Library Neutrality

The Literature - 1980s

In 1980, Bill Martin examined his perception of how libraries had docilely accepted a neutral stance and shifted focus to technology in a Library Association Record articled entitled ‘Social Intervention by Libraries.’ Martin argued, “Despite outreach and innovation, libraries still face a credibility problem because their ascribed position in society is marginal to many of the fundamental issues – poverty, racism, unemployment” (417) Like Josey, Martin’s view was that neutrality favoured the status quo and ignored the needs of those outside of the mainstream. A similar position was taken by Celeste West in 1983 in ‘Secret Garden of Censorship: Ourselves.’ West reflected that libraries rarely have balanced collections, partly because alternative literature was less available than that of the mainstream, and partly because most librarians were unwilling to search for it (1651). Again, neutrality was depicted as position that led to exclusivity.

In 1987, Robert Hauptman’s experiment was revisited in the form of a debate between Hauptman and John Swan in Catholic Library World. Swan argued that “[Hauptman] or anybody else who comes to the reference desk asking for information about building a bomb has a right to whatever guidance the librarian can give him” (Wiener 161) Hauptman countered by maintaining that a group within society (i.e. librarians) cannot set ethical boundaries that are opposed to those of society in general and expect approval (Wiener 161). A neutral stance, if it proves unethical, was therefore unacceptable.

In a 1989 book, The Freedom to Lie: A Debate About Democracy, an expanded version of a 1988 debate sponsored by the ALA’s Social Responsibilities Round Table and Intellectual Freedom Round Table, Swan continued to advocate for neutrality, although Noel Peattie was his opponent in this discussion. Much of the debate centred around the California Library Association’s involvement with David McCalden, a proponent of a theory that the Holocaust did not occur. Swan contended that it was not the position of librarians to determine the validity of McCalden’s claims. Rather, “as librarians our cause is, in a very practical sense, not truth but freedom. Indeed, our truth is freedom, freedom of access, freedom for our patrons to draw upon our resources, to sort their own truths out of our carefully collected and managed mélange of truths, half-truths, untruths, and nontruths” (3). Like Broderick in 1971, Peattie asserted that a commitment to the community entails value judgments, “The librarian does have a responsibility to ‘stay sane’: to be able, and to help the community be able, to distinguish truth from falsehood, allowable opinion from bigoted manipulation, eccentricity from unworthy ambition. The librarian, like other intellectual workers, has a responsibility to the culture of her country, beyond passive access” (53). The view of neutrality as a passive, and thereby dangerous, value was raised again in 1989 by Henry Blanke.

In his article, ‘Librarianship and Political Values: Neutrality or Commitment,’ Blanke advocated for the stance that neutrality is essentially partisanship in favour of the mainstream. In his general analysis of the value, he wrote that “neutrality, in effect, allows an unquestioned acquiescence to the imperatives of the most powerful and influential elements in society” (40). Like Blanke, theorists of the next decades focused on the ethical realities of a neutral stance.

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