Friday, July 24, 2009

Struggling with the idea of neutrality

The whole situation in Wisconsin over book challenges and threats of burning books is the kind of thing that I usually keep somewhat quiet. For one, the librarian blogs will cover down the road. And two, I will admit to being slightly gun shy even though I have some passionate opinions. So, when someone posted about the story in Facebook, and I replied making some small remark about it, I was not quite ready for some other commenter who came along. What got me riled up was that he seemed to me to be defending the people advocating the book burnings. But after a somewhat heated exchange, I had time to go back and do some thinking.

On the one hand, I am a believer that as an academic librarian I have an educational mission. I try to select information and sources that are accurate, balanced, vetted and reviewed. And while I do try to give room to diverse views, there are some things I probably would not include. Hate speech would be one of them. Creationist material would be another, and material in favor of "curing gays" may be another. Those are materials that are not accurate, certainly not balanced, and any review of them reveals them to be inappropriate to an academic setting. Of course, for people who buy into such things, I get the accusation of censoring. It is not censoring; it's called selection, and in that case, those are materials that as an educator and librarian I don't think college students, or the rest of the community should have.

And yet, in spite of my initial impulse to keep those things totally out, I had to admit to myself that, in practice, I would likely include some sampling of the materials I mention above. The key word in that sentence is "sampling." For instance, we do have copies of Hitler's Mein Kampf. We do have books with the writings and speeches of Osama Bin Laden. For our Darwin Day event, as part of acquiring materials, I did order at least one item that specifically presented the Creationist side. We don't keep such materials because we advocate their ideologies. We have them so people can learn about said ideologies. So they can study them, learn from them, and hopefully act for the better. You have to know your enemy, and to do so, you have study them and the materials they may produce.

What I struggle with as a librarian is where do you draw the line. I probably would not buy materials put out by Stormfront (white supremacist organization), to pick an example, but if a patron came asking me to point them to the website, I would likely do it. That is because we have that principle in our profession of providing the information. If I was feeling so inclined that day, I may ask what they want to see it for, clarifying that I am asking in case they need anything else, and hope I can make a teachable moment, so to speak. But otherwise, there is the Internet, have at it, so to speak. And then there was the lady I had to literally navigate Rush Limbaugh's website with her. That is the information she needs; my job is to guide her to it. Overall, as long as something is not illegal, nor violating school policies (this is what could cover us against a patron wanting to see adult material defined as pornographic), a patron is set to go.

At the end of the day, if you asked me, would you include books on "the gay cure" or "converting gays" or something similar, I would probably say, yes, I would include a book or two. But I would throw in the usual disclaimers such as the fact that such methods have no scientific credence or acceptance and try to provide the more accurate material. But I would not exclude them just to leave them out. I don't think I am ready for complete exclusion as other more passionate librarians might suggest. Again, I think you have to know your enemy, and simply hiding the stuff we may not agree with does not solve the problem. In the marketplace of ideas, the solution is to have more ideas, not less. When it comes to books, we need more books, not less. Those who wish to burn books are simply cowards who refuse to think critically or be confronted by other ideas they may not agree with.

And for those who wish to censor books or deprive others of books or other materials, my solution is simple. If you see it on a library shelf, just leave it there. It really is that simple. You don't like that particular book, don't pull it out of the shelf or look at it. Your rights end where mine begin. You have your beliefs; that is fine. I have mine. Your beliefs do not give you license to try to impose them on me. That book you want burned may well be the book I want to read, and you have no right to deprive me of it. A library is place where everyone, regardless of creed, orientation, race, color, so on, can come and learn about diverse ideas. And if you have children, do your job as a parent. Don't want your precious Susie to read about gay penguins? Don't let her read the book. Again, simple solution: do your job as a parent. But again, do your parenting with your kids, not mine. I have no problem with my daughter reading And Tango Makes Three. You don't want to read it? Leave it on the shelf. You have no right to deprive the rest of the community because of your close-mindedness.

So, the bottom line is I would favor openness as much as possible. I do say as much as possible because like every other library in the U.S. I do have a very restricted budget. But I do what I can with what I have. And as long as I have something, I will strive to be inclusive. It does not mean I leave my values at the door. It does mean if I see something wrong or inaccurate I will tell my patron. A while back, I read the book Questioning Library Neutrality. The essays in that book have helped shape some of my thinking, and when someone confronts me over not including books about "the gay cure" in my library, I recall this statement from the book:

"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).

Ideas like the ones mentioned above as well as others are discredited. They have no room in an academic institution other than as objects of study. It is in that context that I may include a sample of such to help promote education and better ideas. Anything else does not have room in the collections. And if that puts me at odds with the library establishment or certain people, then so be it. Again, to quote from the book:

"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 am a trained information professional as well as a trained educator (yes, I do also have a teaching degree), and I am not afraid to use my professional judgment. Maybe it is time more in my profession did the same instead of hiding behind the idea of strict neutrality. I have my days when I feel more ambivalent than others, but that is part of what we do. Thus why when yet another ill-informed, close-minded group of zealots comes over wanting to burn books, I will rise and say something. Because such cowardice and ignorance needs to be denounced and confronted. We educate and strive for dialogue, but we should not be afraid to confront and denounce as well.

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