The Neutrality Illusion and How to Combat it

By amarti68

Robert Jensen brings up an interesting point in his article, “The Myth of the Neutral Professional” from 2004 when he states that an intellectual in any society is not neutral. Intellectual Professionals, such as librarians, serve a function; that function is to solidify the position of the elite. They do this by validating what they choose as important for the masses. Jensen talks about how librarians take on the agenda of the elite through things like acquisitions and programing, but something he does not acknowledge is the tagging system which also confirms the agenda of the elite. Librarians are the gatekeepers of information. Today, patrons have access to sources not kept by librarians for almost any information they like, however, the most valid source of intellectual information is still housed in some form of library. Libraries get their funding from somewhere, which makes them some form of extension of the elite as well. A library may house many voices, but a higher structure chooses those voices. Accessibility has changed how patrons interact with information. Librarians can use this to create a more open library system, and acknowledges its bias.
Intellectuals cannot ignore the interconnectedness of institutions in the United States. Institutional libraries do not stand alone in a web of power structures. A government unit of some kind does fund them. By extension, the rich and powerful elite, to some extent, control said government units. Libraries extend much farther than just career academics and intellectual professionals, especially academic libraries. Today the average millennial has to go to college to be financially secure; therefore the impact of an academic library reaches into more minds than ever before. The impact of so many people having their own perspectives in the social sciences could alter the future of how Americans think. The question is, with so many sources for information accessible, how will the average American react?
Just because there is an option for someone to verse themselves in new ideas, does not mean that, they will not simply narrow their field of view in order to focus on what matters to them. Whether to embrace knowing a little bit about everything, or accept that knowing everything about one thing is impossible seems to be the intellectual conundrum of the 21st century. I feel that in this paradox is where the excuse of neutrality is most dangerous. The idea of neutrality allows for those desiring to narrow their field of view to continue to do so without recognition of the bias they are gaining. By not advocating for new voices, libraries can enable this behavior, “[…] to take no explicit position by claiming to be neutral is also a political choice, particularly when one is given the resources that make it easy to evaluate the consequences of that distribution of power and potentially affect its distribution.” (Jensen, 2004) If you look at the structure of cataloging there is a particular field where this distribution of power is transparent: tagging. In the tags field, the goal is to describe a book in key words, findable to the patron. In a sense the librarian has freedom to tag something as whatever they like, but at the same time that person is limited to the acceptable “neutrality” where they must tag the item with accepted terms recognized by society as associated with the object. Using conventional tags for these materials is good for someone seeking out that information. But it limits the ability for someone to stumble upon this material, exposing them to something new or a new viewpoint on the subject matter. If it became the convention to tag things as related to a field that oppose it, or give a new view on it; less direct tagging, could be a solution to this small scale interest situation. The internalization of people is something that should be acknowledged by the intellectual professional, as well as their own biases. Another solution can be to add a new field to the tagging system recognizing the source’s lens before interacting with the source.
For example, if someone has limited themselves to knowing only about the issue of deforestation of the Amazon, they might limit their keyword search to “Deforestation” and “Amazon” which will educate them on that specific topic. The materials that person gains access to could include animals placed on extinction lists because of the deforestation, active parties causing the deforestation, and what governments might be doing to stop it. On WorldCat there is a field where that person can limit further by ‘Topic’. They can look at their subject of interest through a sociological lens, agricultural, anthropological, and many more. This field is the best solution one can find to the lack of neutrality in the library field. There are still limited available sources about the ‘medicine’ topic as a lens on the subject of the deforestation of the Amazon (one to be exact) but the patron can recognize a different lens on the same subject they have interest in.
The concept of neutrality in a library setting is an excuse for legitimacy at best. It needs to be clear to a patron that there are necessary biases involved when dealing with a body of information, whether that be in a physical library or when accessing an online catalog. As library professionals there are steps we can take to identify our catalog’s limits that will create transparency with patrons. Informing the public that they are exposing themselves to a limited collection of viewpoints at any given time could make that person more open to new voices. It may help that person realize that there will always be another way to view something, which is the true issue of the neutrality illusion; it creates an authority in something that can only honestly claim to be a small collection of intellectual thought.

Jensen, R. (2004). The Myth of the Neutral Librarian. Progressive Librarian, 28-34.

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