Library Neutrality


A commitment to core values is what legitimizes the practice of any profession. Without standards, a profession is only a collection of individuals with varying ethical boundaries and methods of practice. In librarianship, the Canadian and American Library Associations (CLA, ALA) have each designed statements that elucidate the values and practice standards that are considered core values of the field. Outside of these documents, however, there are elements of the profession that are as ingrained in library culture as those enumerated by the governing bodies. One of these values is neutrality. Neither the CLA nor the ALA explicitly define neutrality or reflect on its consequences in their current position statements and guiding documents. Neutrality, however, has been considered, contested, and defended with more vigour than perhaps any other value in modern librarianship.

A contributing factor to the consistency of the debates surrounding neutrality is the ambiguity with which the North American library associations treat the subject. While neutrality is not overtly defined by these bodies, there are phrases within their literature that suggest a position of neutrality. The CLA’s Position Statement on Intellectual Freedom states that “it is the responsibility of libraries to guarantee and facilitate access to all expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity, including those which some elements of society may consider to be unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable. To this end, libraries shall acquire and make available the widest variety of materials” (Canadian Library Association). Likewise, the first two points of ALA’s Library Bill of Rights implicitly suggest neutrality,

  1. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
  2. Libraries should provide 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. (American Library Association 55)

These documents, and others, attempt to guide member libraries and librarians toward a neutral position in their professional duties. But because neutrality is not defined, and the scope and intended consequences of the value are not clarified, library theorists have interpreted the library associations’ positions in myriad ways and from varying perspectives, and have not been able to reach a consensus on neutrality.

The concept of neutrality allows for such a variety of interpretations partly because of the range of situations to which it can be applied. Theorists have considered neutrality with respect to collection development, reference services, personal and professional opinions, the role of the library as a social institution, and the positions that the library associations take on both internal and external issues. Questions have been raised as to the impact of neutrality on intellectual freedom and social responsibility, the morality of a neutral position, and even the existence of a truly neutral position. Each of these questions may be asked separately for each situation to which neutrality can be applied, which begs the question of whether neutrality can be defined as an all-encompassing whole, or if practical application of the concept depends on clarity with respect to individual situations.

This paper will first provide an overview of the many opinions on neutrality that have been presented in library literature, beginning in the 1960s. It will examine neutrality as it has been applied to different situations, and how those concerned have interpreted the concept’s scope and impact. Finally, it will provide recommendations for defining neutrality with respect to various applications. These recommendations will attempt to provide some guidance while remaining within the framework of values that are essential to librarianship.