Complexity of “neutrality” at your public library | The life

Libraries have been in the news a lot lately. You might not have noticed it (“many” is a relative term), but for those of us who work in libraries, it’s been hard to ignore.

This increase in coverage has focused on challenges and book bans. This is not surprising given that the American Library Association recently announced that it had received an “unprecedented volume” of reports of attempted bans or challenges to books last fall. Although most of these attempts are not widely reported, some recent cases have made national news.

In response to this latest wave of book-related challenges, The New York Times recently published an opinion piece titled “The Battle for the Library’s Soul” by Dr. Stanley Kurtz, senior fellow at a conservative think tank. . Kurtz cites the Library Bill of Rights, a fundamental document of librarianship adopted by the American Library Association in 1939, which states that libraries should serve all members of the community, represent all points of view, defy censorship in all its forms and preserve the privacy of library users. .

Kurtz goes on to state that librarianship has moved away from these ideals, citing “woke librarians” as the main problem. He argues that libraries must restore their commitment to neutrality to act as an antidote to the growing polarization in our country.

There’s a lot to take away from Kurtz’s essay, but the core of his argument involves the concept of “neutrality.” Although the word is never used in the Library Bill of Rights, it is reasonable to interpret neutrality as the fundamental principle of the document. Libraries and librarians do not take sides. We serve all people in our communities and build balanced collections, regardless of our personal beliefs. We provide the information and let people make up their own minds.

Kurtz acknowledges that there are logical limits to this position on neutrality. Very few people would argue that a library should offer resources that actively promote racism, sexism, child abuse, or animal abuse to offset resources that portray these evils in a negative light (with the exception of collections that deliberately archive these documents).

On the surface, this all sounds very reasonable. Neutrality as a vague concept is easy for most of us to accept. We may differ from our friends and neighbors in how we see the world, but a free and democratic society relies on people’s ability to encounter different viewpoints and form their own opinions. And we can agree that there are materials that are not suitable for children, and some specific topics that are completely inadmissible for any age (see Terrorism – How To).

However, Kurtz has clearly never been a librarian and just doesn’t have much experience with what he writes about, because neutrality is much more complex in practice than it is in theory, and what is deemed “inappropriate” will vary considerably. from person to person.

Like ‘freedom’ and ‘patriotism’, ‘neutrality’ is more appealing when it is ill-defined. Reasonable people may agree that freedom is good, and reasonable people can (and will have) substantially different ideas about what freedom means in practice. Likewise, reasonable people will have very different opinions about what a “neutral” library collection looks like and what reasonable community standards are. Where Kurtz’s argument breaks down is in its implication that library neutrality is a simple and clearly defined goal against which politicized librarians work.

Kurtz’s examples are based on the idea that there are two sides to any argument. This grossly oversimplifies the diversity of thought and diversity of voices on just about any given topic of any substance and ignores the ever-changing nature of scholarship and knowledge. As dualistic as today’s political rhetoric may be, our society is in fact a pluralistic society with many voices and opinions, and libraries have a responsibility to reflect that.

Libraries are essential to our democratic society. Library collections are best enhanced by additive, not subtractive processes. Library collections should reflect their communities. Most librarians will agree with Kurtz on these matters. What a good librarian knows, however, is that this is complex, difficult and ever-changing work. This is why experienced, well-trained, and intelligent librarians capable of deeply nuanced thinking are needed in our communities and universities.

Tom Robbins wrote, “There are two types of people in this world: those who believe there are two types of people in this world and those who are smart enough to know more. Kurtz’s column seems to put him in the first category. A good librarian will always fall into the latter.

Hunter is the Dean of Libraries at the University of Idaho.

Sharon D. Cole