“II. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view
on current and historical issues. …”
—ALA’s Library Bill of Rights
“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
—Daniel Patrick Moynihan, former U.S. senator
Many of us librarians hold the view that we are supposed to be neutral information providers. That is, we provide exactly the information we are asked to provide, without making judgments about it. If we have judgments, we keep them to ourselves. This neutrality encompasses the process of adding materials to our collections as well as providing services to information seekers.
As a former library school instructor, I used to encounter this view frequently among students. They would read ALA’s Library Bill of Rights and take the statement about “all points of view” quite literally. These students thought that librarians should never judge a work’s content negatively and that a librarian should never express any judgment or analysis of information requested by a library user. Recently, I heard the question of neutrality discussed again. At a professional meeting, a panel moderator introduced the question of neutrality in collection development, eliciting three widely diverging responses from the panelists, who were all experienced public library collection development specialists. Although the word “neutral” doesn’t appear anywhere in the Library Bill of Rights or ALA’s Code of Ethics, its absence doesn’t prevent many librarians from adopting the view that librarians are supposed to be absolutely neutral in their provision of information.
For decades, some library leaders have advocated neutrality, while others have expressed concern about it. In 2018, a panel discussion during the President’s Program at the ALA Midwinter Meeting & Exhibits elicited divergent views, ranging from “we can achieve intellectual freedom only by beginning with a commitment to neutrality” (Em Claire Knowles, Simmons College) to “[a] library as an institution represents a decision about how a community spends its resources, and those decisions are not neutral” (Chris Bourg, MIT). In the 2008 textbook The Portable MLIS, Michael Gorman states, “I strongly believe we should be absolutists when it comes to intellectual freedom and carry out our tasks without reference to our own opinions. …” However, as long ago as 1971, the influential library academic and activist Dorothy Broderick noted in Library Journal that the identification of librarianship with intellectual freedom had led to a “passive neutrality” in library practice.
Lately, a number of factors have reenergized this debate. They include the rise of misinformation and disinformation, efforts by right-wing individuals and groups to censor library and school materials that they condemn for promoting critical race theory or other concepts of diversity and inclusion, and the opposing concerns expressed by some about the presence of materials seen as racist or hurtful to marginalized communities. How shall librarians address all of these swirling controversies? If the idea of librarian neutrality was ever tenable, is it now past its sell-by date? In this article, I argue that:
- In practice, librarians are not neutral; we make judgments all the time.
- Librarians cannot and should not be neutral; making judgments is part of our professional responsibility.
- We’re in the midst of a war on information, in which librarians can’t be neutral and that requires new thinking and new professional guidance.
LIBRARIANS ARE NOT NEUTRAL
Specialized librarians are an obvious example of librarians whose success depends on their not being neutral. Legal, medical, corporate, and other specialized librarians perform more in-depth research than librarians in other settings. They fulfill Ranganathan’s fourth law—“Save the time of the reader”—in a very direct way, by selecting, summarizing, and analyzing research results, so their customers don’t have to. They adhere to limits so that they can’t be accused of practicing law, medicine, or other professions, but the scope of their judgment remains considerable. Neutrality would be an abdication of their role. They need to select the best and most relevant, authoritative, and important information and present it in the clearest, most concise way. In some cases, librarians practice as competitive intelligence analysts or market researchers. An emphasis on analysis—on adopting a point of view after evaluating and weighing the evidence—is a key requirement for librarians in these positions.
But if specialized librarians are the obvious example, other librarians make plenty of judgments too. In educational settings—whether higher, secondary, or even primary—the teaching role of librarians has assumed greater and greater importance over the past few decades. And what do librarians teach? Information literacy. While there are various definitions of the term, a common component is the ability to evaluate information critically. So, librarians are teaching the evaluation of information. They must address concepts such as misinformation and disinformation and present principles and methods for distinguishing accurate information from error and falsehood. It would be paradoxical—nonsensical, even—to imagine that they could do so while remaining neutral, without making judgments.
Teaching information literacy is not the only activity in which academic librarians violate the absolutist interpretation of neutrality. Evaluative judgment is central to their collection development role. An important example in the recent past has been the identification of predatory scholarly publications. Librarians were at the forefront of efforts to limit the reach of academic journals that didn’t follow accepted standards and practices designed to assure the quality of academic research publishing. But a truly absolutist, “all points of view” approach to collection development would require librarians to collect predatory publications on an equal basis with others.
What about public librarians? The traditional reader’s advisory function immediately comes to mind. Reader’s advisory is supposed to help library users select reading material based on the user’s own interests. But the reality is that it’s common for librarians to interject their own opinions, especially when they happen to share the tastes of the user.
There are other, more substantial examples. The Texas State Library and Archives Commission’s weeding guidelines (titled “CREW: A Weeding Manual for Modern Libraries”) include factors that librarians should take into account. Under the heading Poor Content, the factors include “outdated and obsolete information,” “trivial subject matter,” “inaccurate or false information,” and “material that contains biased, racist, or sexist terminology or views.” Recent discussions among ALA members about weeding Dr. Seuss titles or other culturally insensitive materials illustrate the reality that librarians are making judgments and applying factors like these on a regular basis.
LIBRARIANS CANNOT AND SHOULD NOT TRY TO BE NEUTRAL
None of this is a commentary on the correctness or error of any decision or judgment being made by librarians. It’s simply to say that, the Library Bill of Rights and rhetoric about neutrality notwithstanding, librarians do not operate as neutral information providers in practice. Moreover, we can’t and shouldn’t try to do so. Making good judgments, and helping others to make them, is essential to our professional role. It’s notable in this context that librarians are among the most trusted professions in American society. Not only are we trusted in general, we’re specifically trusted to provide sound information. Pew Research Center found in 2017 that 78% of all adults and 87% of Millennials say that libraries “help them find information that is trustworthy and reliable.”
We can only help people find information that is trustworthy and reliable if we make judgments—and help others make them. So let’s stop pretending we’re neutral and focus on clarifying the basis for the judgments we make. Almost 70 years ago, Lester Asheim offered us a model for doing just that. In his 1953 Wilson Library Bulletin article, “Not Censorship but Selection,” Asheim advanced the idea of selection as a positive foundation for professional practice and framed it as the opposite of the negative practice of censorship. After listing the attributes that distinguish censorship from selection, he summarizes the difference this way: “Selection is democratic while censorship is authoritarian, and in our democracy we have traditionally tended to put our trust in the selector rather than in the censor.” Thus, he argues that the foundation transcends particular social and political controversies. It rests on the basic orientation toward empowering members of society, rather than controlling them.
THE WAR ON INFORMATION AND THE GUIDANCE WE NEED TODAY
Asheim’s insights are essential for us in the 21st century, but times have changed, and he takes us only part of the way toward what we need now. We live in an era when high-ranking public officials blatantly and explicitly promote “alternative facts,” and political machinery and even government agencies are deployed to destabilize democratic processes and whole societies. Certainly, propaganda and misinformation were known in Asheim’s time. But today’s information wars have been accelerated and amplified by social media, other digital media, and a variety of social and political factors. Moreover, their goal has become not simply to misinform, but to destroy the very concepts of truth, trust, and democracy.
Richard Stengel, a former editor of TIME magazine and former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, puts it this way in his book Information Wars (quoting journalist Peter Pomerantsev): “Today we have not a war of information, but a war on information.” Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa said in her 2021 Nobel Lecture that “without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without trust, we have no shared reality, no democracy, and it becomes impossible to deal with the existential problems of our times. …” Continuing, Ressa asserted, “We need information ecosystems that live and die by facts.”
So, if librarians are to be a meaningful force in fact-oriented information ecosystems, we cannot be neutral when it comes to facts. In the midst of the war on information, we cannot give a free pass to disinformation in the name of neutrality. Instead, we need to assert and deploy our expertise in making judgments about information in every aspect of our work. We must base our collection development judgments on the application of information literacy principles. This means that resources will be chosen, or excluded, not based on whether we agree with them, but on whether we can recommend them as credible. Conversely, if a resource is devoted to disinformation, we would not recommend it to an information seeker, and, as a general rule, we probably do not need to include it in our collection.
A good place to start this updating of our professional principles and practices is with ALA’s guidelines. Anodyne frameworks like the Library Bill of Rights are even less relevant than they used to be. By specifying the reasons that we don’t use to make judgments (partisanship, doctrinal approval, background of the author, etc.), the Library Bill of Rights fosters the impression that we don’t make judgments. Instead, our principles need to promote the positive basis for our judgments: information literacy.
That takes us back to the application of these principles in everyday practice. Here, the watchword must always be “adapt,” not “adopt.” The principles don’t apply equally everywhere and in all situations. There are libraries that should collect disinformation—especially those serving people who study, analyze, and fight it. Furthermore, decisions about what constitutes misinformation and disinformation are not always easy and sometimes need to be revisited as facts emerge. We won’t get every call right. But that’s not a reason to abdicate our responsibilities in today’s information ecosystem. By putting information literacy principles at the center of our professional practice, we’ll fulfill the trust our user communities are placing in us.
The author wishes to thank Marianne Giltrud, associate professor at Prince George’s Community College, for reviewing a draft of this article.