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retain materials with views that are harmful to human rights, promote hate speech, or describe people in ways that are outdated — which is why we weed books that refer to cognitive disability as retardation, or that praise eugenics.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 🙂 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?”

Civil rights in libraries

This Fourth of July holiday weekend I’ve been thinking about our country. Specifically I have been examining how little I really know about racism and other types of bias (directed at women, transgender people, native American people, muslims, immigrants) in America. Not that I don’t know it exists, but I’m a glass half-full kind of person and until the most recent national elections, I bought into the “it gets better” narrative. Look at the progress we’ve made, I thought. A black president! Better protections for women, transgender kids in school. Support for refugees. It was easy for me, a privileged white professional, to assume that the rash of police shootings of unarmed black people was a blight on progress, not a sign that the progress I felt proud to support was really like a shiny coat of paint on a rotting porch — it covered up what had never been fixed underneath.

For me, that’s been the most eye-opening realization these past several months — not that our government has changed direction, but that institutions and systems of all kinds — political, commercial, social — and also communities of all kinds are hobbled by implicit bias. And that seems overwhelming, especially when I’ve seen myself as part of the solution, not just because I tried to raise my kids to do better, because I vote, pay attention, write letters, and sometimes protest, but also because I am a librarian.

What does that have to do with anything? If you’ve read Nocturnal Librarian over the years you know that I was a public librarian before I moved back into academia, and I have frequently championed the role of libraries as places of radical hospitality, the last public institutions truly open to all. Our professional organization, the American Library Association, actively works for the freedom to use libraries without fear of government intrusion — ALA and its members has for over a decade spoken up about immigrant and refugee rights, resisted the Patriot Act, spoke up about hate crimes, and more recently, opposed both the rolling back of protections for transgender students, and the Dakota Access Pipeline. Librarians are the good guys! Right?

In the most recent ALA magazine, American Libraries, there is an article about the Tougaloo Nine, and several other protests during the civil rights era where black people, often students, tried to use white only public and academic libraries. I knew in a I-learned-it-in-school kind of way that libraries were segregated like everywhere else, but these articles really grabbed me. These were librarians who told black students they had to go and couldn’t use the library or read library books. I cannot imagine ever denying anyone a book. Through this little thought experiment, picturing myself in that situation, I realized I have never really truly learned about the civil rights era struggles. I’ve read about that time, sure, I have shaken my head and wondered how on earth the South (because I always think of it as the South where institutionalized racism was born and where the vestiges of that infect society, another false perceptions I am trying to correct) could have been like that. I’ve felt ashamed that people were so terribly mistreated in my country.

But I’ve never placed myself in the stories. I’ve never tried to imagine wanting a book and ending up being beaten my police. I’ve never tried imagining denying someone that book. Not that imagining is experiencing, I don’t mean that at all, but imagining is stronger than just learning. I hope that making the mental leap to put myself right into someone else’s perspective will help me break down the implicit bias I, like all Americans, carry. I hope it makes me a better librarian, better able to truly serve every person who comes through our doors. I’m grateful that my professional association walks that walk, provides members with information about challenges to freedom, and expects that standing for “liberty and justice for all” is a part of what we do.