Discussing Library Neutrality: Language, Concepts, and Finding Solutions

By Sara White

Discussion about the social role of librarians is increasingly common with the advent of the digital age, but these topics are not new. For instance, in 1972 the book Revolting Librarians, was independently published by a group of librarians who were idealistic about the role they should play in society and were fed up with the tendency of their superiors to try and stop political activism. This issue is central to the essay collection Questioning Library Neutrality, edited by Alison Lewis. While the book succeeds in presenting the potential risks that come from neutral librarianship, if a bit dramatically, it does not allow much room for debate on the meaning of neutrality, nor does it provide many suggestions for how librarians and students of library and information science can work to mitigate these problems. Overall, the collection provides an introduction to the concept of neutrality but the essays included often rely on strong language and scant evidence to substantiate sweeping claims, while neglecting to address current efforts being undertaken to create more active librarianship.

By being neutral, the editor suggests that librarians run the risk of “promulgating misinformation or worse.” 1 These concerns inspired her to compile this collection. It is comprised of 11 essays, each originally published in the journal Progressive Librarian and presented in chronological order from their original publication date. Her aim with this collection is to “stimulate further interest and debate about the concept of neutrality within the library community,” 2 and each of the articles within the collection is opposed to neutrality. While there are some issues with the book, it is a fairly short introduction to various aspects of neutrality and how it can manifest in libraries. The arguments may be a bit strong but overall it is a book that would be helpful for those new to the field as it is accessible to those unfamiliar with debates about neutrality.

There are many organizations that work for more freedom of expression within the library sector and encourage librarians to be activists both nationally and in their communities, none of which are discussed in this collection. These groups include Radical Reference, the Progressive Librarian’s Guild, and the Alternative Media Task Force. These are groups of activist librarians and each run different programs and initiatives to promote equality and support certain social causes. For instance, the Alternative Media Task Force works to include materials by alternative publishers in collections and Radical Reference examines corporate activity in the library sector and monitors it in case of unethical activity. However, none of the essays in this collection make note of any of these initiatives. The essays were originally published in Progressive Librarian, which is the journal of the Progressive Librarian’s Guild, and it seems unlikely that the authors would not know of any of these groups or activities. Adding examples of work done by these groups or others would have contributed a great deal to the arguments in each of the essays and to the collection as a whole.

Lewis concludes her introduction by claiming that “‘neutrality’ no longer means ‘impartiality’ or ‘objectivity,’ but too often lapses into ‘indifference.’” 3. This brief statement is the closest thing to a definition of neutrality in the entire collection. This lack of a definition is the most glaring weakness of the book. None of the essays include a definition of neutrality in libraries or what being a neutral librarian entails. The authors seem to define neutrality as maintaining the status quo and ignoring social and political issues, but it is never explicitly stated. Additionally, each essay uses harsh, negative language when discussing the issue. This conceptual ambiguity makes it difficult for readers to draw independent conclusions as the explanations force them to conceive of neutrality only in negative terms. For instance, in Sandy Iverson’s article, “Librarianship and Resistance,” she says that, by striving to be neutral, “librarians responsible for acquisitions may be recreating racist censorship in their daily practices of selecting from lists of materials produced by mainstream publishing houses and other organizations that perpetuate these patterns.” 4  Peter McDonald, in “Corporate Inroads and Librarianship: The Fight for the Soul of the Profession in the New Millennium,” suggests that that by striving for neutrality, librarians are being complicit in corporate hegemony and control of information. 5 And in “The Hottest Place in Hell: The Crisis of Neutrality in Contemporary Librarianship,” Joseph Good discusses neutral librarianship as being on par with Switzerland’s smuggling of “millions of Deutschmarks of stolen Jewish money, in the form of gold bullion, out of Nazi Germany during the height of the Holocaust.” 6 From all this, a reader can hardly draw any conclusion other than that neutrality is bad, but would not be able to say exactly what it is.

Another weakness of the collection is that most essays do not provide any workable suggestions or proposals of how to combat the negative effects they describe and how librarians can be more active. As mentioned above, there are many organizations working for more active librarianship, but these are not discussed. One essay in the collection, “The Professional is Political: Redefining the Social Role of Public Libraries,” written by Shiraz Durrani and Elizabeth Smallwood, is an exception. The essay focuses on the program called Merton Sense, which was designed for local youths to “connect young people, many of whom were from socially excluded groups, with their library service by actively engaging young people in designing the new service.” 7 The program resulted in the youths becoming engaged with the library and furthering their education, and was also beneficial for the library as it resulted in increased participation and interest from the local community. While the authors also neglect to define neutrality, the article offers an impartial examination of the problem and an example of ways it is being addressed in practice, which is more productive when addressing challenges to the profession.

This collection was meant to stimulate debate about the concept of neutrality in librarianship, but the uncompromising negative language of the authors combined with a lack of definition for neutrality greatly limit its potential impact. Also, without current projects to promote more activist librarians, the authors neglect an important aspect of the issue, which is taking steps to mitigate any harmful effects. Looking at and discussing those sorts of initiatives that encourage librarians to engage their communities and be more representative of different groups of voices would have been more productive than simply identifying problems without offering solutions.

  1. Alison M. Lewis (2008) “Questioning Neutrality: An Introduction.” Questioning Library Neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian (pp. 1-4). Duluth: Library Juice Press, (2)
  2. Ibid., 4
  3. Ibib., 4
  4. Sandy Iverson, “Librarianship and Resistance.” (2008) Questioning Library Neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian (pp. 25-32). Duluth: Library Juice Press, 27.
  5. Peter McDonald, “Corporate Inroads and Librarianship: The Fight for the Soul of the Profession in the New Millennium,” Questioning Library Neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian (pp. 9-24). Duluth: Library Juice Press, 10.
  6. Joseph Good, “The Hottest Place in Hell: The Crisis of Neutrality in Contemporary Librarianship.” Questioning Library Neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian (pp. 141-146.) Duluth: Library Juice Press, 142.
  7. Durrani, Shiraz & Smallwood, Elizabeth (2008). “The Professional is Political: Redefining the Social Role of Public Libraries.” Questioning Library Neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian (pp. 119-140). Duluth: Library Juice Press, 132.
The following two tabs change content below.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License

WordPress theme based on Esquire by Matthew Buchanan.