Daily Thoughts 67: Neutrality

Author's selfie Back at work today, spending some time in the office catching up on everything that has accumulated while I was out last week. I had managed to do some work, but mostly I didn’t have time while traveling.


The question of neutrality currently occupies my thoughts, particularly in regards to libraries, but also generally as a concept.

How would you define neutrality?

Not taking sides? Being impartial? Treating each side equally? If you’re talking about net neutrality you probably mean that each bit of information is treated equally. It’s an important case of neutrality, that the origin, destination, or content of the bit doesn’t matter—otherwise carriers could charge some people more for their bits. It would mean that the startup company is on different competitive footing than an established company. Or that people in one area pay more than those in another. Net neutrality is important.

Things get messier when we talk about people and neutrality. Although many people struggle with the seemingly simple concept of all people being treated equally (though why that is, is hardly simple), neutrality is a bit different.

Obvious Example #1: A library director decides that Muslims shouldn’t be allowed in the library, citing their presence as ‘disruptive’ to library operations. In order to avoid the perception that the library intends to ban Muslims from entering the library, the director targets stereotypical views of dress or language that might be deemed disruptive. This expands the ban to people from a range of backgrounds and economic situations. It’s not them the director insists, it’s their behavior.

Clearly, this library director ought to be fired. Right? This view is antithetical to libraries. Anyone coming into the library should be treated equally. Likewise, if a library user behaved in a loud, threatening, racist manner toward another person in the library, then that person behaving badly should be instructed to leave. The librarians don’t remain neutral in this situation. They react to protect the person from the bully. This is a true case of the behavior being the problem. You don’t judge someone by superficial characteristics and decide that they are a danger, you have plans in place to address problems should they arise.

Treating people equally, and being neutral, aren’t the same thing at all when you look at it. You could say that I’m missing the point. That libraries function more like net neutrality when we talk about the items the library includes.

Only that isn’t true either. It can’t be true. And probably shouldn’t.

First, let’s tackle the equality of ideas problem. Are all ideas considered equal? Not in science. Give me an idea with testable predictions. Ideas that fail drop away. Even established ideas can fail, or change in the face of testing. So a library may discard a book with ideas that are outdated or supplanted by ideas that are more robust. Librarians definitely aren’t neutral here.

What about less scientific areas? Take history. The Dunning School presented racist concepts about the Civil War and the Reconstruction, later supplanted by Eric Foner and other historians. Should they both be given equal shelf space? No. Not in many libraries. The purpose of the library matters. If it is important for a library to keep a history of all of the thinking on the Reconstruction, then yes, both would be kept. If the point of the library is to reflect current scholarship, then no. Both might be kept, but the weight should reflect current scholarship.

What if current scholarship takes a turn back toward the Dunning School, presenting a racist view of African Americans? What should librarians do then? In other words, when parts of the community turn to restrict the rights and freedoms of other members of the community, should the library remain neutral and uninvolved? No. Caring about equality, diversity, and freedom is not neutral and is a fundamental part of libraries.

Here’s the other thing that confuses people: Given what we just said, shouldn’t librarians pull books that advocate for the restriction of freedom? No. Our intellectual freedom should not be restricted. That doesn’t mean that every idea gets equal shelf space. Or any space. Some materials may need to be requested through interlibrary loan because there is no way for most libraries to have everything. It doesn’t mean we only have what’s popular. It means we have a diversity of material that represents our community—including those members of the community that might be in the minority.

Librarians can’t be neutral because they need to make those choices. Because protecting intellectual freedom is not neutral. We treat everyone with respect, equally, regardless of age, background, views, etc. Within our budgets, we purchase a range materials for the community. Some won’t want to read Harry Potter, others will. That’s not neutral.