Neutrality at the Library: Whose Side are We on, Anyway?

By beeewrites


It seems odd to say that neutrality is something that can incite passionate debate in the world of libraries, but it’s true. The aim for neutrality -or even the question of its existence in the field- has been outlined in scholarly articles, discussed in the open forum of Twitter, and has even inspired national campaigns for improved materials. If neutrality is defined as being impartial and unbiased, how come so many library professionals feel so strongly about the concept?

“Neutrality is just being what the system asks us to be,” write Myles Horton and Paulo Friere in a piece about education and social change. Following this logic, all libraries are inviting spaces where all users can find what they seek and have no complaints about the collection, the environment, or their general experience. Of course if you’ve ever been to a library before you’d know this idyll is impossible to manage; sometimes the library you’re in doesn’t have the book you’re looking for, or maybe it does and you can’t seem to find it. Libraries struggle from the expectation of being warm yet authoritarian spaces, and the endless quest to balance those two elements comes at a cost.

Finding the right book at the library might not be as simple as whether it’s on the shelf, though- your library might not even think your interests are worthy enough for their collection. If neutrality is “a code word for the existing system,” as Horton and Friere suggest, then what word really represents is the default western white male viewpoint of what “should” be inside a library. Hope Olson writes about the rigidity of cataloging and how there is a detectable, specific point of view despite the attempt to be easily digestible by all; “One notes far more references to narrower terms under ‘Women’ than under ‘Men,'” she says. “Many of these terms draw attention to women as exceptions to a male norm.”

Similarly, Emily Drabinski writes about how controlled vocabulary “fail[s] to accurately and respectfully organize library materials about social groups and identities that lack social and political power.” Once again, the rigidity of classic cataloging practices is a disservice to queer theory and proves to be exclusionary, showing preference for a “norm” by means of aggressive classification. So which is worse, going to the library and finding something horribly mislabeled, or finding nothing at all?

Luckily, many library professionals are already aware of the imbalance in their collections, as a recent #critlib discussion on Twitter illustrates. The topic on the table was ‘critical approaches to library data and systems,’ with the first question asking whether libraries and systems can ever be neutral. Participants did not hold back, immediately criticizing the narrowness of library practices; “neutrality is the side of those in power!” wrote one user. Another chimed in and said the word neutral “sounds too close to passive,” while someone else went straight to the core of the problem with library systems. “[Can libraries be] neutral? No. Our cat[alog] languages, systems & vocabs are biased toward Western culture. True universality is a lofty goal.” Frustrations continued with other participants noting how difficult it is to build impartial collections when vendors already have limited offerings. With publishers catering overwhelmingly to Western audiences, once again a statement is made about what (and who) is thought to be the default.

Efforts have unfolded to address weak spots in library collections, like the We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) campaign, which works to bring more diverse literature to shelves in childrens’ libraries. In their mission statement, the group states, “We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.” Members of the WNDB team have also acknowledged the bias in the world of publishing, and aim to work from the ground up to ensure that the future of childrens’ literature is more inclusive.

Of course, goals like diversifying childrens’ literature or queering the catalog both have clear, specific objectives and cannot be considered impartial actions on their own. The key though, is that they both push back against the existing biased framework of library systems. “The system hides exclusions under the guise of neutrality,” writes Olson. “Not surprisingly, this fundamental presumption on which our practice rests disproportionately affects access to information outside of the cultural mainstream and about groups marginalized in our society.” How can libraries ever be neutral if this glaring problem continues to exist? The only way towards neutrality is to correct the imbalance already in place.

Going forward, librarians must make every effort to collect materials that reflect a wide range of worldview, with particular sensitivity to local audiences. It would be disheartening if a patron went to their library and saw nothing of themselves in any part of the collection, but it would also be a disservice to omit any other worldview for the sake of streamlining.  Libraries should not be conservative in the name of pleasing all, but liberal with their materials

to the point of perhaps even ruffling some patrons’ feathers.  In order to create a true balance, the bias of the current “neutral” system must continue to be acknowledged and combated.




Horton, Myles, and Brenda Bell. We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1990.

Olson, H. A. (2001). The Power to Name: Representation in Library Catalogs. Signs, 26, 3, 639-668.

Drabinksi, E. (2013), “Queering the catalog: queer theory and the politics of correction” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy 83(2): 94–111.


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