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Library Neutrality

Library neutrality. Should libraries play it like the Swiss advocating for neither side, or play it like John Matrix in Commando raining social justice down upon the unrighteous?

Librarian: Remember when I said I was going to forgive your fine?
Patron: That’s right, librarian. You did!
Librarian: I lied.

What it comes down to is that library neutrality isn’t a thing. It's been talked about a lot...a lot a lot a lot a lot, yet it's not mentioned at all by the American Library Association (who really don't mind sharing their thoughts on how libraries should be run) or the Oregon Library Association (who are a group of really wonderful and intelligent people who would have mentioned something about it by now).

(To see if your particular local library association might mention library neutrality you'll have to check yourself, I'm too lazy to look any further.)*

There is a single mention of library neutrality on the State Library of Oregon website in a document of the State Library Board meeting on 4 April 2022 which reads, "Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval. This professional stance is known as 'neutrality.'"

That particular professional stance is less about neutrality and more about the part of intellectual freedom that prescribes fighting against censorship. And just what is intellectual freedom? Intellectual freedom is defined by the ALA as, "the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored."

(I can't believe ALA doesn't use the Oxford comma.)

So what does all this (besides the Oxford comma thing) mean? Library neutrality is just a red herring, there's no objective definition of it and it should not be treated like a core tenet of the profession. (It also means intellectual freedom is very important and controversial in the library world, but since it has a widely understood definition, discussions about it are possible.)

* Library Neutrality is mentioned by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions in its IFLA Code of Ethics for Librarians and other Information Workers (full version) but the places it’s mentioned aren’t actually talking about neutrality. They are actually talking about:

  • Objectivity: "Librarians and other information workers are strictly committed to neutrality and an unbiased stance regarding collection, access and service. Neutrality results in the most bal-anced collection and the most balanced access to information achievable."
  • Objectivity (again): "Librarians and other information workers distinguish between their person-al convictions and professional duties. They do not advance private interests or personal beliefs at the expense of neutrality."
  • Honestly? I’m not sure about this one, but it doesn’t feel like neutrality: "Librarians and other information workers have the right to free speech in the workplace provided it does not infringe the principle of neutrality towards users."

...and all together groovy individual. Truth.

Curiosity. Tenacity. Empathy. Love.

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