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.
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.
When 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.