Remarks from ALA Midwinter 2018 President’s Program

Library Neutrality is a Myth

Should libraries support black people? Sure.  Well, what about “Black Lives Matter?”

Let’s think about this a bit…

What does it mean to support the BLM movement?  Maybe by inviting local leaders to speak?  Or by having a display? Or some other programming?

Does not supporting the Black Lives Matter movement make the library neutral? No.

It means you have made a decision not to support the movement and making a decision is never neutral.

Is this decision not to support the movement less controversial?  Does it protect your library? Perhaps but at what cost– and also, less controversial for whom?

If you have a Black History Month display in your library, then library has already stated that, in fact, Black Lives Matter.  Those historical figures being celebrated were the black lives matter of their time.

Neutrality does not really exist.  As Barnard College librarian Jenna Freedman once said, “you can be non-judgmental but not neutral because you are always making a choice.”

It may seem like these kinds of choices don’t matter but the so-called “neutral choice” is almost always the choice for the status quo.  Even in the case that I gave–though it may seem like it is choice to protect the library.

It can actually give cover to those who say that Black Lives Matter is a terrorist organization or that they are “uneasy” with the movement.  They might say “Well, if it’s too controversial for the library then my uneasiness makes sense.” Does it make sense to support people who feel that way?

At the same time, you are also saying that those voices matter more than people who say that, you know, my life matters.

That may seem stark, but as Steven Joyce notes in his article collected in Library Juice Press and Progressive Librarians’ Questioning Library Neutrality “neutrality is a form of fence sitting, a form of silence.”

This is not always an easy stance to take and you must weigh pros and cons but I would say that it is the right one.

When I consider my primary area of research, intellectual freedom and censorship, I note that libraries have long taken a strong position in opposing censorship and supporting intellectual freedom.  As Robert Wengert noted in 2001, “Saying censorship is wrong is not a neutral position—libraries have taken a stand.”

Libraries, any library, cannot presume to be a hub for a community by being neutral.

If libraries are about people then they must take people’s lives seriously. Even when supporting those lives might court some controversy.

Deciding not to support marginalized people is never neutral.  It is always a choice.