Should Libraries Be Neutral? An Examination of Library Neutrality in the Age of Black Lives Matter

So I was doing some stuff on my laptop, and I ended up caught up in an intriguing discussion on the ALA Think Tank Facebook group (it’s basically a FB hangout chat group for librarians — lovely bunch, the posters there) on whether libraries should be, or even can be, neutral. A case in point raised a number of times in the discussion was the debate over library support of Black Lives Matter (the conversation in the profession sparked by a set of tweets by Storytime Underground, a youth librarian collective, linked here).

So, how about it? Are libraries neutral? Should we be? Here’s my thoughts.

In this BookRiot article on how public libraries should support Black Lives Matter, which you should totally read right now or after you’re done reading this piece, the author — a librarian — argues for public libraries to support Black Lives Matter. But pay attention to how she argues for that support. She argues for things such as more diverse collections of books in libraries, creating reading guides on Black Lives Matter for those who want to learn about the movement, using the library as a space for moderated discussions between police and community members, and the like.

Here’s the thing. All of the things Katie listed in the article are 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.

So what does this say about neutrality? Here’s what I’ll argue — 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. However, libraries can support social movements and social justice in the way that both best accomplishes this end and preserves the sanctity and objectivity of the library. After all, public libraries are inherently political — against the backdrop of human history, the idea that unlimited information should be available to literally everyone is an incredibly radical idea. So libraries can be political, in that they comment on and provide knowledge on political issues. I’ll elaborate — the way we support social justice movements, such as Black Lives Matter, in a way that is most effective and yet simultaneously preserves the sanctity and objectivity of our institution and profession is — to give a few examples — the providing of information on the movement or cause at hand, helping patrons in their quest to educate themselves on it, making it our mission to make everyone feel welcome and valued, tailoring our programming and collections to help serve and reach and enrich underserved communities, utilizing our spaces to help heal rifts in the community surrounding these issues and promote justice and reconciliation. These things and more. That’s how libraries can best fight for justice and equality — by doing what we do best. By being societal and community institutions that serve and help the people that make up our societies and communities, by being bastions and reservoirs of knowledge, and more. That’s how we can support Black Lives Matter and countless other social justice movements, and — in my mind — it’s the most effective way for us to do it, too.