Library Neutrality

The Literature - 1960s & 1970s

Perhaps the most enduring work on library neutrality from the 1960s was a paper written by D.J. Foskett entitled The Creed of a Librarian - No Politics, No Religion, No Morals. In it, Foskett called for a creed of neutrality to be adopted in librarianship,. He wrote, “During reference service, the librarian ought virtually to vanish as an individual person, except in so far as his personality sheds light on the working of the library. He must be the reader’s alter ego, immersed in his politics, his religion, his morals” (10). Foskett was not advocating for the abandonment of personal commitments to politics, religion, and morals. In fact, he thought that these commitments were necessary in order for the librarian to “enter into a sympathetic association with his readers” (11) Foskett did, however, feel that librarians must be able to detach themselves from their beliefs during the performance of their duties in order to delve completely into the immediate concerns of their patrons. This argument was a starting point for a much more analytical debate around neutrality that gained momentum in the 1970s.

In a 1971 Library Journal article, ‘Censorship Re-evaluated,’ Dorothy Broderick considered the ethics of a neutral position in collection development. She argued that the profession as a whole had taken a stance toward intellectual freedom, and was therefore not neutral. This stance, Broderick explained, had “broken the covenant that existed between the community and the library” (3816) by removing from librarians the responsibility of making value judgments in the selection of materials. Librarians should not make selections with strict neutrality, but should “offer individuals experiences through materials that will broaden, not limit, their possibilities for growth” (3818). The next year, another Library Journal article brought the neutrality debate to the forefront of the literature.

David Berninghausen’s 1972 article, ‘Antithesis in Librarianship: Social Responsibility vs. the Library Bill of Rights,’ sparked one of the most controversial debates surrounding neutrality. Berninghausen argued that the ALA and many of its members, by focusing on the social responsibility movement, were not maintaining a commitment to intellectual freedom, which could only be achieved through strict neutrality. He wrote, “It is essential that librarians in their professional activities shall view such [social] issues as subordinate to the principle of intellectual freedom, for, unless men have access to all varieties of expression as to the facts, theories, and the alternative solutions to these problems, they will be unable to apply their powers of reason toward their resolution” (3675). Two months later, Library Journal published the responses of several prominent librarians to Berninghausen in an article entitled ‘Social Responsibility and the Library Bill of Rights: The Berninghausen Debate.’ Although the arguments against Berninghausen’s position varied, the overarching view was that social responsibility and intellectual freedom are not incompatible, that true intellectual freedom relies on librarians being socially responsible, and that a position of neutrality will lead to the exclusion of materials aimed at a large body of users. One of the contributors, E.J. Josey, wrote that “what Berninghausen ultimately advocates is a kind of laissez-faire capitalism in librarianship, with the voices of the rich, powerful, clever, and established being given ear, with the counter voices being left to the tender mercies of a marketplace dominated by the rich and powerful” (Wedgeworth et al. 32). This last argument became one of the most frequently raised points against neutrality.

Discussion of neutrality continued in the 1970s with examinations of the topic with respect to various library roles. In an 1973 article, ‘The Purpose of the American Public Library: A Revisionist Interpretation of History,’ Michael Harris critiqued the adoption of a neutral stance in collection development by the library community in the wake of World War II. He posited that librarians readily adopted a neutral position because of a belief in self education, because it was easily achieved, because it allowed a passive approach to the profession, because it shifted responsibility from the librarian to the patron, and because it would not change the general character of the clientele (2514). The debate continued n 1976 with an experiment by Robert Hauptman in which he asked several reference librarians for information related to bomb-making, none of whom refused on ethical grounds. He concluded that neutrality in reference services should not apply to all situations, saying that “to abjure an ethical commitment in favor of anything, is to abjure one’s individual responsibility” (Hauptman 627). Hauptman’s conclusions, as well as those of other theorists, continued to be discussed into the next decade.

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