Serving Patrons with Different Views

By ssheer

Sara Sheer LIS-651-03
How should librarians serve patrons with varying beliefs and views, especially when they are different from the librarian’s own? According to Cosette (2009) the philosophy, as opposed to the science, of librarianship necessitates value judgments (p. 8), and the authors featured in Questioning Library Neutrality agree. Cosette (2009) also says that librarianship means “assuring a maximum of information access for the human community” (p. 33). I agree with this sentiment, but it begs the questions as to how one should go about doing so. Cosette’s (2009) belief that it is the role of the library to inform and help the public so as to make it “a knowledgeable and rational electorate” (p. 42) does not deal with the issue that a belief, especially a political one, that one person finds rational another will find irrational. Indeed, some thinkers like philosopher Michael Oakeshott believe that “rationalism” in the form of social engineering and radical reform is bound to fail.
Cosette (2009) holds that libraries “should be democratic in their methods and processes” (p. 56) and that “Librarians working in democratic libraries are professionally neutral in facing political, moral, and religious problems that divide readers” (p. 56). If a patron asks for information on one of these problems, the librarian should refer him to sources from multiple and conflicting viewpoints, for, as Cosette (2009) says, “what is important is not to impose a certain idea, but to provide [an] additional opening to the world that allows for informed choices…” (p. 56-57) by “[providing] free access to all to a collection that contains controversial texts and ideas” (p. 57). By doing so “libraries give each individual the means of critiquing power,” (p. 60-61), which in turn allows people to work toward human progress (Cosette, 2009, p. 61).
The contributors in Questioning Library Neutrality not only disagree that librarians should be neutral but maintain that what is generally referred to as “neutrality” in the context of libraries is in fact nothing of the sort, but rather an active affirmation of the status quo and hegemonic discourse. In their opinion, accepting ideals of neutrality and objectivity can make librarians into uncritical servants of the knowledge elites (Lewis, 2008, p. 25). Rejecting the ideals of neutrality and objectivity raises the question of what a librarian should do instead. Steven Joyce’s answer is that while librarians shouldn’t throw out material with mainstream or traditional viewpoints, they should add alternative and progressive viewpoints alongside them (Lewis, 2008, p. 52). I think that this is the right approach, as it exposes patrons to a broad spectrum of views on various topics without shutting out either the “mainstream” or the “radical.”
Not all of the contributors to Questioning Library Neutrality agree with Joyce on this, however. Sandy Iverson points out that while South Africa was under an apartheid regime, many libraries still obtained their information on South Africa from the South African consulate and neglected to include pamphlet files critical of apartheid. Iverson’s conclusion is that “Librarians must be challenged to treat racist materials as racist materials,” (Lewis, 2008, p. 27) without defining what “racist” actually means. This seems problematic to me. I agree that while South Africa was under apartheid libraries should not have used “information” from the South African consulate (nor, in my opinion, should they have used materials from the consulates of Communist dictatorships like Cuba, China, Vietnam, the USSR, etc.). But the explicitly racist apartheid regime has been gone for two decades now, and what is or is not “racist” is often a contentious subject. For example, anti-Zionists often claim that Zionism is a form of racism against Palestinians, while many Zionists believe that anti-Zionism is a form of racism against Jews. My personal opinion is that both Zionism and anti-Zionism are both sometimes racist and sometimes not. Joseph Good goes even further than Iverson by saying, “Neutral responses to the vital issues of gay marriage, African-American reparations, and affirmative action continually jeopardize the library’s relevance in contemporary society” (Lewis, 2008, p. 144). I think this is flat-out wrong. Good apparently assumes that anyone who opposes affirmative action is at best in denial of the persistence of racism in American society and at worst actively in favor of racism. This leaves no room for people such as myself who believe that racism is a huge and persistent problem in this country but do not think that affirmative action is the right way to remedy that. As for gay marriage, I am strongly in favor of it myself, but it must be kept in mind that practically no one was in favor of gay marriage until a quarter of a century ago and many people are still opposed to it, not all of them for bigoted reasons. The Bible condemns homosexuality, as does Islam, and until quite recently most Westerners agreed. Does that mean that libraries shouldn’t have copies of the Old Testament or the Koran? Again, I am strongly in favor or gay rights myself, but I agree with Cosette (2009) that librarians should be “professionally neutral in facing political, moral and religious problems that divide readers” (p. 56) and should “not [force] users to sympathize with any aims that might be imposed by an institution” (p. 59). Suppose a librarian is opposed to gay marriage, for whatever reasons. Should she have the right to stock only materials that support her position?
While I believe that libraries should stock materials from opposing viewpoints on controversial issues such as gay marriage or affirmative action, I do think that certain viewpoints should be considered beyond the pale. I don’t think libraries should stock books advocating creationism or Holocaust denial because, like Alison M. Lewis (2008), I believe that “creationism and Holocaust denial have been discredited by the vast majority of the scientists and historians, respectively,” (p. 2) and therefore “don’t hold equal weight in the marketplace of ideas, and they are not deserving of an equal share of limited library resources” (p. 2) I do believe, however, that libraries should have copies of Mein Kampf available as it can provide valuable insight into Hitler’s beliefs and way of thinking, which are crucial for understanding the Holocaust. I also would not stock books that denied man-caused climate change because this view goes against the overwhelming scientific consensus.
In conclusion, I think that libraries should stock materials representing a broad spectrum of viewpoints (though excluding disproven beliefs like creationism and Holocaust denial), including viewpoints often viewed in America as “radical” and thus beyond-the-pale, such as socialism and anarchism. However, I think that librarians should be careful not to impose their views on either the collection or the patrons. If a patron comes to a librarian asking for information on a controversial topic, the librarian should provide her with material representing a broad variety of viewpoints, even some the librarian may consider incorrect.

Cosette, A. (2009). Humanism and libraries. (R. Litwin, Trans.). Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press. (Original work published 1976).
Good, J. (2008). The hottest place in hell; The crisis of neutrality in contemporary librarianship. In A. Lewis (Ed.), Questioning library neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian (pp. 141-145). Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press.
Iverson, S. (2008). Librarianship and resistance. In A. Lewis (Ed.), Questioning library neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian (pp. 25-31). Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press.
Joyce, S. (2008). A few gates redux: An examination of the social responsibilities debate in the early 1970s and 1990s. In A. Lewis (Ed.), Questioning library neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian (pp. 33-65). Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press.
Lewis, A. (2008). Introduction. In A. Lewis (Ed.), Questioning library neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian (pp. 1-4). Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press.

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