Neutrality in Context: Principles and Right

by Elizabeth Lieutenant

Edwards, J. B. (2011). Neutrality in context: Principles and rights. Information for Social Change, 31, 17-27.

Edward’s positions his analysis of professional neutrality through a holistic group rights perspective, countering traditional analyses that focus on individual human rights. The ALA Bill of Rights and Code of Ethics presuppose the author’s discussion of the LIS profession’s continuing attachment to professional neutrality. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is introduced to reinterpret professional neutrality as socially-oriented, communally-just practice; hypothetical scenarios contextualize this model of neutrality. Edwards re-imagines libraries as centers of community engagement act librarians as facilitators in the framing and promotion of communal dialog and debate and concludes with an appeal to values-based practice.

I find a few of Edwards’ claims contradictory and lacking grounds, much like Maack’s article. Edwards supports librarian neutrality, defined in this article’s discussion of group rights as facilitating and protecting free community participation. At the same time, he suggests hypothetical actions that position librarians as counter-narratives to oppressive hegemonic influences. As I’ve noted previously (and Edwards agrees), the concept of neutrality lacks a common definition, being influenced by individual interpretation and the professional contexts in question (p. 20). Placing these qualms aside, I found much to agree with in Edward’s model of librarians as facilitators of community engagement. This vision for the profession aligns with Lankes’ (2011)¹ New Librarianship model; it would be interesting to explore where these models align and diverge. As a socially-oriented profession whose institutions are grounded in community-focused practice, community engagement and librarianship seem like a natural coupling. Thus, I find it difficult to understand why community engagement is perceived by some as a departure from how the profession does (or should) operate.

In attending the Harwood Institute’s Community Engagement workshops at ALA Midwinter, there were numerous concerns expressed by other professionals at my table when considering whether they could or should wholly adopt an outward focus to support organizational transformation and community change. Points raised included the need to retain inwardly-focused processes, procedures, and policies, the strains on time or resources that would occur when fully engaging community members, and perceptions by Boards or governing agencies that these newly established community-based relationships would be considered inefficient or wasteful. I, in turn, stressed the need to adopt an outcomes-based approach, which requires a de-centering of one’s professional self and institutional focus and measure ones purpose and success on the communal impact of their actions instead of the individual productivity measures so often adopted in bureaucratic organizations. After I had raised my points, there was a change in tone from my table-mates, some of whom expressed that they had never considered community engagement in quite this way. As our discussions continued to unfold, our tables’ ideas were more closely aligned with the community-based approach Harwood/ALA proposed. Would Edward’s focus on community rights align with this outcomes-based approach? Perhaps. But lacking a clear definition of community rights, it’s difficult to say.


Question for future exploration:

  • How does one facilitate community engagement without organizational support? 
  • How would one ensure that privileging community rights over individual rights not serve as a tool to oppress and erase the marginalized?


1. Lankes, R. D. (2011). The Atlas of New Librarianship.