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Are libraries neutral?

What is neutrality?

If neutrality is defined as an absence of viewpoints, then libraries are definitely not neutral. Rather than remaining silent on issues, libraries fill their collections with all kinds of viewpoints, including controversial and even repugnant ones. It’s been said that “a truly great library has something in it to offend everyone.” On the other hand, libraries also try to make sure that everyone can see themselves and their views reflected in our collections. While library buildings may be quiet places (also debatable), their bookshelves are alive with every voice imaginable.

If neutrality is defined as not taking sides on an issue, then libraries are still not neutral. It would be unusual for a library to come out in support of a political candidate, and there are many issues on which libraries do not take a public stance. But there are also issues on which libraries are very vocal. Libraries believe fiercely in privacy and in your right to research and explore without fear of anyone looking over your shoulder. In the wake of 9/11, libraries in the U.S. fought hard against provisions of the USA PATRIOT act that made it easier for federal agencies to obtain people’s library records. Libraries advocate for open access to information, support net neutrality, work for reasonable limits on copyright, and oppose censorship and discrimination.

Some have asked about the Black Lives Matter sign and book display that are featured prominently in the library lobby. I’ve watched many different reactions to the display as people enter the building. We’ve gotten some smiles and some high-fives. There have been some furrowed brows and eye rolls. One person asked out loud to no one in particular, “What about my life?” Some people have stopped to look at the books on display. Some have checked them out.

Does publicly stating that black lives matter constitute “taking a side”? I would argue that it does not. At this moment in the United States, to assert that Black Lives Matter is to acknowledge systemic racism and express support for those in our community who are getting the message, based on lived experience and on the events taking place in our country right now, that their lives don’t matter; who feel betrayed, scared, angry, sad. Asserting that Black Lives Matter is consistent with our values as a school and as a library. “Black Lives Matter” is not in competition with “all lives matter”; the former is a subset of the latter. Librarians love Venn diagrams; we’d be happy to draw you one!

If you would like to learn more about systemic racism in the United States and the experiences of people of color here, please check out our Black Lives Matter LibGuide as well as the books on display below the Black Lives Matter sign. There sources can provide history, background, context, statistics, and narratives.

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