A debate over whether or not librarians should become activists in society has been quietly brewing for many years. In many Masters of Library Sciences classes, it is argued throughout the readings that librarians are the center of democracy or that librarians have a responsibility to police the distribution and access of information. This notion of policing information and being the center of democracy seems to be a self-promoting view, as many of the people suggesting such actions are librarians or graduates of library sciences programs. It may seem logical at the time, but also seems short sighted. There are those who advocate for freedom of speech and intellectual freedom, as well as those who support protectionist views. These are just two sides of the argument. There are also those who advocate for neutrality, and those who argue against it. It is the purpose of this paper to look at all sides of the argument, and show how neutrality in the classic sense is not possible, but is something to strive for in the library profession none the less.
The first question to be asked is what is meant by neutrality? Neutrality is not a political statement or lack of political statement, as much as it is a willingness to listen. If someone is politically charged and openly presents themselves as such people of other views, who do not agree with a persons convictions will not approach that person(Haennel). As librarians this is a problem, if someone takes a stance only patrons of a matching political view will approach a librarian. How is a librarian suppose to be effective if he or she only serves a portion of society?
Taking a look at the literature that is prominent on the debate of neutrality will show the line of thinking over the past forty years. The argument begins with a paper by David Berninghausen, Antithesis in Librarianship: Social responsibility vs. The Library Bill of Rights written in 1972. He argued that the American Library Association (ALA) was undermining the Library Bill of Rights by trying to take a stance on various political issues. He argues neutrality or non-partisanship was required of librarians to function as professionals and serve all of society, especially intellectual freedom (Berninghausen, 3675). He continues by stating that “[I]t is essential that librarians, in their professional activities, shall view such issues as subordinate to the principal of intellectual freedom, for, unless men have access to all varieties of expression as to the facts, theories and the alternate solutions to these problems, they will be unable to apply their powers of reason toward their resolution”(Berninghausen, 3675). His belief is intellectual freedom is more important than social responsibility, Henry T. Blanke and Robert Hauptman would beg to differ.
In a 1989 edition of the Library Journal , Henry Blanke wrote & political Values: Neutrality or Commitment?. The paper essentially argues that if librarians want to be considered professionals they must become involved in politics or let corporations and governments fill the void left politically by librarians in action (Blanke, 39- 43). Though this is an anti-thesis to Berninghausen, it also considers inaction as a non political choice. In-action may not be political but what right does a librarian have to become guardians of knowledge. Knowledge should flow freely, and all views, regardless of current thought, should be made available for consideration by the populace, regardless of a librarians political ideas. For example, Machiavelli and Marx both wrote interesting political manifestos. Both are sometimes considers somewhat anti-democratic or irrelevant in our democratic society. If a librarian views democracy as the end all and be all of politics, does he or she burn those books or deny access to this knowledge? No, but if a librarian allows advocacy and politics to rule their profession, as Berninghausen illustrated in 1972, it might well be a problem for librarians. Blanke also uses a scare tactic to argue that if librarians don’t do something they will become irrelevant and lead to the demise of society as we know it. (Blanke, 39-43) This seems extreme, as librarians have been around for centuries and society has not fallen due to the actions or inaction of the library community.
Robert Hauptman more recently in 1998, made a similar argument against the Berninghausen thesis. He argued that “[T]he danger of confusing censorship with ethical responsibility is too obvious to require further elucidation. To abjure an ethical commitment in favor of anything, is to abjure one’s individual responsibility”(Hauptman, 293). He argues that librarians forsake their duty, and that a librarian has an ethical responsibility as a conveyor of knowledge to safeguard society from potential threats. He also claims that ethical commitment is the end all and be all of librarianship. In his study he went undercover and interviewed over a dozen librarians asking for information on how to build a bomb. All the librarians gave him the information, to his astonishment (Hauptman, 292). Even after opening his argument with “The scholars of librarianship do not concern themselves with ethical problems. At least a survey of the literature indicates only a minimal number of articles or books dealing with ethics of librarians in relation to library users”(Hauptman, 291). So if the literature claims this, why is he surprised when his study confirms the literature? As well in the next paragraph he wrote that the academic community who have written about the topic agree that “personal beliefs must be subservient to the needs of the patron” (Hauptman, 291). It appears that his political ambition to believe that librarians should serve society as informants is shaping his analysis. Instead of taking into account the literature, and the working community, as well as his own brief study, he has chosen to believe that his own political and ethical compass is correct, and not the hard evidence that is presented in front of him.
In the spring of 2013, Thomas Haennel, an M.L.I.S student, wrote a blog for the University of Western Ontario chapter of the Canadian Library Association. In his brief blog post Haennel wrote that political advocacy could very well lead to driving people away rather than the patron seeing librarians as a champion of change. (Haennel) He also argues the progress is subjective, stating that “what one considers progressive others may think is regressive” (Haennel). He goes further and suggests that what is progressive and just now, may not be progressive and just in the future. An example he gives is “had libraries advocated for common societal beliefs a few decades ago, they would have likely been one of the most vocal opponents of same-sex marriage for generations. Therefore many of us in the present would denounce the library for its role in opposing what many Canadians now consider just” (Haennel). This blog makes some interesting points, and shows some of the potential consequences of becoming politically charged.
Becoming politically charged, makes it difficult for those who do not agree with those ideas to approach librarians for help. By remaining unaligned, and open to all ideas, at least on a professional level, will allow librarians to serve the most people for the greatest good. Though Blanke does point out that “the idea that any enterprise […] can extricate itself from the political culture in which it is embedded is dubious. Often such enterprises that strive for an ideal of neutrality will unconsciously adopt a dominant value orientation” (Blanke, 39). This paper is not without its political slant. Earlier in the paragraph the paper stated that the objective of librarians was to ‘serve the most people for the greatest good.’ This is not a new idea, nor is it a non-political idea. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism, is very well known for such an idea. Even someone advocating against partisanship, cannot escape politics, but can try their hardest to serve the patron and not their own ideals.
Berninghausen, David. ‘Antithesis in Librarianship: Social responsibility vs. The Library Bill of Rights’. Library Journal. Nov 15, 1972.
Blanke, Henry, T. ‘& political Values: Neutrality or Commitment?’ Library Journal. p 39-43. July, 1989
Haennel, Thomas. ‘On Neutrality‘ CLA – UWO blogspot. http://uwo-cla.blogspot.ca/2013/05/on-neutrality-tomas-haennel.html. May, 2013.
Hauptman, Robert. “Professionalism or Culpability? An experiment in Ethics”. https://owl.uwo.ca/access/lessonbuilder/item/14362766/group/3209eae1-af34-4de1-8545-7a9826e76cb7/August%201%20Intellectual%20Freedom%20_%20Social%20Responsibility/Hauptman%201998.pdf 1998.