk is part of the human experience. It doesn't deny the meaning or importance of our principles. Values are aspirational.

The deep significance of today's debate is not what we stand for. It's how.

I will argue that neutrality has a precise and essential meaning. Here it is: we do not deny access to library services and resources, we do not seek to silence people on the basis of their backgrounds or beliefs.

We do set limits on behavior. People who start shouting at or punching other patrons get kicked out or arrested.

But our courts have consistently held that speech -- whether spoken, written, filmed, sung, or worn on a T-shirt -- is not the same thing as action. There has to be imminent and immediate physical danger.

When we suppress speech, or shut out, or shout down people in public space -- whether it be to advance the cause of conservative or progressive agendas, whether it be in the name of preservation of power or social justice -- we conflate word with deed. We claim that just by listening or reading, we have been injured. So my safety requires someone else's silence. This view is the foundation of censorship and tyranny.

The Pew Foundation's Lee Rainie reports that three occupations are most trusted in the United States: firefighters, nurses, and librarians. In all cases, that trust depends on neutrality. When firefighters rush up to your blazing house, they don't ask, "Are you a Democrat, or Republican?" Nurses, treating you in the emergency room, don't say, "about your lifestyle choices..." And librarians don't get to decide whether or not you are sufficiently woke to deserve public resources.

While neutrality doesn't mean that we don't have values, it must mean that we are not partisan. Library funding - school, public, or academic - tends to come from a larger community. We must be willing to serve everyone in ways that everyone can respect.

For librarians, neutrality has three key dimensions.

First is service.

The Library Bill of Rights, Article V, says a person's right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views. Our statement on Professional Ethics couldn't be clearer: we provide equitable, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.

By policy -- and policy exists for the purpose of guiding our practices just as values guide our personal actions --  we're not supposed to give preferential treatment to those who agree with us, or discriminate against those who don't.

Recently, a librarian asked me, "Suppose someone asks me for contact information for a hate group. Do I have to give it?" The answer: yes. Once government officials -- that would be us -- start deciding who is and isn't a hate group, and what general information should or shouldn't be shared, we will cease to be trusted. And in that case, no one should trust us.

Can a librarian punch Nazis because of what they believe? Then we deny them the common legacy of humanity: the right to be really wrong in public, and possibly to learn something.

We also establish a principle that will turn on us. Last year in the American Southeast, some white high school students hurled racial epithets at an opposing, mostly black, basketball team. The principal of the white, pretty well-to-do school invited a nearby African American professor to speak at a mandatory school assembly on the topic of privilege. The professor showed a video about a foot race. Some contestants had to start further back, or fight obstacles in the course. Within days, outraged parents demanded the firing of the principal. He was requiring their children to listen to hate speech, inciting anger against ... themselves.

If speech is conflated with action, if speech is defined as harm, anyone can demand that someone else shuts up. The same arguments used to challenge privilege will also be used to defend it.

The second dimension of neutrality is Access to facilities, including programs and technology.

Under a well-tested body of law, if the Democrats get to use the room, you can't deny access to the Republicans. You can't let the Evangelicals in, and keep the Wiccans out. If you make a room available to PFLAG (a support group for the parents and friends of LGBT folks), it must also be open to Exodus International (an ex-gay counseling organization). People should be able to investigate them both, and make up their own minds.

A few months ago, I got a call from a library director who told me about a local group that booked a meeting room to show a video claiming that vaccines caused autism. A lot of people showed up and the group immediately booked another viewing. The director told me his concern: this claim has been thoroughly debunked. Spreading it had the potential to cause real harm to his community. It really might happen that people would die. Did he have to allow it? After reviewing his policies, I advised him that he did.

But, I said, that didn't stop him from doing his own, library-sponsored programming. He could invite in local medical experts. He could create exhibits and displays advancing the scientific facts. He could put bibliographies and articles in the meeting rooms.

Neutrality doesn't mean you can't advocate for positions based on the evidence. It just means you don't have the exclusive right to do so.

The third dimension of neutrality is Collections.

Again, inclusion of the hate speech of Mein Kampf was not an endorsement. Public scrutiny is the best defense against the spread of poisonous ideology.

Quite recently, ALA President Jim Neal, and my office, both got approached by a group of Holocaust deniers. They were mad that Amazon stopped carrying some popular Holocaust denial books. Wasn't that censorship? Why wasn't ALA condemning it?

Are libraries obligated to buy Holocaust denial books?

The answer, unless your libraries collects historical works, is no.

Library collections, even if they begin perfectly balanced on a topic, change because of three key factors: what the community wants more of, what we know about what's published, and the ongoing consensus of the field. Sports figures who believe the earth is flat won't find much on our shelves to support that idea. But conservative communities will likely wind up with more Ann Coulter than Al Franken. And even Franken's books are being challenged now.

I want to acknowledge that there are indeed systemic biases in our collections. Today, five big publishers dominate public library collections. Yet over three times as many titles are self-published every year, and many of those titles have precisely the diverse content our patrons seek, and we do not provide.

But that's not an endorsement of bias. It's an awareness of a problem we have to fix.

In conclusion, neutrality is about the refusal to deny people access to a shared resource, just because we don't like the way they think. That doesn’t mean that anyone is immune from criticism. In fact, they can expect it. But first, they get to speak. Everyone gets a seat at the table.

Neutrality is essential to our role in public life. It is enshrined in our values, our laws, and our policies. We abandon it at our peril.


Tragdor said…
The statement "The same arguments used to challenge privilege will also be used to defend it." is peak liberalism because it endorses the status quo and suggests a more equitable world isn't possible.
Jamie LaRue said…
Interesting! Why is the observation an endorsement?
leifsmith said…
James, This is excellent! You are contributing to the emergence of freeorder, i.e. what's good for explorers within each of us and among us.
Jamie LaRue said…
Sorry, I've been doing LOTS of travel, and my apologies for not responding quickly. Tragdor, the point I was trying to make was not so much that criticism (or specific arguments) will be appropriated by both sides. That happens all the time, and not all sides are equally believable. I think what I'm saying that the danger is establishing the principle that the argument requires the other side to shut up.

Leif, hi there. I think this gets at the point I probably did not make clear in the brief essay. I believe the "neutrality" the courts find in library policies (a very narrow definition of "rules that don't favor or punish a viewpoint," but try to treat all cases equally, by the same rules) has a point: to establish the greatest possible freedom of inquiry. Most of the time, when the Office for Intellectual Freedom responds to reports of challenges to libraries, we use precisely these policies not to defend Nazis (or right wing idealogies), but to defend (for instance) LGBT books or displays. That is, the rules really do serve to open up our services to traditionally marginalized views. They can ALSO be used for the odd distasteful group, of course. That's the price.
cjohnston said…
Mr. LaRue,

I am a current MLIS student and I stumbled upon your blog for class. This post in particular is one that touches on one of the biggest issues that I have with our profession.

I freely admit that I am a conservative in a very liberal profession which admittedly has its difficulties. While I believe that social justice is important, I also feel that there are times where our staunch support of those beliefs retracts from our overall mission; which is to provide our communities access to a diverse range of information, regardless of our own thoughts and beliefs.

Recently, my superiors in the public library put out a display that centered around politics for the upcoming election. The entire display was made up of books like "Fear: Trump in the White House," "Why We're Liberals," and Soul of a Democrat: The Seven Core Ideals That Made Our Party - And Our Country - Great" This seems like it would be fine, however, my library is located in an area that traditionally votes conservative. I had to remind my manager that we need to provide access to information that serves our community, not just information that reflects our own beliefs. I pulled books such as "The Conscience of the Conservative" and moved the display so that both sides of the political spectrum were represented, and represented equally. As you said, "People should be able to investigate them both, and make up their own minds."

To me there seems to be a growing trend where libraries are no longer considered a "neutral" space (at least from a librarian's standpoint), but our community members do not think in the same way we do. I really appreciate that your post addresses this issue in such a succinct, thoughtful, and respectful manner. I truly feel that to abandon that notion of neutrality is as you say, "at our peril."
Jamie LaRue said…
cjohnston, I have been terribly remiss in keeping up my blog, and vow to do better. I see your comment goes back before the election.

Conservative and liberal have become terms of such vituperation by their opposing sides, that it's hard to know what they mean anymore. But it is clearly the case that most libraries in America are in rural communities, themselves more generally likely to vote Republican than Democratic. While I very much support the idea that libraries should be places of civic engagement and education, I do think we have to be careful about assuming we know what's right, and stacking the deck politically. I suppose I have two main concerns. First, there's some arrogance in this idea that we librarians know best about all political stances. Second, I do get very concerned about the declining support for libraries (and other public sector entities). Coming out against the prevailing political sentiment of your community will surely erode that support even further.

Having said that, though, there are times when I think principled people need to speak out against what the community does believe. But when that perspective reliably favors just one specific party platform over another, we're not being librarians, we're being political operatives.

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