On Neutrality - Thomas Haennel

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"I hate these filthy neutrals Kif! With enemies you know where they stand but with neutrals? Who knows! It sickens me." - Zapp Brannigan (Futurama)

Undeniably the question of librarian neutrality is one of the most controversial philosophical issues that plagues the profession. One argument made for abandoning neutrality comes from Joseph Good in his article entitled "The Hottest Place in Hell." He argues that neutrality is equivalent to immorality; essentially he concludes that librarians must become actively engaged in society by taking stances on social issues and advocating for progress. My major concern with librarians taking stances on social issues is that such advocacy will drive patrons away from the library.

One problem with librarians advocating for progress on social issues is that progress is very subjective concept: what one considers progressive others may think is regressive. For instance, some may view the legalization of polygamy as progressive in regards to religious freedoms while others may view it as regressive in regards to women’s rights. If a library were to support one side, such support may offend some patrons who in turn may boycott the library as people don’t often patronize organizations or institutions that promote ideas contrary to their personal beliefs. Thus by taking a position on potentially controversial issues may drive patrons away from the library.

Another problem with Goods’ argument is that it is short sighted. Certainly there are certain beliefs that the majority of society subscribes to, while it may appear harmless to support these beliefs we must remember that any issues that an organization advocates for may have future repercussions. Just because current society subscribes to certain beliefs does not mean that these beliefs can’t change. Thus what we may consider moral now our descendants may call immoral. By advocating viewpoints that are currently accepted in society, progressive librarians jeopardize how libraries will be perceived by future generations. For instance had libraries advocated for common societal beliefs a few decades ago, they would have likely been one of the most vocal opponents of same-sex marriage for generations. Therefore many of us in the present would denounce the library for its role in opposing what many Canadians now consider just. It is impossible to know what beliefs future generations will hold, however we can predict that some beliefs will change. If said generations have a negative perception of libraries because of the role they played opposing their beliefs these individuals are unlikely to patronize libraries.

It is my belief that librarians exist to serve the public, however if librarians begin to take stances on societal issues we risk driving patrons away. If a library has no patrons it has no future and will simply vanish.

--Thomas Haennel


Anonymous said...

Ahmen brother! I find some of the classes pushing advocacy, I argue (not actually in my papers) that advocacy alienates and politicizes a place that now is considered more than just a storage facility for books, but a place for people of many beliefs and ideals. Take a side and you may lose the few people who still see the value of a library and its traditional services.

Kaitlin said...

I agree with the argument for neutrality in the sense that a library as an institution (say, one library system) can remain neutral. In addition to patrons who disagree with issues, there may be employees within the library who do not agree with certain opinions, and I think supporting employees is equally as important as retaining patrons.
But I also think that individual librarians should have a firm knowledge of their own opinions, and should not shy away from speaking about them if an opportunity arises. (However, in a respectful way, rather than in an evangelistic sense.)
I also think library associations should have advocacy as their main goal, and this is never neutral. For example, the situation with Dale Askey or the new head of LAC- in both cases, library associations made statements in support of Askey, and that the head of LAC should be a professional librarian or archivist with managerial experience. There are probably people who would disagree with these statements, but the library associations will stand by their statements, and I think that is progress for advocacy.

Romany Craig said...

The way I understand the issue of neutrality is that librarians need to be aware not to reinforce the status quo, and to be able to identify biases in their services and collections which alienate members of the community.
As such I take issue with the sentence: "By advocating viewpoints that are currently accepted in society, progressive librarians jeopardize how libraries will be perceived by future generations."
The notion of "progress," while inherently problematic, suggests moving beyond a status quo. It suggests change for the better. Granted people have diverse opinions on what could make society better, being ignorant that any actions one takes is always already presuming a vision of what is better for ones society/community.
I believe it is foolish for any person and any librarian to think they can truely be neutral.

The best way to provide service which does not alienate potential patrons is to be aware of institutional and cultural biases, and TAKE ACTION to address them.

Ali Versluis said...

Thanks for posting something about this topic Thomas. Neutral librarianship is something that is often discussed, but people rarely take an unwavering and unapologetic stance on it. I’m glad there has been so much dialogue on this post already since it gave me some things to mull over.

I re-read the article myself (I had actually read it previously for a paper I wrote for Perspectives on the topic of librarian neutrality). It is awkward quoting myself, but I'm going to bring in some of that paper because I think it sheds some light on things.

I agree with Good in that librarians need to abandon the outdated, problematic idea of the "neutral librarian"' and actively advocate for social issues. First, I actually don't think that neutrality is desirable nor even possible. As Robert Jensen points out in his excellent paper "The Myth of the Neutral Professional," biased and subjective librarianship already exists in the development or gap in collections, database purchases, and programming. So to encourage, or even entertain, the notion of neutral librarianship is already inherently problematic. Moreover,

[a]s the mind accumulates information, it organizes it accordingly, comparing it with existing information before filing it away, the whole process an unconsciously subjective one. Additionally, there are the issues of biases and prejudices, which may occur unconsciously…neutrality is impossible simply by virtue of human involvement. On a more abstract level, neutrality is not possible because it involves a choice, whether that choice is conscious or not. To be neutral is still a political decision, albeit one that means a refusal to acknowledge a “position on the distribution of power or its consequences” (Jensen 91). Most importantly, “neutrality” is self-imposed. It requires a conscious effort to mitigate instinctual feelings that arise from biases and assumptions, as well as to avoid saying something (Versluis 2).

If a librarian chooses to remain neutral, they are effectively making a decision to maintain the status quo. And that decision is as political as someone who outwardly advocates for the importance of certain issues.

As Good points out, there are important issues (such as gay marriage, affirmative action, and African-American reparations) that need to be not only discussed (through the acquisition of materials and the development of programming), but championed. Of course there will always be certain segments of the population that don’t agree that these types of issues are worth validating, but the library belongs to everyone, not just those with the most established/traditional perspectives. If patrons stop coming to a library because it is a welcoming space (by which I mean it has literature/programming/services pertaining to “controversial” topics such as gay marriage or affirmative action), the absence of those patrons isn’t going to be that which contributes to the demise of the library. Your library will already be viewed as irrelevant and undesirable.

Works Cited

Jensen, Robert. “The Myth of the Neutral Professional.” Questioning Library Neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian.” Ed. Allison M. Lewis. Duluth, MN: Library Juice P, 2008. 89-96. Print.

Versluis, Ali. “Neither Political nor Personal: An Analysis of Jane Pyper’s ‘Neutral Librarianship.’” University of Western Ontario, 2012. Print.

Lukas Miller said...

Hope I'm not too late to the discussion party - been busy working on assignments.

Glad to see debate going on here in regards to what is often a touchy subject for librarians. Here's a smattering of my thoughts gleaned from an essay I wrote in my first term on neutrality, along with responses to certain aspects of your post:

Two authors who have not yet been brought up are David Berninghausen, whose "Antithesis in Librarianship: Social Responsibility vs The Library Bill of Rights" advocates neutrality of the library profession, and Henry Blanke, who speaks about neutrality as a dangerous value for librarians to hold in "Librarianship & Political Values: Neutrality or Commitment?".

Berninghausen paints a picture of the ideal librarian community: neutral to social issues, distant from conflict, and "subordinate to the principle of intellectual freedom". He acknowledges that society itself is rapidly changing and evolving, and that librarians are a part of that society, but suggests that the voices of librarians be kept out of objective library literature.

In reading Berninghausen (and subsequently Good and your views on his writings), I can't help but see many of his virtues as flaws. First and foremost, Berninghausen makes the issue a very binary one: either librarians remain neutral and the profession prospers, or librarians "succumb" to social justice and advocacy, and as a result our libraries crumble to the ground around us. I ask myself: "is there no middle ground?"

I agree that librarians - in their work - should remain non-partisan. I agree as well that intellectual freedom is tantamount to the profession as a whole. I agree that bias has no place in the library and that information presented to patrons should be without influence of the librarian providing that service.

I feel that these are all things that are possible, neutrality notwithstanding.


Lukas Miller said...


Henry Blanke's article argues contrary to Berninghausen, postulating that libraries in theory can not remain neutral, that they would "drift aimlessly with the currents of power and privilege" or "unconsciously adopt a dominant value orientation". With this I agree. Blanke also surmises that if libraries remain neutral (and thus idle), librarians would be aligning with the sinister (for lack of better words) plans of capitalist technocrats aiming for a society of commodified information. Blanke sums it up best with this quotation:

"By perpetuating the myth that their profession should be politically neutral, librarians have created a value vacuum that is easily being filled by the prevailing political and economic ethos. Neutrality, in effect, allows an unquestioned acquiescence to the imperatives of the most power and influential elements in society"

Neutrality thus fails: in remaining passive and idle, librarians ensure that outside (corporate, political, partisan) influences will fill the gap left behind by librarians’ lack of action. Pacifism would be the librarians’ ironic downfall in Berninghausen’s ideology.

I do not see neutrality as entirely undesirable: in fact I believe neutrality can still be a virtue for librarians. My issue is with the extent of that neutrality. The danger inherent in adopting a neutral stance is assuming the ignorance of the library existing within a vacuum. In a perfect world free of strife, corruption and power struggle, a neutral library would be understandable. Alas such a utopia does not exist on Earth.

Libraries serve a crucial role in the public sphere. It is important to keep in mind that the librarians employed in those libraries are living, breathing people with their own diverse sets of beliefs and opinions. In serving the community librarians serve themselves, and the relationship is reciprocal. Such a crucial role cannot coexist with the idea of neutrality – and if so libraries will fail. I feel that Rory Litwin summarized what neutrality means for libraries best:

"The idea of neutrality is a definite evil, because it supports the existing balance of power, and does it invisibly, in cases where caring individuals, armed with objective information, likely would not."

It is objectivity, not neutrality, that I think we should strive for.

Works Cited

Berninghausen, David. “Antithesis in Librarianship: Social Responsibility vs. The Library Bill of Rights.” Library Journal, November 15, 1972, 3675-81.

Blanke, Henry T. “Librarianship & Political Values: Neutrality or Commitment?” Library Journal, July, 1989, 39-43.

Litwin, Rory. “Neutrality, Objectivity and the Political Center.” Progressive Librarian 21 (Winter 2002): 72-77.

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