The idea that libraries are neutral spaces has been well and disabused over the last few years. From the services we offer to the collections that we curate, the decisions that libraries and librarians make are political ones that reflect values. Sometimes those are the values of the organization, sometimes the values of the individuals, and sometimes they are the values of the communities that the library serves. Those values are illustrated by our technologies, our ontologies, and our descriptors. Those who attempt to hold that “neutrality” of information access is an ideal for which to strive have had a hard time holding to that stance as increasing numbers of librarians question and deconstruct our profession. I would like to suggest something even stronger…that even if it were possible for libraries to be neutral spaces, that to create such a space would be morally questionable, and potentially actively morally wrong.
I say this as someone who firmly believes in the maxim of combating bad speech with more speech. I am not here advocating controls or restrictions on speech. But it is not the responsibility of every library to collect and distribute literature of hate, or falsehoods, or lies. Some libraries do need to collect everything, the good and the bad, for archival and historical study purposes, but those libraries are fairly obviously identified in practice and the vast majority of libraries should and could take a stand with their actions, programs, policies, and collections to be on the side of justice and scientific fact.
Neutrality favors the powerful, and further marginalizes the marginalized. In the face of the current political climate, with the use of opinions as bludgeons and disinformation as the weapon of choice for manipulation and intellectual coercion, it is up to those who value fact and believe in the care of those in need to stand up and positively affirm that to do otherwise is evil.
For libraries and librarians, that means:
- Making the physical space of the library safe for those that need it by publicly stating your stance on the targeting of marginalized communities and then following up with actions and policies that back up those statements
- Protecting your patrons from targeting and oppression, even in the face of possible governmental pressures, by resisting calls for information about your patrons at every level
- Making your digital spaces safe for patrons by limiting the data you collect, eliminating the data that you store, encrypting your communications at all levels and importantly insisting that your vendors do the same
- Running programs that actively provide support for your at-risk patrons, whatever that looks like in your community
- By being the voice of reason and compassion when dealing with your city or county government, and by modeling the same by advocating for those at risk
These things are vital and necessary. Especially now.
It has been barely more than a month since Election Night 2016, and the normalization of the President-Elect and his positions have already taken hold. Major media outlets report his actions but don’t follow up to question his statements or refute his words. When one of his key surrogates, Scottie Neil Hughes, says that facts aren’t real anymore, we that live in the real world must not simply accept these types of statements.
This moment in history is not the time for neutrality, it is not the time for libraries to quietly serve their communities. When I say that the next 4 years may be the most important in the history of our country, I am not doing so metaphorically or in an attempt at hyperbole. I sincerely believe that the fate of the republic is potentially at hand, and that the threat of fascism is real and imminent. In the face of such potential, the library is both refuge and target, bastion against disinformation and simultaneously at risk of being trampled under the boot of anti-intellectualism.
Neutrality should be abandoned, and we must stand positively against the threat of the removal of rights of citizens and noncitizens alike. We must eschew presenting false equivalency between two opposing explanations about the world when one is evidence-based and the other is not. We must continue to defend a fact-based world, rooted in the scientific method of understanding, an understanding of reality that is testable, refutable, and falsifiable . We must build collections that reflect the scientific consensus about the world, and not fall prey to the rhetoric of “balance” and “opinion”. Opinion does not hold once it begins impinging upon the personhood of others, nor when it stands in opposition to accepted scientific facts. We must be the defenders of fact and reason.
Maya Angelou said “when someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Our President-Elect has shown us who he is: a shallow, ignorant man who surrounds himself with those who seek power at the expense of the marginalized and will use every opportunity to demonize in order to dehumanize those they wish to trample. Our government will soon be composed of those who want to actively harm LGBTQ people among us, that wish to hunt down and persecute people for their religion, that have such base misunderstandings of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights that they are prepared to roll back hard-won freedoms for the sake of their own comfort and power. If history shows us anything about those that seek this sort of power, it is that it is best for a society when that power is held in check and they are not allowed to be overly comfortable.
The library must be a space for all and everyone, but most importantly those at most risk, both now in the future. It must be a positive force for our understanding of the world and our compassion for the people within it. Neutrality and balance are not the way forward. We must resist the forces that seek to normalize segregation, aggression, and ignorance.
Libraries are powerful forces for good. Now is the time to muster our powers, to stand brave against the people who seek to limit and reduce our rights and our understanding of the world. Let us throw off the false cloak of neutrality and work to embrace and support a world of social justice, equity for all, and scientific understanding. This country, and the people in it, deserve a better world than the one that is currently being forced upon them. Use your power as pillars of your communities, as the guardians of knowledge and the providers of help, use that power now to resist the normalization of fascism and bigotry, of hate and fear and greed. Stand for truth and knowledge, justice and equity for all. Stand for facts, and stand for those who are most at risk. Stand against the horrorshow revealing itself to us, and fight with those who are determined to create equity among people, justice in the face of the unjust, and love out of hate.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.