Critical Theory, Libraries, and Culture

by Elizabeth Lieutenant

Bossaller, J., Adkins, D., & Thompson, K. M. (2010). Critical theory, libraries, and culture. Progressive Librarian, 34-35, 25–38.

Bossaller, Adkins, and Thompson discuss library sources and services provided to culturally diverse communities. Grounding their critiques in a cultural context, the authors analyze purportedly “neutral” sources and services that are often uncritically accepted by the LIS profession as sound. This article takes inspiration from Questioning Library Neutrality, a collection of essays originally published in Progressive Librarian. Bossaller et al. extend the critical analysis of neutrality within QLN to surface the underlying tension between the LIS profession’s core values of diversity, democracy, social responsibility, and equitable access and the actions (or inactions) of institutions that aim to act as neutral providers of information to cultural and linguistic minorities.


This piece, like Cram’s, touches on so much: professional neutrality, content vs container, neoliberalism in collection development and assessment, user agency, ideological discourse, media distortion, documenting culture, inequity in cultural resources, institutional power, Foucault’s docile bodies, liberation, whitewashed children’s literature, and conflicts between our professional values and practice, to name but a few. Each of these deserves it own analysis; there’s never enough time or words.

Bossaller et al.’s article immediately came to mind yesterday morning when reviewing the recent revisions¹ to ALA’s Interpretation to the Library Bill of Rights, specifically, Policy B.2.1.11 Diversity in Collection Development: “Librarians have an obligation to select and support access to content on all subjects that meet, as closely as possible, the needs, interests, and abilities of all persons in the community the library serves” (p. 6).  The 2008 amended abstract noted that librarians are responsible for being “inclusive, not exclusive in collection development” activities (pg. 5). However, the 2008 abstract excluded any reference to community or individual needs, instead limiting its encouragement to a “balanced collection [that] reflects a diversity of materials and resources” (p. 5).

This lack of social and humanistic consideration, while somewhat resolved in the 2014 revisions, reflects one of the many limitations of our profession as articulated by Bossaller et al.; a privileging of materials over the individuals who may access and use those materials. We often spout these grand narratives about our roles as community hubs while still operating in alignment with our historical roots as glorified resource centers. As Bossaller et al. note, our profession’s history of oppressing diverse and dissenting perspectives within library collections, coupled with attempts to assimilate marginalized individuals through the provision of sources, services, and systems that reflect dominant cultural perspectives, are still alive and well.

Katz’s (2014)² reflection on being a lingual minority personalizes many of the conditions and issues discussed by Bossaller et al. Tying Katz’s narrative into the discussions and presentations at the ALISE 2015 Annual Conference, I’m concerned about the lack of cultural competence education in some LIS curricula. I worry for students who graduate wholly unprepared to function in diverse organizational environments and provide and create inclusive sources, services, and systems. Furthermore, I can’t help but think of the harm that may be done to the communities these practitioners work with if said practitioners do not have a firm understanding of culturally competent practice. While I have been comforted by some of the progress I have seen in my short time as a member of our profession, I find it troubling that so much of what we do is grounded in what has been done, regardless of its flaws, weaknesses, and biases. I, for one, am tired of the passive cultural reproduction that occurs both within our profession and our institutions and hope that we begin to coalesce around a more radical, inclusive, and innovative vision for our profession. The potential is there, it just needs to be capitalized on.


Question for future exploration:

  • What is the psychological and collective harm of acts that silence voices, both within our profession and our collections?
  • In capitalizing on our professional potential, is more effective to influence the system from the inside or create new and improved systems free from the barriers and constraints of previous systems?

1.Policy Monitoring Committee. (2015). Report to ALA Council: 2015 ALA Midwinter Meeting.

2.Katz, R. (2014). On Multiculturalism in Reference Services. [Web log post].