In Which We Once Again Revisit the Myth of Library Neutrality

**Disclaimer-While I have my MLS, I am not currently a librarian. I’m a PhD student in Rhetoric and I’m a graduate research assistant in the TWU library, where I’ve worked for 5 years. I also happen to be taking a library school class as an elective. These posts are part of a weekly reading response. I am not speaking as a library expert. I’m speaking as a student and observer.**

So… inquiring minds want to know… are American libraries a neutral space?

This week’s readings brought me back around to some things that absolutely press all my buttons in LIS. I’ll be talking about the ones that got my goat the most but a complete list of the readings can be found at the end.

In the article  “We Will Not Be Silent: Amplifying Marginalized Voices in LIS Education and Research,” Gibson and Hughes state that:

The tactics used to control library spaces are not very different from those used to control the vote. These include open displays of physical force for suppression and exclusion of dissidents from the space, misinformation about rules for participation (or giving library and security staff large amounts of discretion in determining eligibility for use of library facilities), and exclusion through selectively enforced behavioral standards. (321)

Gibson, A. N., & Hughes-Hassell, S. (2017). We Will Not Be Silent: Amplifying Marginalized Voices in LIS Education and Research. The Library Quarterly, 87(4), 317–329.

This article was written in 2017, in the wake of the absolutely bonkers presidential election. They spoke about how the tone of the country had clearly begun shifting in a much more threatening direction since the election and that libraries needed to begin taking an actual stance, on one side or the other, when it came to what was allowed to happen within their walls. The idea of library neutrality, which was always a shaky concept at best, was no longer going to work in this world. And while America’s track record in regards to racism, sexism, xenophobia, queerphobia, etc. was never good and was never really hidden, it had become so overt that choosing to stay “neutral” was, in and of itself, making a choice. 

This choice and the consequences, can be clearly seen these days. The party line of “libraries are neutral spaces” is continuously being undermined and shown to be a myth by the behavior of libraries all over the country. The Austin Public Library came under fire a few days ago for allowing a meeting space to be rented by a known transphobic, feminist organization. Yup, the space was being rented by TERFs.  The initial tweet is here, but it looks like the page for the event has been taken down. They were going to allow the facilities to be used for an event that promotes transphobic beliefs, and while the library may not be hosting the event, only renting a room to the group, that’s no excuse. I cannot believe that they don’t have the ability to refuse hate groups. and, if the wording of their rental contracts is such that they can’t refuse hate groups, then they REALLY need to work on the language in that contract.

Simply put, the ALA needs to take an actual stand and stop hiding behind this amorphous concept of neutrality. It’s not working. In fact, if anything, things may actually be getting worse because hate groups having a platform at the public library is going to be detrimental to the library employees and patrons. And, I mean, let’s be honest here; the ALA isn’t exactly known for their interest in truly protecting library workers (pandemic, I’m looking at you). The ALA needs to change, from the top down, and they need to begin actually listening to the people who pay their exorbitant membership dues. Library workers need to be protected, not just from governmental intrusions but from real-world, everyday issues, like, say, TERFs in their workplace. This isn’t about political differences. It’s about ideologies that strip humanity from individuals. Or, maybe we just need a new organization that isn’t the ALA. I mean, who made them the queen of the libraries? (I know how it happened)

The other reading that I want to talk about is “The Reach of a Long-Arm Stapler: Calling in Microaggressions in the LIS Field through Zine Work.” Arroyo-Ramirez and her colleagues discuss the realities of microaggressions within the LIS field. They specifically point out diversity statements like those crafted by the ALA, saying that:

Relegating diversity issues only to institutional and professional organization mission statements and writing about these issues in academic articles that are inaccessible behind paywalls are not enough. (126)

Arroyo-Ramirez, E., Chou, R. L., Freedman, J., Fujita, S., & Orozco, C. M. (2018). The Reach of a Long-Arm Stapler: Calling in Microaggressions in the LIS Field through Zine Work. Library Trends, 67(1), 107–130.

This hits in multiple ways for me. Institutional diversity statements do nothing on their own. They are toothless documents that pay lip service to an idea with no expectation of enforcement or change. Organizations cannot continue to deliver these statements when they are unwilling to put in actual work. Statements are easy to make. The only effort involved is in the drafting of the statement and then releasing it to the wider world. After that, the only thing left to do is pat yourselves on the back for a job well done, and then go on to business as usual. 

If the institutions drafting these statements want to be taken seriously and show that they mean what they’re saying, they need to back up their words with their actions. Simply saying “Look how diverse we are!” with a picture of their diverse employee base, while at the same time not actually listening to what that diverse employee base is telling them about how to make real and lasting change, is worthless. 

And too, there is the issue of articles abut diversity and inclusion being hidden behind paywalls, where they serve no purpose because not everyone can access them. I work for a university library and I don’t have access to all the library things. If these academics want to make a real difference, they need to publish these articles in Open Access journals, where they can be seen by a wider audience. But, of course, mentioning Open Access leads to an entirely separate discussion about the elitism, racism, and xenophobia inherent to Open Access opposition, and I’m trying to save that discussion for my dissertation. 

Readings:

Arroyo-Ramirez, E., Chou, R. L., Freedman, J., Fujita, S., & Orozco, C. M. (2018). The Reach of a Long-Arm Stapler: Calling in Microaggressions in the LIS Field through Zine Work. Library Trends, 67(1), 107–130.

Cooke, N. A. (2017). Managing Diversity. In Information services to diverse populations:. Libraries Unlimited, an imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC.

Duarte, M. E., & Belarde-Lewis, M. (2015). Imagining: Creating Spaces for Indigenous Ontologies. Cataloging & Classification Quarterly, 53(5–6), 677–702.

Fields, B. J., & Fields, K. (2012). Racecraft: The soul of inequality in American life. Verso.

Gibson, A. N., & Hughes-Hassell, S. (2017). We Will Not Be Silent: Amplifying Marginalized Voices in LIS Education and Research. The Library Quarterly, 87(4), 317–329.

Simons, R. N., Fleischmann, K. R., & Roy, L. (2020). Leveling the playing field in ICT design: Transcending knowledge roles by balancing division and privileging of knowledges. The Information Society, 36(4), 183–198.

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