Librarians in the 21st Century: It Is Becoming Impossible to Remain Neutral

Interior view of Stockholm Public Library
This article is from I highly suggest you click here to read the entire thing, after looking at the excerpt we posted below.

I will add that the author is one of my former students in library school, and she was absolutely great there! I was fortunate to have her in classes, and valued both her contributions to class and the time I was able to spend with her. So I’m not neutral at all on the value she brings to the library profession!

Stacie Williams on
How to Confront Microaggressions in the Library

Library neutrality sounds innocuous, but it’s not, if you’re a librarian. Although neutrality has long been regarded and taught as an important ethic of the profession, a growing number of librarians have begun questioning whether it is preferable—or even possible—for libraries to be neutral. In this essay, Stacie Williams makes the case that it is neither.

–Stephanie Anderson

I love working the reference desk. Like most people, it was my first introduction to librarians as a little kid: the smiling person behind a desk, asking me if I needed help finding anything. In my last semester of graduate school, I took a job working the access services desk at a medical library, where I could meet new people and help them the way that I had been helped in libraries throughout my life. Even as I gained more experience in archives, I continued to look for opportunities to assist at a reference or access point of service.

Working in such a visible position, over the years, I have been constantly reminded that my interactions with patrons are a reflection of my body: my black, female-presenting body. In ways small and large, I have been reminded that nothing about libraries is neutral. Not the desks or furniture that are sometimes built by incarcerated individuals who can’t protest their labor. Not the buildings, some of which lack physical access for individuals who can’t climb stairs or walk over uneven stones and bricks. Not the collections development theories, not the leadership opportunities, not the vacation and break schedules, or the computer use policies. Not our co-workers, our funding models, and certainly not the patrons we serve. Neutrality as we use it in libraries leaves people standing at the margins, demanding to be acknowledged as capable and professional, as human, as having histories and lived experiences reflective of the bodies we inhabit. Our bodies, like the bodies of knowledge we provide access to, are not and never were neutral.

At the medical library, I tended to work nearest the door and security checkpoint. I was usually the first one to see a patron come in, and I always greeted them with a pleasant hello. Sometimes they’d respond and sometimes they’d come to the desk. We worked the desk in pairs, so there was always me and a white colleague. In that academic library system at that time there were fewer than ten black people working as library staff, out of a total of more than 700 library staff members. If I had a dollar for every time a patron approached the desk, saw me, hesitated, and then walked over to my white co-worker for assistance, I could have paid for an extra semester of graduate school. I initially chalked up the snubs to other, more benign things, but as they increased I had a feeling about them, something dark that I couldn’t put my finger on. Then my boss told me he noticed it too and it bothered him.

On weekends at that same library I worked shifts by myself. I stopped counting the numbers of people who were shocked when they asked to speak to a person in charge and I answered that it was me. Was my presence so unimaginable? Was it so outside of the realm of reality that a black woman happened to be the person in charge at this library?

Perhaps. It is well known that librarianship is incredibly homogenous and skewed toward upper-middle-class white women. Despite being a long-time library lover and user, I never saw a black librarian until graduate school, and I grew up in a minority-majority city. As of 2013, American Library Association statistics show a field that is 88.1 percent white. This is not a statistic that reflects the real-life diversity of most communities and may explain why the profession clings so tightly to a neutrality that claims to not see or recognize differences. However, historical understandings of neutrality in the profession, mostly created and applied over time by white librarians as the majority population, assume that librarians are simply vessels that pass information to other fully actualized human beings.

In 1962, British librarian Douglas John Foskett wrote a paper titled The Creed of a Librarian: No Politics, No Religion, No Morals, in which he argued that “the librarian ought virtually vanish as an individual person, except in so far as his personality shed light on the working of the library.” Neutrality has been enforced from the top down, with our policymaking professional organizations, down to individual librarians in their repositories, as a way of shifting the responsibility of moral judgement from librarian to patron. For instance, neutrality says a patron who asks for help searching for romance books but says, “Don’t give me anything by a Mexican author,” isn’t to be questioned or challenged about a stance that may be prejudiced. Neutrality becomes a way to avoid questions or ethics that are wrong or make people uncomfortable. Article VII of the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics, amended in 2008 but first adopted in 1939, says “[W]e distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.”

The problem with neutrality in libraries, which purports to have a mission of giving accurate, relevant information, is that it assumes a false equivalency of viewpoints. If, as a patron or peer, you assume that I’m unable to help you—that I’m not smart enough or friendly enough—simply based on the color of my skin, neutrality suggests that I should not challenge that, and forces me to agree that my personhood is something up for debate. It makes me invisible in a space where I should be very visible and where I have authority. If me or people who look like me are invisible, we can never truly solve a problem like diversity in the field. We can’t advocate for those who are different from us.

And, most critically, we cannot guarantee that our libraries or archival repositories have the diverse and dynamic information that keep our citizenry well-informed.

Neutrality doesn’t encourage our critical thinking; it doesn’t ask us to question facts that are wrong, or behaviors that are prejudiced. By this measure, neutrality doesn’t necessarily reveal injustice but further entrenches it, which is ironic.”

(Please read the rest of this article here!)