Neutrality is a privileged illusion

Recently I saw a blog post called Free Speech on the Clock: A Case Study From Chattanooga – Intellectual Freedom Blog shared on a librarians’ email list. It’s about this: “a public library worker was fired for posting a video on social media of himself pouring lighter fluid on two Chattanooga Public Library books” which he had weeded and which were books of political punditry¬†(the sort where a prominent commentator or politician rehashes what they’ve said in every possible way on every possible communication channel already).

This is my response to that:

I get the gist of this, but the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom case study blog post seems problematic — a public librarian can’t burn weeded books, sure, but this point I’m not so sure about: “You cannot remove books you disagree with or believe to be inaccurate from a public library’s collection.”

My sense is that it’s not a library’s role to spend money on and provide access to things that are inaccurate. Librarians refer to reviews and look into authors’ credibility so that we don’t spend money on books that are poorly written or inaccurate. I don’t see how we can claim to be experts on misinformation and champion providing credible resources and then turn around and say it’s just library neutrality if we “order that stupid book that all of the people are asking for” — I’ve told patrons, “I’m sorry, but I can’t spend our limited budget on items that aren’t well reviewed, and this isn’t. Can I help you find something else on this topic?”

In the same blog post, this statement: ” A good library has books to offend everyone . . . .” is also problematic. Sure, librarians can’t just disagree with a political view to weed something, but we also don’t have an obligation to collect or retain materials with views that are harmful to human rights, promote hate speech, or describe people in ways that are outdated — which is why we weed books that refer to cognitive disability as retardation, or that praise eugenics. Or, I’d argue, the book she uses as an example that whitewashes Nazi history.

Every collection development or programming decision is a choice – the idea of being “neutral” or not thinking about materials in terms of values is an illusion. Just the idea of saying we’re “neutral” is a decision (and a privileged one at that). In reality, libraries advocate for all kinds of things, like early childhood literacy and greater access to technology and even reading itself. Those are positions we take. And one we claim pretty often but have many times not lived up to is that libraries are for everyone. If we really mean it when we say that, or if we claim that we believe in diversity, equity and inclusion, we can’t collect books that are counter to those values.

“Neutrality” is often code for “balance bias” where views that don’t deserve to be held up as equal are — like ordering a climate denial book because you have climate change books, when one is an ideological (and at this point fringe) view and the other is settled science. They aren’t equal, and it confuses people to act like they are.

If we create antiracism displays but then in the name of upholding some kind of false notion of neutrality in our profession, retain books by Nazi apologists in our collections, that to me is a bigger problem than someone not ordering an Ann Coulter book, when she has advocated violence in the past (yes, I am well aware she also had to cancel a talk because she felt threatened) and also regularly shares misinformation — we ‘re not in the misinformation business. There are lines to be drawn. If you disagree with someone’s well written, well researched, evidence based book about tax policies and don’t order their book, that’s so very clearly different than refusing to buy books by people who put other people down because you believe in basic civil rights for all.

Are those decisions sometimes difficult? Sure. But a good collection development policy can help you explain why you made them, as can other legal or policy guidance that applies to your town or campus, like civil rights and anti-defamation laws or guidelines, sexual harassment policies, etc. We don’t have an obligation to collect materials that support every view, and most of us don’t have the budget to do so even if that made sense.

Libraries are not neutral. Plenty of people have written about this more eloquently than I just did.

But I chewed on this all day and decided that I value speaking up ūüôā Thanks for listening.

I am happy to report I received a number of highly supportive responses. Including an important one — a note from a librarian who is from an underrepresented group in our predominantly white profession who thanked me for speaking up and shared how hard it is to be a in a profession with privileged and false notions of neutrality, and in a world where the status quo is upheld or people are scapegoated in the name of neutrality and legality all too often.

I am deeply grateful that this is changing.

What do we do?

I got into a discussion with a friend who knows I left Facebook last summer because of their abysmal response to the civil rights audit that indicates they uphold white supremacy through their inability or unwillingness to stop hate groups and misinformation. She shared a post our mutual friend wrote the day after the domestic terrorist/white supremacist attack on the Capitol this week. She wanted to talk about several things, but one of them was what I thought we should do.

Well, for one, we have to all face what so many commentators noted this week: this IS America. We are a country where black and brown people earn less, where white privilege is encoded in our laws and policies, and where law enforcement supports white supremacy either tacitly or actively, as broadcast around the world on January 6.

We also have to face the fact that as I saw in a Twitter post this weekend, people who embrace untruths in spite of overwhelming evidence are no longer the fringe and seem to be incapable of examining information to discern truth. For example, people who believe Coronavirus conspiracy theories even though millions of people are sick and have died. Or believe election results are inaccurate, even though election officials, judges, and Justice Department personnel (including many, many conservatives) have confirmed that the election was conducted and results tallied fairly and accurately. While some news outlets are quick to point out that a majority of Americans DO trust the election results (around 60% depending on where you look) it’s very important not to overlook that 40% do not.

I’ve written about information pollution, filter bubbles, and information literacy here before. The idea that information literacy can backfire is not new. But we have millions of people who not only can’t seem to evaluate information critically enough to discover untruths, but also embrace misinformation. I strongly believe that some do so knowing they are spreading misinformation — not just foreign actors, but many politicians, public officials, and corporations who callously manipulate public opinion for their own benefit.

But in addition to these bad actors (who have always existed), there are also millions of people who feel confident that the untruths they embrace are true. They believe in their own ability to find truth — mostly online — in the sources they trust. And they believe others’ sources are not trustworthy — as evidenced by the anger, mistrust, and violence directed at the press during the insurrection this week and during the last four years in particular, but more generally over my lifetime as conservatives worked hard to convince their adherents that the media is too biased to believe. Progressives too believe the media is biased, for different reasons, and although that has not manifested in as much vitriol, it’s still undermining our ability as a society to find common ground, because we don’t begin with any sort of shared understanding. Let me be clear: I don’t think people shouldn’t question or hold the media accountable, but I do think wholesale mistrust of the media is unhelpful.

What should we do, my friend asked.

Talk about it, is one thing. And continue to try to teach information literacy carefully, including how information is created as well as how to evaluate it. Call on the government to direct resources towards stopping the state sponsored misinformation that sows discontent and mistrust, and disrupting hate groups’ (including white nationalists’) communications.

For me, there are two more things: I’ll try to continue to write to and call local, state, and federal officials to ask them to work on mitigating inequalities, large and small. And to actively seek to dismantle white supremacy. Neither of these is easy or straightforward. Both are pretty tedious and will involve making mistakes and having to apologize and try again. Both require a lens through which everything — including being a librarian — are viewed, to reveal injustices and opportunities to correct them. The justice lens gets dirty sometimes, or slips, or cracks, and has to be cleaned or replaced.

None of us can do this alone. And those of us who are privileged — because of our whiteness or our socioeconomic status or our gender in particular — have to listen to and learn from those whose privilege has been systematically diminished. And then we have to act. As I prepare my library’s budget and consider my database renewals, I want to be sure we are spending our money on sources that not only support teaching and learning, but do so while making an effort to center Black experience and Black voices. For example, I’ve been discussing replacing CQ Researcher with my colleagues, in part because it is not making that effort.

I have no delusions that these actions are enough. But that’s my answer right now to “what should we do?”

The Misinformation Age

Apologies to those of you who follow both blogs, but I definitely have to share topics across blogs this week.¬† I’ve written a post over at bookconscious about a book that is very relevant to librarians who teach information literacy —¬†The Misinformation Age:¬†How False Beliefs Spread¬† by Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall.

How do we help our students understand the level of mediation they face when they are seeking information, or even just passively receiving it? My colleagues and I spend a good deal of time thinking about this, and I think the answer is one interaction at a time. All we can do is talk to our students, in class visits, individual reference interactions, and research consultations, and remind them in the course of those conversations that information is packaged, targeted, framed, manipulated, and selectively shared, and then mediated further by search engines and discovery tools. I think helping them see that they are probably always operating within a limited view of the big picture is healthy. I’ve taken to telling classes, it’s not that they shouldn’t trust information or that they should have a mental list of “trustworthy” sources (a concept I try to get them to¬† question anyway), but that information literate people should try to understand where information comes from and what the motivations of the people who published or posted it are.

Obviously that just scratches the surface, but I think it’s an important start and will serve many undergraduate students well in their research for assignments. Once they know who published something and why, they can move on to ask more questions: Who agrees and disagrees with this information? Is the disagreement based on facts or opinions? What evidence supports or doesn’t support this information? Is there a balance bias in the reporting? This my latest goal, to help students see that it’s actually biased to present different views as having equal merit when they don’t (for example, because one isn’t based in fact, or is held by a very small minority but is presented as a mainstream view).

The good news is that information literacy — the skills and habits of mind that make it possible to seek, evaluate, and use information effectively and responsibly — can only help them. Some of our students may go on to take an active role in stopping the spread of misinformation or fighting it, in science, media, or policy-making roles. Others will not have an active role beyond being intentional about what they click on or share in their own networks, but they’ll know what to watch for as they consume information. Some of them will work for marketing, commercial, political or even media interests that are engaged in the work of misinforming the public, intentionally or as a result of serving their own interests above the public good. I like to think some bit of what they learn about information literacy will stay with them, wherever they end up.

I can’t recommend¬†The Misinformation Age¬†highly enough. I hope you’ll check out my review and either ask your librarian for it or if you’re a librarian, order it for your collection.