Questioning Library Neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarians

by Elizabeth Lieutenant

Lewis, A. M. (2008). Questioning library neutrality: Essays from progressive librarians. Duluth, MN: Library Juice Press.

Selected chapters:

Rosenweig’s “Politics and Anti-Politics” warns of the dangers in erasing past and current professional acts of suppression, censorship, and intolerance when emphasizing acts that support the profession’s democratic values of freedom of expression, social responsibility, and intellectual freedom. The author emphasizes the need for critical discourse to incorporate the socio-political dimensions of current and future issues to fully assess the implications of professional action and inaction on said issues.

Iverson’s “Librarianship and Resistance” interrogates LIS’s privileging of objectivity, neutrality, and corporatized professionalism, concluding that these metanarratives seek to advance LIS’s position through the support of dominant social forces and suppression of marginalized individuals and alternative perspectives. Examples of the profession’s (perhaps inadvertent) promotion of government domination, racism, and homophobia contextualize the author’s critiques. Haraway’s (1991) conception of feminist objectivity is proposed as method to resolve inequitable practices in LIS.

Jensen relates the struggle for and against neutrality faced by journalists, academics, and librarians in “The Myth of the Neutral Professional.” The author’s background discussion of how capitalist and political power work in tandem to suppress democracy justify his calls to critique the capitalist system, along with the unquestioned, noncritical practices of professional neutrality that support capitalism’s neoliberal aims.

In “Information Criticism: Where is It?” Anderson argues for the emergence of information criticism as a method to further LIS’s interdisciplinary influence, centralize its position in an increasingly digitally-connected society, and promote librarian and user agency over information organization systems. LIS education is presented as an instrument of inculcation into the dominant managerial and technical discourse of the LIS profession, thus serving as a barrier to the formation of information critics. Although impassioned, Anderson offers no concrete proposals for reform.

Good opens “The Hottest Place in Hell” with a historical narrative of neutrality provided by quotes from Dante’s Inferno, President Kennedy’s quest instill morality through democratic participation, and a contrast between Switzerland’s political neutrality and indirect capital support to the Third Reich. The author equates professional neutrality with moral relativism and calls for librarians to act as moral agents on social issues.


 

This past Sunday, I attended a session at ALA Midwinter featuring Scotty Bonner, head librarian of the Ferguson Public Library. I won’t try to recap everything that he covered in his hour and a half presentation¹, nor outline how he rationalized the various decisions he made at key points between the murder of Michael Brown and the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson. Instead, I’ll touch on Bonner’s use of the term “neutral space” during his presentation. There was a discussion of this on Twitter, of which I briefly participated in and will once again not recap here. In reflecting upon Bonner’s presentation and the Twitter discussion in light of the readings from Questioning Library Neutrality, I can’t help but feel that our debates on librarian neutrality may lead to professional impasse instead of the political action we hope to achieve.

Bonner did not provide his own personal definition of neutrality. Certain decisions, like the hosting of an art show featuring pieces themed  in response to Brown’s murder, were presented as cultural literacy instead of support of political speech. Others, including the decision to not open on the first day the library was scheduled to open after the shooting, were more political timidness, although that may be too strong of a judgment for me to pass. Some decisions, such as the policy that library staff (who fell on both sides of the political spectrum and debate regarding the protests) only discuss the murder and the community’s response in private spaces within the library, away from public spaces where patrons may overhear the staff, were clearly attempts to present the library and its staff as politically neutral. These varying responses, along with the explanations Bonner provided, illustrate that definitions of neutrality cannot be divorced from the internal definitions of the professionals discussing them or the social environments that influence how the librarian or their institutions operate.

In short, our conceptions of neutrality are politicized. Lacking a unified definition of what constitutes a political act versus a neutral act, we’re left bandying about critiques of neutrality and criticizing differing definitions of neutrality instead of supporting the multiple paths that librarians can take in fostering and exercising political agency. This, to me, is one of the greatest limits of critical discourse. Critiquing systematic oppression through exercises of power should ideally support a socially just and progressive actions. However, one could just as easily co-opt progressive ideals for oppressive gains, as Iverson illustrates in her discussion of racists supporting anti-censorship to promote hate speech, or apply critique to progressive aims and actions, which Good fails to take into consideration. Good assumes that librarians acting as political agents will almost inherently align themselves with progressive movements, which stands in contrast with Rosenweig and Iverson’s discussion of the historical roots of librarianship and its support of institutions which sought to assimilate and suppress marginalized groups.
Thus, we’re left with the challenge of defining neutrality. Is it possible that the shift towards professional neutrality is not an acquiescence to neoliberalism or acts to position LIS as a superior profession crucial in supporting the information economy, but instead an effort to counter LIS’s historical support of unjust actions by librarians who aligned themselves with repressive political and capitalist forces? I prefer to see these rhetorical calls for neutrality as part of a continuum that is moving our profession from its historically unjust roots to one that will be reconceptualized as a progressive force in society. Our profession and the environments in which we operate are not static; our profession is capable of evolving, albeit more slowly than I would like, it something better than its current state. While this may be a lofty goal, we’re never going to actualize it if we keep getting bogged down in arguments on the definition of neutrality.

Question for future exploration:

  • Anderson proposes both academic (through research and interdisciplinary dialog) and public discourse (through magazines and newspaper publications) as a method to advance information criticism. How does this separation between academic and public spheres undermine Anderson’s proposals to advance LIS’s position through information criticism?
  • Rosenweig bears repeating: “The question, as a glance at our history reveals, is not whether politics enters into professional matters (it always has), but rather what politics, and to what effect?” (p. 7).
  • As Iverson illustrated, freedom of expression often conflicts with freedom from harm. What are our professional responsibilities when considering the inclusion of racist, homophobic, and other types of hate speech in library collections?
  • The danger of setting fire to ones own house isn’t necessarily that the fire-starter will burn, it’s that they’ll be publicly hanged for lighting the match. How does one genuinely follow Jensen’s advice to critique the system in spaces that make it inherently unsafe to do so?
  • In his piece, Good assume that the LIS profession’s moral positions are inherently progressive, when an analysis of past and current actions would prove otherwise. Does his call that “the librarian should break his or her neutrality in the name of self-interest” still apply if those self-interests are conservative or oppressive in nature?

 


1. I would highly recommend reviewing Bonner’s presentation slides, both for context and because it was a fantastic session.

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