Libraries are a hotbed of tension right now. We’re seeing an avalanche of challenges, censoring, and bans on the public side. Conservatives and white supremacist hate groups are verbally and physically harassing and threatening library workers. Conservative officials are intimidating librarians with job loss, fines, and threats of jail time for simply doing their work. Bigots are taking over school and library boards, removing LGBTQ+ and BIPOC books from shelves, pushing collection development legislation, and accusing library workers and authors of “grooming” children (a similar tactic used to target LGBTQ+ educators in the past). Lest you think this is homegrown, grassroots activism, it is not; many of the people pushing back against diversity initiatives are backed and encouraged by well-funded conservative groups and individuals.
Within libraries, staff are also having conversations about where we are headed as a profession, and the issue of neutrality is a big part of that. The old adage, “A truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone,” is a mantra for many in this field. Neutrality is a core principle, represented in three of the main guiding policies for librarianship: the American Library Association Library Bill of Rights, the ALA Code of Ethics, and the Freedom to Read Statement (co-authored by ALA and the Association of American Publishers). Many library workers believe they’re ensuring a well-rounded collection of materials that, as the Library Bill of Rights puts it, “[provides] materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.”
However, the way I and many other library workers see it, libraries cannot be neutral. In fact, the actions many libraries take in the name of neutrality are anything but, especially when library workers are being asked to financially support and dedicate valuable shelf space to books and authors promoting anti-LGBTQ+, transphobic, racist, misogynist, abelist, xenophobic ideologies, and intentionally provide misinformation to our patrons. Meanwhile, we’re fighting against political and social campaigns—even members of our own library boards—bent on removing books, programs, and other informative materials that provide essential resources on civic engagement, accessible education, and are anti-racist, LGBTQ+-affirming, and otherwise critical of the bigotries and inequities underpinning our history and institutions.
In practice, library neutrality provides a cover for banning identity-based displays such as Black History Month or Pride Month, for allowing hate groups to use meeting spaces, for harassing programs like Drag Queen Story Hour, and on and on. Under neutrality, I as a queer and genderqueer Black librarian, am expected to purchase books pushing genocidal transphobic policies or anti-Black ideologies written by authors who want to legislate me out of existence. I am expected to do nothing when Hide the Pride demonstrators check out LGBTQ+ books en masse with the goal of denying other patrons access. I am expected to stay silent while administrators and board members systematically undo all the social justice and community engagement work the rest of us have been struggling to accomplish. Our oppressors use neutrality as a weapon and turn libraries into another unsafe space for those who need them most. Ultimately, it is little more than an excuse to do nothing in the face of white supremacy and the patriarchy.
Most frustrating is how many librarians have positioned themselves as martyrs, superheroes single-handedly defending democracy by nobly sacrificing their personal beliefs to the god of neutrality when in fact what they’re sacrificing is the care and safety of their patrons. In a 2017 interview, a reporter described the collection development process of famed Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl, noting how when Pearl came across material she “doesn’t agree with or finds offensive,” such as a book promoting Holocaust denial, she would “give herself a ‘stern talking to’” and shelve it anyway, “regardless of her opinion.” Pearl’s opinions and practices are not uncommon; “represent all views” is not only the core principle of many library professional organizations and groups, it’s also typically taught in library degree programs. Some library workers and educators will buy these books as a preemptive attempt to represent “both sides” while some will wait until they receive a patron request, but the damage is done either way.
We cannot “both sides” human rights. My identities and rights are not up for debate. Libraries cannot escape responsibility for the harm caused by clinging to a comforting illusion at the expense of the people they’re supposed to serve. Our reckoning with this fetishization of neutrality that prevents us from fulfilling our roles as library workers is long overdue.
ALA is discussing the role of neutrality in how libraries operate, but we’re months to years away from any kind of expansive, meaningful action from our national professional organization. Meanwhile, right-wing campaigns targeting libraries, their staff, and patrons are increasing their efforts to take complete control over library boards and public opinion. However, library workers don’t have to wait around for ALA to put out a statement. We have more power than I think we realize.
Library workers can fight back right now by updating our policies—not just for collection development, but all guiding documentation. If someone comes for your collection, you want a policy sturdy enough to resist. Language upholding neutrality should be removed, and language reaffirming a commitment to social justice and defending vulnerable and marginalized patrons should be added in. Many libraries already have a DEI statement, so this is the time to give it some teeth. When patrons violate our code of conduct rules or our new and improved policies, we must enforce those rules. When libraries back down or give in to the demands of bad actors, staff and community members need to hold them accountable.
Despite how often library workers reference the tremendous essay by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop about how books can be windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors for readers, we often fail to live up to those values in our collection development policies. Ensure your library is curating a collection, not just warehousing everything being published. This means not auto-buying books just because they land on a bestsellers list or are nominated for an award. It means proactively weeding out dangerous or inaccurate information. It means promoting materials representing marginalized identities and experiences. And it means holding accountable third-party library services like Hoopla that use the Library Bill of Rights to justify keeping anti-LGBTQ+, anti-vax, and Holocaust denial books in its collection.
We often say “libraries are for everyone,” but after working in libraries for more than a decade and having spent much of my childhood in them, I’ve rarely felt safe. Libraries were not designed for people like me—and in many cases, intentionally excluded and continue to exclude marginalized community members, such as Black patrons being denied access during Jim Crow and how some library management systems are not set up to accommodate chosen names that don’t align with government ID. I work extremely hard to make sure all of my students feel represented and welcome, particularly my vulnerable and marginalized students. To do that, I am in the process of creating a collection development policy that focuses on highlighting underrepresented voices, weeding out materials acquired by my predecessors that push damaging ideologies, and promoting a diverse array of books all year long and not just during heritage months.
Neutrality inevitably prioritizes the majority at the expense of the minority. Defending it will not save libraries from book bans, especially not as bad actors use it as cover for the real purpose behind their attacks: to cement their control over how we access information and erase any visible traces of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ and other marginalized people. It’s time for library workers to rethink how we operate and whose needs we prioritize. There is no one right answer as to what a neutrality-free library looks like, but the cost of upholding the status quo is too high.