Library Neutrality

The Literature - 1990s & 2000s

In a 1991 article, Gillian Gremmels again raised the question of the existence of neutrality with particular emphasis on reference services. Gremmels argued that neutrality and objectivity are not attainable, that it is not possible for librarians to separate their personal opinions from their professional duties. Rather, librarians should embrace their ability to make judgments towards the goal of creating an “informed citizenry.” Gremmels went on to say that the solution to ethical dilemmas, from a communitarian perspective, was for the librarian to “think about how the public interest would best be served and recognize the impact of his or her own values” rather than “hiding behind neutrality.” This perspective was again raised in 2001 by Ronald McCabe.

In Civic Librarianship: Renewing the Social Mission of the Public Library, McCabe continued the examination of neutrality from the communitarian approach, labeling modern libraries as ‘libertarian public libraries,’ which cater to individualism at the expense of the community. McCabe argued that “as public librarians move from providing education to providing access, they move from the high professional calling of improving people’s lives to the technical, mechanical process of distributing materials and services without regard for the impact these materials and services might have on people’s lives” (99). According to McCabe, it was the role of the librarian not to neutrally provide access, but to share “knowledge that is structured by society, knowledge that includes the core moral values of society” (51). McCabe’s argument again linked neutrality and passivity, with an emphasis of the deleterious effects of that stance.

In a 2003 article in Progressive Librarian, ‘Neutrality, Objectivity, and the Political Center,’ Rory Litwin examined and differentiated between the three title concepts. According to Litwin, neutrality is either interpreted as having no political or social stance, which is in reality a stance toward the status quo, or as having no personal opinions, which is not possible. Objectivity, on the other hand, can be in the form of an opinion if it is based on verifiable information. When neutrality means refusing to support a political or social stance, argued Litwin, “the idea of neutrality is a definite evil, because it supports the existing balance of power, and does it invisibly, in cases where caring individuals, armed with objective information, likely would not” (9-10) Once again, not only the morality of a neutral position was questioned, the existence of the concept with respect to particular situations was denied. This and similar perspectives were furthered more recently in Questioning Library Neutrality: Essays from Progressive Librarian.

Questioning Library Neutrality gathered together the writings of theorists such as Mark Rosenzweig, Steven Joyce, Joseph Good, and others to reexamine the controversies surrounding neutrality. As a whole, the articles presented a case against neutrality for many of the reasons that had been discussed in the past, including the role of neutrality in maintaining the status quo and the moral consequences of simply providing access to information while ignoring the quality of that information (Lewis). While many of the ideas presented in the book were not new, they did serve as a reminder that the neutrality debate had not been settled, and that issues raised through the discussion of neutrality are as applicable in 2008 as they were during the Berninghausen Debate.

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