Saturday, February 4, 2017

Libraries, Diversity, Inclusion, and (No) Neutrality

As part of my MLIS ePortfolio work, I just finished writing about Competency C: "Recognize the diversity (such as cultural and economic) in the clientele and employees of an information organization and be familiar with actions the organization should take to address this diversity." My post that follows is adapted from my competency reflection.

This week, I received an email about an American Library Association (ALA) press release, “ALA opposes new administration policies that contradict core values,” that current ALA President Julie Todaro issued in response to recent actions of the Trump Administration. Below are some excerpts from the statement.
Our nation’s 120,000 public, academic, school and special libraries serve all community members, including people of color, immigrants, people with disabilities and the most vulnerable in our communities, offering services and educational resources that transform communities, open minds, and promote inclusion and diversity.
ALA believes that the struggle against racism, prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination is central to our mission. We will continue to speak out and support efforts to abolish intolerance and cultural invisibility, stand up for all the members of the communities we serve, and promote understanding and inclusion through our work. (American Library Association, 2017a)
Todaro ties her remarks to ALA’s core values and she asserts how promoting diversity and inclusion is in fact integral to the work of library professionals. ALA’s proclaimed value for diversity may indeed be traced far back: “Since 1936, the American Library Association has been actively engaged in combating any and all attitudes, behavior, services or programs which amount to the exclusion or restriction of a targeted group of people based on a designation of race, skin color, ethnic origin or descent” (American Library Association, 2017b).

Have libraries perfectly lived up to these values over the years? Certainly not perfectly. Just consider the story of Congressman John Lewis who, when accepting the National Book Award this past year, shared his experience of being denied entry to a public library in 1956: “When I was 16 years old, some of my brothers and sisters and cousins [were] going down to the public library trying to get public library cards, and we were told the library was for whites only, not for coloureds” (Flood, 2016).

Have libraries improved since then? In many ways and with the promise that, as may be seen with this competency itself, professionals entering the field learn about how libraries may better address diversity. Also, as a positive addendum, librarians are now some of the biggest fans of John Lewis, with ALA hosting him as a speaker at its 2016 Annual Conference (Albanese, 2016) and recognizing his graphic memoir March with multiple book awards (Neary, 2017).

Nevertheless, promoting diversity is not as straightforward as it may seem at first glance. What complicates matters is how efforts to address the needs of diverse and marginalized groups have become politicized. As long as acts promoting diversity are deemed to be partisan, there arises a conflict with claims that libraries should be neutral institutions.

Supporting the standard of library neutrality in general, Hart (2016) writes, “Keeping yourself and your collection politically neutral ensures that you are in good ethical standing…” He cites Section 5 of the IFLA Code of Ethics for Librarians and other Information Workers: “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” (International Federation of Library Associations, 2012).

But, is it really possible for libraries to be neutral? Perhaps it depends on how you define neutrality. Teller (2016) suggests:
…libraries can and should be neutral, in the sense that they provide curated information to as many groups as possible in the pursuit of serving all possible patronbases (carrying books by Queer Theory scholars on gay liberation, along with Christian theological works that write from the perspective that marriage is a spiritual union between a man and a woman, and on and on) and also the sense that they are there for everyone, not just for those in favor of (for example) Black Lives Matter, but also for law enforcement officers and police supporters who are critical of the movement.
As Teller continues, supporting Black Lives Matter – whether it is by creating diverse book displays or establishing safe spaces – is really just “public libraries being public libraries. It’s public libraries fulfilling their mission more fully, more honestly, more expansively, with an eye to serving underserved communities and making everyone feel welcome and valued in the library, and thereby hopefully, in the broader community in which the library exists.”

By centering library values of diversity and democracy, support for movements such as Black Lives Matter may be considered as falling within the bounds of neutrality. Some people, however, view such promotion to be political and thus wholly unneutral. As a result, librarians may choose to avoid engagement and use what Mclain (2016) calls the “non-partisan card.” Even though librarians might otherwise support various social justice movements due to their alignment with professional values supporting inclusion, inaction may be favored to avoid controversy.

This raises the question, is avoiding controversy really a neutral act? Eckert (2016) posits, “all your decisions shape your library.” As follows, deciding to not act in support of a social justice movement has an impact as much as deciding to support it. Maintaining the status quo may not cause controversy, but it is just as unneutral as deciding to challenge it.

“Neutrality can obfuscate injustices and the possibilities for active contributions. Often, neutrality is not a defense of the controversial, but rather an avoidance of it.” — Pat Schuman

Furthermore, when writing about the critical librarianship movement – a movement that promotes “examin[ing] and fight[ing] attempts at social oppression” – Farkas (2016) cites a key tenet “that neutrality is not only unachievable, it is harmful to oppressed groups in our society.” She explains that “in a world that is fundamentally unequal, neutrality upholds inequality and represents indifference to the marginalization of members of our community.” In other words, choosing to uphold the “neutrality” of a status quo in which inequalities exist is actually a hurtful act since it perpetuates those inequalities. Farkas owns that “we are not being neutral when we advocate for our patrons,” but she asserts that when we do so, “we are being good librarians.”

Taking a stance against neutrality may raise concern with some, but it is important to carefully understand how people are choosing to use and define terminology. For instance, while Eckert (2016) asserts that libraries are not neutral, she pointedly emphasizes that she simultaneously stands behind creating “balanced collections, where people can freely research information and come to their own conclusions.” These stances are not mutually exclusive.

Similarly, when Sonnie (n.d.) debunks the idea that libraries “cannot and never have been spaces of neutrality,” she positively affirms that “what libraries offer our communities, and will continue to offer our communities, are spaces to learn, debate, listen and engage. We advance a public commons for inquiry, empowerment and freedom.” The goal is just as much to “provide the greatest amount of access to as much diverse material as possible” as Hart (2016) argues is his intent behind supporting neutrality.

Moving on from debates about terminology, where should we start? While there are a number of ways to address diversity, I will close by sharing this simple advice from Bourg (2015):
One way we might do better is simply by being aware and by asking the questions… Who is missing? Whose experience is being centered?
When we become aware of who is missing, we can strive to find ways to include them. When we see whose experiences are being centered, we can expand our focus to be shared with those on the periphery. And, another important point raised by Bourg is that we also consider the intersectional aspects of identity, not simply defining diversity in terms of any one factor (e.g., race, economic status, sexuality, etc.), but by looking at serving our patrons with nuance that recognizes their whole, multidimensional selves.

[My review of evidence demonstrating competence continued here.]


In my introduction to this competency, I shared the ALA press statement asserting the long-standing tradition of libraries valuing diversity and inclusion. Historically, libraries and librarians have not been perfect in this respect. Still, I am excited that the professional community is actively engaging in conversations about ways to improve. Regarding libraries and neutrality, a Twitter thread posted by Storytime Underground in July 2016 – captured here – garnered considerable attention and inspired a general #noneutrallibraries discussion, which continues to carry momentum.

While I am passionately curious to follow and participate in these discussions, I also hope that the promotion of diversity remains a value that people support regardless of where they fall on the debate of libraries being neutral or not. Rhetoric aside, I believe that we must not let differences in definitions detract from and discourage the work of diversity that we should be doing. In my everyday work, I prioritize taking actions that are inclusive and I commit to continually improving the ways that I support all community members.


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