Literary Hub

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

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.

“Neutrality denies our authority and ability to share information with context or history.”

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.

I tend to eschew the idea of neutrality because nothing about my lived experience, as a black librarian, is neutral. When a patron came into the public library I worked at a few years ago and requested a copy of Mein Kampf, I feared for my safety. I knew the book was located in a section of the stacks out of view from security cameras. And the patron was a young man with a close-cropped haircut. Close-cropped enough to give me pause. But I didn’t feel comfortable turning down the request, because I wasn’t 100 percent sure as to his motivations, and because as the only librarian at the reference desk I felt like I didn’t have the option to not help him. I compromised in that instance by walking him to the section and pointing out the exact shelf in the corner where I knew the book was. The patron grabbed the book, said thanks and that was the end of the interaction. But I had no way of knowing how that was going to work out.

There is no safety in neutrality for me or anyone else, no matter which side of a reference desk they are on. Exit poll statistics from the 2016 presidential election, specifically that 46 percent of college-educated white women voted for our current president—college being a mandatory qualification for professional librarians—suggest that there are people in our field who voted for him with the assumption that they were safe from his policy proposals because they weren’t members of targeted groups: They weren’t Muslim. They weren’t Mexican. They weren’t black. They weren’t poor. And now funding for the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts—major funding sources of librarian and archivist jobs, programs, and research—are being more aggressively targeted as wasteful.

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Neutrality denies our authority and ability to share information with context or history. One day, while working in the archives reading room of a different academic library, a patron called needing help searching property records to find a plantation owner who may have owned a Kentucky Derby-winning horse. The horse, she said, had been named after a family slave, and “you know they treated their slaves so good,” the patron insisted. “He was really like family.” I held my tongue so tight I was certain I’d sprained it. The patron didn’t realize she was speaking to a black woman (or did she?). And then what? Do I lecture the patron about the reality of life for people held as property, especially in Kentucky, which had a historical reputation as a “slavebreaker” state? Do I hang up? Do I help? As it turned out, I had to refer the woman to the horse park library; we didn’t have the materials to accommodate her query. But I was angry about having to reconcile the situation in such a passive way and about my own internal conflict over how to cross the threshold of neutrality in what is essentially a service profession. An allegiance to blind neutrality leaves us with without the ability to confidently challenge wrong things. And leaves those of us living in different bodies—black bodies, Muslim bodies, trans bodies, differently abled bodies—on the margins of librarianship, mirroring what it feels like for us in society.

There is no equality or justice in neutrality. While volunteering at the Occupy Boston campsite as part of the activist librarian collective Radical Reference, I still recall with some frustration a white man (who identified himself as being part of the Occupy Wall Street camp) bursting into our tent one afternoon asking for a librarian. When I cheerfully raised my hand and asked how I could assist him, he looked me up and down, smirked, and said, “No, I mean a ‘real’ librarian. You’re a real librarian?” He didn’t know me, didn’t know that I had a master’s degree in library science and was working for one of the most prestigious universities in the world. For him, my body negated any of those facts. A young Asian-American man also in the tent overheard this microaggressive conversation and jumped in. He identified himself and asked my opinions about the cataloging class with a particular professor in our program with a kindness and familiarity that suggested that he recognized me as a “real” librarian. He made me visible through his interjection and changed the course and tone of my interaction with the visitor, but certainly it was not lost on me the irony of this OWS protester’s refusal to truly see me. It is still a little-known fact that a librarian woman of color, Betsy Fagin, actually started the OWS library.

If we’re not neutral, how do we move forward with our stated goals and values? How do we make sure that we are still promoting ideals of intellectual freedom and open access to information? How do we reconcile the contradictions of a profession that is lauded for being a critical institution that upholds democracy with the history of Melvil Dewey’s sexism and the legacy of pre-Civil Rights era segregated public libraries, which went unchallenged by the ALA, who upheld the morally reprehensible status quo? We can’t be neutral. But we can be aware. We can really see who we’re working with and who we’re hoping to serve and understand that an approach that asks anyone to be invisible or accept a default status quo that allows others to question their existence has not ever been the way forward. That’s an outdated fantasy that needs to be weeded out. Now, more than ever before, librarians should be fighting hard to see everyone, acknowledge the ways in which we’re different and the ways in which we can move forward together.

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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