Are libraries neutral?

I was a commenter for a debate about neutrality in libraries. A copy of my talk is pasted below! Clocked in at 8:02–thank goodness for the big bright timer. I wish I had one with me always.

By now, the basic arguments for and against neutrality as a library value have been made. I’d like to take my few brief minutes to offer an argument about neutrality and materiality.

Libraries are spaces where we encounter real things. Books sit on shelves next to other books, and each book occupies a space that is strictly its own. No two books can occupy the same space at the same time. As our patrons can attest, there are only so many computer terminals in our computer labs, and only so many minutes in each day to be parceled out at each seat. Our information literacy classrooms and our exhibit cases and our public meeting rooms are similarly bounded and real-world. One English composition class at a time, one author talk at a time. Libraries are material, just as library workers and library patrons are. We are real, we exist, and we matter.

The debate about neutrality in libraries asks us to imagine a world where those real things are and infinitely fungible, where we can buy and shelve all books and schedule each and every event. As all of us who work in libraries know, each choice we make for something is a choice against some other thing. If we focus our instruction efforts on first year composition, we can’t also teach every capstone class in our MBA program. If we buy 45 copies of Fire and Fury, we can’t also buy the run of books from Cave Canem. We have to make decisions about resources. That is our job, and what we are trained to do in our MLS programs and in our workplaces. Each of our nuanced and careful choices comes at the necessary, material, bounded cost of a whole range of other choices are do not make. We buy one book to the exclusion of probably thousands of others. And in the process we build our libraries as one kind of world, one that can never encompass all the possibilities of how we might organize ourselves in social, cultural, political, and, critically, material space.

The framing of this debate about neutrality is one that asks us to intentionally think outside of the material, at least for two hours. And maybe that’s what events like this one are for, to give us space away from the urgent demands of broken staplers and food and drink policies so that we can consider what ideals should guide our practice. Should libraries be neutral? asks us to step outside of our daily work in the realm of the real to imagine a set of shared principles that can be applied universally to all libraries in all contexts.

But I’d like us to think for a minute about how different this conversation would be if all of us up on this stage had been asked instead to talk about how we negotiate decision-making about resources in our libraries given the constraints of budget, space, lighting and heat, bathrooms, staplers, photocopy machines, and all the rest. Because I don’t think “neutral” is a thing that can exist. We are always siding with someone or some thing or some idea and against others. It’s inescapable. Those of us who come to the world as outsiders in any way know this to be true. As the old Roots song has it, “You don’t see us, but we see you.” Those steeped in and rewarded by dominant ways of seeing the world don’t have to know how intensely political the ostensibly neutral position is. If the white supremacists booking your meeting space are not after you, you don’t have to know how dangerous they are. Books about reparative therapy for gay people can be simply another point of view if yours is not the body and mind those authors seek to destroy. To imagine that neutrality could be something we could choose is an intensely privileged position, one that I have to imagine my way into as I listen to the arguments of those absolutists whose worlds are rarely contested.

This is not to say there is no value in asking professional librarians to make room for all kinds of ideas. As I stand here as a lesbian, I am imagining how easily a library might say no to a request I would make to meet with other lesbians in library space because we might be seen as dangerous to children. So I don’t want to suggest that any of this is easy. What I will say is that a panel like this one that asked us to reflect on how we make our biased decisions in the workplace would be a different one, and perhaps one that would be more useful.

An example: I am a reference librarian. Recently, a student came to desk looking for research help. She had been assigned the “con” side of an in-class debate about whether or not poverty had a significant effect on public health outcomes. Now, I am someone who believes that poverty has a significant effect on public health outcomes. I am biased in this way. I believe that rich people have too much money and poor people have to little and that the maldistribution of wealth in this country and around the globe is the great shame of this nation, an outrage whose scale is hard for me to comprehend. I believe that being poor kills people in this country. I am right about this. I am sure of it. So, from where I sit, there is no evidence at all in any of our resources that could possibly contest this, and if there is, that evidence is lying.

And yet.

The student in front of me needs five sources for her “con” side by class next week.

The principle of neutrality is one that asks me to leave my political opinions somewhere other than the reference desk. But the truth is, I don’t even think of my opinion as political, or, even, as an opinion. I can’t get rid of it. It’s mine. What I can do is foreground my way of understanding the world in our conversations, so that we can begin to think together about what “the other side” might be. That is easier to do when I know where I stand, and how far I must imagine in order to think my way to an alternate position.

So I told that student that I was struggling because I simply didn’t believe in the position her professor was asking her to take. But that I could think up the words that my opposition might say: individual responsibility. We used that keyword to unlock a universe of information sources that might very well imagine they were presenting to the world a clear, unbiased, and neutral point of view. Even as they weren’t.

I have had many reference interactions like this one: students seeking evidence that Israel is not producing a violent apartheid state in Palestine. Students seeking evidence that homosexuality is linked to genetic defects. Students seeking evidence that social service programs produce dependencies. I am sure many of us in the room have stories like these. A discussion about how we navigate these professional, material, concrete and real situations is urgent and necessary. How might we make a world where the link of poverty to public health outcomes was addressed, not taken as an issue for debate?

And those conversations must include time and space for all of us—even people who are ‘not political’—to surface the assumptions we have about the ways the world works and what and who we believe matters. In focusing such a conversation on an idealized notion of neutrality that none of us encounter in our real lives, we offer an alibi to those who have the power to define themselves and their worldviews as normal, as neutral, as apolitical. That isn’t most of us. How, concretely and materially, do we deploy our power to produce material worlds that give all of us meaningful access to life? This, I think, is the stronger question.

Leave a Reply