Neutral or Neutered?
:: Intellectual Freedom as Social Responsibility ::

Introduction

I. Historical Context

II. The Debate Evolves

III. Is Neutrality Desirable?

IV. Is Intellectual Freedom Our Only Responsibility?

V. Personal Reflection

Works Cited

Appendix: Research Log

III. Is Neutrality Desirable?

Each of the articles discussed in the previous section advocates neutrality as the only means of protecting library resources from censorship. However, as the contributors to "The Berninghausen Debate" observe, there is more to defending intellectual freedom than resisting censorship.

As Sanford Berman points out in his foreword to Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility in American Librarianship, 1967-1974, today's libraries face greater threats from "the homogenization and commodification of culture and thought" than from the censorious demands of individuals and groups (xvii). As Berman observes in his characteristically declamatory fashion:

. . . while we're agonizing over Of Mice and Men's being dropped from that school reading list in Peru, Illinois, Ted Turner, Disney, Viacom, and Bertelsmann are walking away with the whole damn store. These giants decide what's okay, what's fit to be read, or seen, or heard. (xvi)

In other words, while the banning of books grabs public attention, few seem to notice the corporate "huckster[ism]" (xviii) insinuating itself into public libraries, stifling the alternative press, and biasing collections "toward property, wealth, bigness, mainstream 'culture,' and established authority" (xi). Berman expresses concern over how ostensibly neutral libraries, whose aim is to "oppose censorship and provide the widest possible spectrum of . . . information" (xvi), allow themselves to become so egregiously and insidiously influenced.

How are we to view this semi-clandestine violation of neutrality? Is it a sign that librarians must be more vigilant in upholding the principle of intellectual freedom? Or does it betray a fundamental inadequacy in the neutrality ethos, an indication that there is more to socially responsible librarianship than the abdication of political bias? In "Librarianship and Political Values: Neutrality or Commitment?," Henry Blanke argues that libraries, struggling for funding in an increasingly commercialized society (40), cannot rely on neutrality alone as a means of maintaining intellectual freedom. According to Blanke, unless librarians are "willing to enter the political arena" with "a clear and vital set of philosophical and political ideals," their institutions will "drift aimlessly with the currents of power and privilege" (42). The library must therefore engage with its political milieu, even if that means taking a stand on issues such as the corporatization of public services (Blanke 42).

Calls for greater involvement in social issues are not limited to the arena of public libraries; as Jeff Lilburn explains in "Re-Examining the Concept of Neutrality for Academic Librarians," academic libraries suffer the same pressures exerted by "powerful media conglomerates" as do their public counterparts (30). The hegemony of commercial review journals and publisher catalogues is so extensive, Lilburn observes, that ninety per cent of publishers remain obscure (31). Lilburn argues that the nonpartisan philosophy of neutrality will not provide adequate impetus to remedy this imbalance; librarians must step into political debates in order to defend "books that simply won't be accepted by publishers afraid to take a chance on an unpopular or controversial view" (31).

Not only does neutrality's laissez-faire ethic permit the restriction of intellectual freedom through corporate hegemony; some argue that the very epistemological balance of libraries suffers from a lack of political conviction on the part of librarians. In "Libraries and Liberation: A Feminist View," Sandra Lee Bolton argues that in order to redress gross lacunae in feminist literature and thought in library collections, librarians must take steps to reconceptualize the "traditional organization of knowledge" responsible for the marginalization (and in some cases outright exclusion) of female writings (28). Though her recommendations violate the principle of neutrality by introducing a radical political agenda to the library environment, Bolton argues that such steps are necessary to "build an environment of equality" in which all viewpoints are given voice in the collection (23).

Go to Part IV: Is Intellectual Freedom Our Only Responsibility?

Content, coding, and photograph by Sarah Mead-Willis (smm3@ualberta.ca). Originally a paper written for LIS 501 (Foundations of Library and Information Studies), this website was created to to fulfill the requirements of LIS 600 (Capping Exercise), part of the Master of Library and Information Studies program at the University of Alberta. This site was last modified Febrary 14th, 2006.