May 26, 2017

Subscribe to SLJ

Libraries Are Not Neutral | Opinion

Recently, a librarian posted an ­­­image to the Storytime Underground Facebook page sharing the Black Lives Matter (BLM) book display she created in her teen space, partly inspired by a BLM list created by a Hennepin County (MN) librarian. Several librarians commended the effort and posted about similar displays. One commenter asked whether librarians were also creating displays with “sayings such as ‘all lives matter’ and ‘blue lives matter.’” She opined, “[Libraries] are supposed to be neutral and provide [viewpoints about] all sides, not endorse one over another based on personal preference.” The comment generated dozens of responses. During the same time period, several librarians reported that their library administrators told staff to remain silent on the issue of BLM in order to stay “neutral.” The Joint Chiefs of Storytime Underground felt, collectively, that it was important to publicly take a stance on the issue of “neutrality in the public library.” Our voice may be small, but we felt that silence was not an option.

Our stance is this: Librarianship is not a neutral profession, and libraries are not neutral spaces.

cropped-cropped-sto-und-header2

This is not calling for a radical shift in our professional ethics. Librarians have never been neutral, and it’s disingenuous to suggest otherwise. Public libraries have throughout their history shown bias in explicit and subtle ways—from material selection and categorization of books to strident support of anti-censorship and privacy legislation. Benjamin Franklin’s Library Company of Philadelphia had the motto, “Communiter bona profundere Deum est” or “To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine.” In the early days (and sometimes today), libraries stocked only books deemed appropriate for the edification of the public. And during World War I, public libraries were actively involved in distributing only the “right” kind of reading materials to soldiers and citizens alike. The very system used to catalog and categorize materials, the Dewey Decimal System, is built on bias. Devised in 1876, it is a system rooted in deeply racist, misogynistic beliefs, with a fundamentally Judeo-Christian worldview.

Since World War II, librarians have increasingly taken a critical eye to the prejudices embedded in the profession’s past and used our collective political power to fight against censorship, defend patron privacy, and create inclusive spaces for all members of our communities. In the wake of 9/11, we fought tooth and nail against the Patriot Act. We continually advocate for and celebrate banned and challenged books, such as Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell’s And Tango Makes Three (a picture book about two male penguins that raise a chick together). We teach immigrants to read and speak English, regardless of their legal status. We provide free early literacy education for the poor, teenage parents, welfare recipients, and for every stripe of nontraditional family. We buy books about trans preschoolers. We fight Congress over antiquated language in Library of Congress subject headings. We are not neutral in these efforts; we are taking a stance through our programs, our services, and our actions.

In our day-to-day work, we make decisions that are anything but “neutral.” When doing readers’ advisory, we strive to be inclusive and open-minded, some of us, for example, working to dismantle long-held gender-specific prejudices, such as resisting the idea that boys will only read a book with a male protagonist. We show up at certain parades, farmer’s markets, and community events, but not others. Our advertising is not neutral (What language(s) are used? Can everyone in our communities read it? Is it placed somewhere they might see it?). Fine structures are not neutral.

Should we create balanced collections, where people can freely research information and come to their own conclusions? Absolutely. When publishing starts making available materials that accurately reflect American demographics, librarians will be able to purchase books about people of color and Native people without it being a political act.

160810BLM_webstoryWhen Trayvon Martin died, many teen librarians remarked that seeing a black teen in a hoodie, they would have welcomed him into the library and perhaps asked if the skittles in the snack machine needed to be restocked. We like to think of ourselves as a profession that welcomes diversity, and we talk ad nauseum about how to get more diversity into the profession. When we put up Black Lives Matter displays, it tells black teens that the library is a space for them. That libraries are for them.

Until we buy and display books by #ownvoices authors that reflect the rich diversity of black American lives (that means not just whatever narrative of black life fits our preconceived notion of “authentic”), we are copping out on diversity. We can’t say we need diverse books and then hide them where no one can see them (gay YA in the adult section, anyone?). We can’t only celebrate and discuss black history when it’s comfortably nonviolent and in the hazy past (i.e., MLK is fine, Malcolm X is questionable, Ferguson is too risky).

There is an inherent problem in the notion that supporting Black Lives Matter is taking “a side.” We’re not sure what side that is. The side that thinks that American citizens have inalienable rights and human life has intrinsic value, even when housed in black skin? Even if there were a debate, our side would be clear. Libraries exist for the 99%. They are the “people’s university.” Where there is imbalance, giving equal weight to the privileged and the underserved does not create balance. If we are doing our jobs, we are providing the space and resources that our communities tell us what they need in order to thrive.

Even if your city government or administration believes in the myth of library neutrality, you’re not powerless. What books have you faced out? What books do you read in storytime? What is the color of the people in your advertising clipart? Your library may wish to remain neutral, but librarianship isn’t neutral. All your decisions shape your library.

 

Storytime Underground logo designed by Chris Frantz of On a Roll Designs.

Cory Eckert is a Montessori school librarian in Houston, TX, and co-founder of Storytime Underground. 

Share

Comments

  1. Miriam Medow says:

    Yes! Thank you! Librarians interested in working towards racial justice can join this growing community: http://libraries4blacklives.org/

  2. A teacher and a parent says:

    Please keep your politics away from my child at public school. I keep mine away from yours.

    Private schools can do whatever they want, because they accept only those whom they want. Public schools educate everyone and therefore require neutrality. In fact, such public school displays are actually subject to public school restriction, whether about BLM, right-to-life, gun rights, animal rights, or asparagus rights, according to the ACLU:

    https://aclu-wa.org/news/free-speech-rights-public-school-teachers

    (If you still want to go ahead with a BLM display, please be sure to highlight the section from their new platform that labels Israel a genocidal and apartheid state, and calls for a boycott of that close American ally. See how that plays with your district).

    • a teacher says:

      There is no way to keep politics away from a child. The world is political. You cannot show a child everything at once, and the minute you make a choice about what to show them you have done a deeply political thing.

    • moazzam sheikh says:

      You make an excellent point! This clearly shows how difficult certain struggles are. Why institutionalized and social racism still persists in the US obfuscating disproportional police brutality towards Blacks. It would be almost impossible to do a display which exposes Israel, as opposed to a grand narrative we have built in the US, as an apartheid, colonial settler state. But many of us do whatever it takes to educate ourselves with new scholarship that arrives at the library and even if we can’t have a display, we make sure our new knowledge is shared with others. As Toni Morrison has said, everything is political. Bishop Desmond Tutu said is much more eloquently: If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.

  3. A Teen Librarian says:

    In order for libraries to stay relevant, we must be current. So having a display up in the library that highlights the collection shows that libraries care and that we are aware of what’s going on in the community and in the news. This has nothing to due with a political stance. I’m highlighting books in my collection that talk about current events which matter to the community that I serve. I’m encouraging youth to read and find information about this social movement. The library is a trusted source of information.

  4. The current term for “neutral” is “safe.”
    I’m wondering how strongly felt this justified critique is of neutrality is if the more current term is used… I’m hoping it’s the same…

  5. shy librarian says:

    Neutrality does not equal safe it equals impartiality. Neutrality is the modern practice of not putting up Christmas trees in libraries. Neutrality is not having a display that talks about all lives matter, black lives matter or blue lives matter. Neutrality is not letting our personal opinions dictate or to push our personal agenda at the library – for good or bad – since it is a place of business where we all work. That said the color of the people in your clipart is not the same as a Black Lives Matter display. It’s just not. That would be inclusion which means you are including one group into another group. Good grief.

    • Neutrality on reinforces the status quo. The reason that a BLM display might be better than a totally inclusive ALM/pro-police display is that ALM/pro-police are already assumed positions. If you sit in the group that sees a problem with highlighting another group that may feel that they are being preyed upon by the guardians of the status-quo (thanks TTG), then you probably won’t understand why BLM, pro-gay/bi/trans, etc. display may be of use for the whole community.

  6. public librarian says:

    Libraries may not be neutral — but they should not actively promote groups who vandalize property and threaten other members of the community. Do not forget that we serve the children of police officers and emergency personnel, too, as well as business owners, commuters, and others who may have had less than stellar personal experiences with BLM protests. I have no problem providing materials with those who are looking for resource material, but I feel that SLJ and LJ’s open promotion and encouragement of BLM is wrong.
    Also:
    “When we put up Black Lives Matter displays, it tells black teens that the library is a space for them. That libraries are for them.” I found this statement to be offensive. Our library does NOT have a BLM display, and we have a very supportive majority-minority community, including teens. To say that our patrons would only feel welcome if there were a BLM display is incredibly patronizing.

  7. A teacher and a parent says:

    A display of a broad range of new books that is entitled Race Relations is neutral and welcoming. A display entitled Black Lives Matter will make a significant percentage of the population feel unsafe, especially given that organization’s recently announced platform. A display entitled Family Planning is neutral and welcoming. A display entitled Abortion is Murder or Reproductive Rights will make a significant percentage of the population feel unsafe. Politics may be part of all non-scientific choices that people make, but there is am operational difference between striving for neutrality and a librarian/teacher pushing a position, whether a person is a public librarian, a K-12 public school librarian, or a K-12 public school teacher. I don’t want my child to know her teacher or librarian’s politics, and I assiduously shield my students from mine. I’m surely not perfect, but that does not mean the effort is misguided.

  8. “A teacher and a parent” is right. I would add that the rather jejune desire for others to know one’s politics is mostly a species of narcissism, a signaling of self-recognized virtue or tribal conformity.
    And whatever the cause du jour among librarians is – understand that it is not strengthened by the perception that you all hold it in lockstep.

  9. A children's librarian says:

    I’m going to echo A Teen Librarian on this one. Kids take in a lot more of the news than adults give them credit for. It’s likely many children have heard of the Black Lives Matter movement and may or may not be in a position to be educated by their parents on the subject. A display can draw children in so they can learn more about what it means when people say Black Lives Matter.

    It’s incredibly doubtful that any librarian putting up a Black Lives Matter display is filling it with vastly political books with messages that say black lives matter to the detriment of other lives. Frankly, there aren’t many children’s books that claim such things. What is much more likely, is that librarians are filling displays like these with books that talk about race or have non-white characters in them. In this scenario, black lives matter is a much more readable, current, and less clunky alternative than “We care about the education of all people at this library, especially including those who have been historically marginalized, been discriminated against, or have had hate crimes perpetuated against them. Here are some books that recognize minorities as actual three dimensional people and/or talk about the history of race relations in the United States.”

    • A person is a person says:

      Perhaps the best way to educate our communities about such an important issue and support people who have been historically marginalized because of the way light reflects off of them, without necessarily endorsing a specific political movement, is to have a display titled, “What is ‘Black Lives Matter?'” and then have a variety of materials helping patrons understand the problems and potential solutions.

  10. Bobby Weisgerber says:

    I agree that libraries need to stay relevant and current, but that doesn’t mean pushing ones own agenda. The students should have access to all views about issues, so they are allowed to make informed decisions about what they believe. It is inappropriate to be pushing a certain agenda in a public library!!

  11. tweenlibrarian says:

    Strongly agree with “a teacher and a parent” on this and others who have commented. As librarians/teachers, I think we all know the difference between a display showing various opinions/ideas and pushing an agenda. This is yet another example of this wonderful profession being used to promote a certain and stringent political agenda which seeks to silence dissent or discussion. We should be focusing on serving our populations and having a wide range of reading material for them to choose from. I can just envision the storm that would ensue if a librarian made a NRA display or a Right to Life one.

  12. Librarian says:

    Being able to skate around the issue that Black Lives Matters and librarian is trying to promote is the definition of privilege. Nobody is trying to push an agenda anyone. All the librarian is trying to convey is promote awareness through various resources on a current topic. The comments shows that many you use information as a form of convenience. If you agree with it, cool. If you don’t, then we should all ignore it as it doesn’t fit the narrative. And soon as these issues continuously arise, we are constantly left looking for literature that can help inform us of the issue. I commend the librarian for basically doing the due diligence in sharing information to teens that are often ignored 11 out the 12 months of the year.

  13. Emma McCandless says:

    Was just told by my principal to take down my #BLM display. After a good cry in my office, I printed this out and placed it in her mailbox. Thanks for the read. I will keep fighting the good fight!

    • They call for the death of police officers….that is inexcusable…I would never subscribe to that and as a librarian myself, it is shameful that you put that up in your school

  14. People are forgetting that WE SHOULD BE NEUTRAL. There I said it. Being neutral as possible allows both sides of a story. I have never shied away from topics such as gun control, capital punishment, and abortion in my high school library. BEING NEUTRAL allows me to present both sides. Neutral simply means presenting both sides. BTW the skittles comment was very very very insensitive. Trying to promote understanding while belittling an issue shows a bent towards drama but not towards actual information.

  15. David Lev says:

    Just to push back on one small element of what was said above: The Dewey Decimal System does not have a Judeo-Christian bias, it has a Christian bias. Judaism is confined to the 290s like all the other non-Christian religions (one could argue I suppose that Judaism could also be put in the 220s, which covers the Bible, but that section is clearly organized for a Christian and not Jewish audience). Frankly, the term “Judeo-Christian” is almost never justified, and almost always can be replaced by the words “Abrahamic” (if you’re talking about the common roots of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) or “Christian” (literally any other time).

    • I just got around to reading the September issue so my comment regarding “Libraries are not neutral” is behind the times. That being said, it is not really about neutrality though, is it? The issue is equality. Do you have a balanced collection that introduces all areas of knowledge and represents all aspects of society? Do you genuinely and respectfully welcome everyone that walks through the door? Do you promote access to everything? Calling attention to any ethnic group is in itself racist. So yes, black lives matter, as do refugee lives and LGBT lives. Libraries have always been havens for disparate groups. My job is not to promote a specific ideal or opinion, but to provide the tools for you to form your own. However Ms. Eckert did raise a valid point regarding the Dewey Decimal System. Special thanks to the comments of David Lev who prompted me to take a closer look at the 200’s. They are certainly in need of an overhaul!

Comment Policy:
  1. Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  2. Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  3. Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through (though some comments with links to multiple URLs are held for spam-check moderation by the system). If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.

We accept clean XHTML in comments, but don't overdo it and please limit the number of links submitted in your comment. For more info, see the full Terms of Use.

Speak Your Mind

*