Friday, March 06, 2009

Booknote: Questioning Library Neutrality

This is one I have been meaning to read for a while: Questioning Library Neutrality edited by Alison Lewis. It is a collection of essays from Progressive Librarian that raise the question about the idea of library neutrality. Are we really neutral as librarians? Is it in our interest and in the interest of society that we keep the illusion of neutrality as librarians? Should we not, as members of society, be engaged in that society and thus have positions as well? In my personal situation, this is the question I often struggle with: do I simply let someone get bad information because I am neutral, or do I try to educate them towards better information? I am thinking of Kevin Trudeau's various books on miracle cures and so on, which have been pretty much discredited (not to mention having been banned from the airwaves by the FTC). but people who don't know better keep seeking them out in public libraries. The neutral librarian would simply buy the book and offer it without question. The engaged librarian would probably try to educate the patron and offer alternatives, and I lean towards the educational mission. That takes work by the way; for the neutral librarian, they can just sit there, so to speak, which I do not find acceptable. That's the kind of question, and others in this book, that I often ponder in my professional practice.

I did make some notes in my personal journal as I was reading this book. Except for Doherty's essay, which I had read before, all the works here were new to me. Let me jot down some of the things that caught my attention or made me think.

From the introduction:

"But creationism and Holocaust denial have been discredited by the vast majority of the scientists and historians, respectively. They don't hold equal weight in the marketplace of ideas, and they are not deserving of an equal share of limited library resources" (2).

One would think that is apparent, but I know certain librarians would rather not think about things like that in order to preserve the idea they are neutral and that all viewpoints are equal and deserve equal space. I will admit that I often fell for the giving everyone their space, but let's be honest, some ideas are not worthy of being given space or expression. And this is specially so in a library with limited resources as it is.

And here is something else I tend to struggle with. While the Rosenzweig essay lays out some very good history of politics and librarianship, it still does not quite answer, for me at least, the common issue or objection of too much politics in certain sections of the ALA. Because as important as certain international issues are, and I do find some things reprehensible and needing someone to stop them, we do have a ton of problems closer to home that the so-called professional organization for librarians is simply not addressing on behalf of librarians. I can't worry about Darfur or Rwanda when I have to worry about deprofessionalization, poor funding our our libraries not to mention the poor pay librarians and library workers get, and a host of other issues closer to home. The Rwanda thing comes to mind because I am about to start Dallaire's book. As librarians, we can't be neutral, but I think that at times we need to be a bit more selective on the battles we pick. It is something I personally struggle with, but I should point out that I did drop my ALA membership years ago; the organization was just too far away for me, fairly irrelevant to what I need, and to be honest, a bit too much on the elitist for me.

Now here is something I can relate to:

"Both in my training and in my work I have often felt ambivalent about librarianship and been at odds with the 'library establishment'" (Iverson essay, 25).

I wish it was so easy, or seemingly easy, to understand my own ambivalence about a profession I love, one where "the establishment" seems more concerned about perpetuating itself, about certain images, than about really educating and serving.

"If we accept that information is connected to knowledge and knowledge to power, we must examine the connections between power and information in our postmodern society. What are the implications for increased access to information by the dominant segment of society? Librarians are trained in the expert manipulation of information by mastering the technology connected to the production, dissemination, and retrieval of information. However, what are the implications for society in not questioning what kinds of information are accessible and what kinds are not, and who has easy access?" (Iverson, 29).

Maybe part of the answer to my earlier question is here. My training and experience tell me to question and to show others how to do it. I am surrounded by significant restraints and many who prefer to accept the status quo--some for convenience, others out of laziness, and a few out of evil to keep their their elite positions.

Something I found curious, or interesting at least, is how a lot seems to stay the same. Joyce's essay on the social responsibilities debates of the 60s and 70s could have been written today with everything (or almost everything) practically intact: from tales of the ALA's lack of flexibility and out of touch old guard to some younger librarians calling for boycotting the ALA and encouraging others not to renew. In a way, it's like nothing has really changed, and it certainly does not encourage me to renew my membership any time soon.

Ann Sparnese discussing Michael Baldwin's argument from his October 2002 Library Journal essay was something I wanted to note too:

"He argues that in order to be institutions of democracy, libraries must promote democracy and an informed citizenry as its main, most important mission. And I would hope that the public would value this inherent purpose and demand it of their public libraries-- not just providing folks the latest novels" (80).

Two things. One, replace the "latest novels" with "video games" or whatever the latest craze may be, and that statement remains as relevant as ever. And two, in my humble estimation, we should be demanding the same out of our academic libraries.

Overall, for a thoughtful and reflective librarian, this is a book that will make you ask a lot of questions and take a look at your own professional practice. The book also provides a pretty good history of the profession in the last 50 years or so. And for some, this may be the book that shakes them out of their complacency. This is definitely one I highly recommend.

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