Banned Books and the “Neutral” Library

Next week is Banned Books Week, an annual awareness campaign that celebrates the “freedom to read.” Banned Books Week was founded in 1982 by Judith Krug, a librarian and former director of the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom. Krug was a staunch censorship critic, privacy rights advocate, and free speech activist–all issues that Banned Books Week seeks to highlight and promote.
For me, Banned Books Week also always raises some important questions about the relationship between censorship and neutrality in libraries and educational institutions. Librarians have long worked to challenge censorship, foster spaces that are inclusive to all, and “provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues”–these are three tenets of the Library Bill of Rights.
Some librarians use these principles to argue that libraries and librarians should be neutral. The issue of neutrality in libraries is (to put it mildly) a polemic topic. Neutrality proponents believe that libraries and librarians must strive for a neutral ideal in order to maintain the central ideological tenets of the profession and to ensure the “freedom to read.” Other librarians argue that neutrality is impossible since we all already exist within social and political systems that are inequitable and fraught. These librarians believe that to embrace neutrality is to ignore the oppressive conditions that social and political systems implicitly create and which institutions (including libraries and colleges) replicate. Librarians who reject the idea of neutrality also seek to uphold the central values of their profession.
On Friday morning the Washington Post ran an article that might be read as a microcosm of the library neutrality debate. The article describes the case of a Library in West Virginia that refuses to carry “Fear,” the recently published book by the journalist Bob Woodward that is critical of the Trump administration. When questioned about this omission from the collection, the Library Director only commented that, “we have other Trump books.” The article, which includes comments from the current director of the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom, concludes that the library is effectively censoring this book (and the political ideas it advances) by not making it available.
The subtext of the Washington Post article is the implied political stance of the Library Director.  As much as I disagree with the actions the Library Director has taken, I resent this subtext. I also resent that this subtext has more to do with my own political beliefs (and the way that they are subtly provoked by the article) than it does with the tone of the Post article itself.
This story, updated hours later to reflect a decision by the library board to acquire “Fear,” interestingly illustrates (both in the reaction it provokes and the content it contains) both the impossibility of neutrality and the importance of the continuing fight against censorship.
I wonder….
how might a more open discussion of the relationship between ideology and work practices happen in an environment that doesn’t pretend to be neutral but is nevertheless committed to library values that protect our “freedom to read”?
Want to celebrate your own freedom to read?
Check out the banned and challenged books on display near the entrance to the City Tech Library and learn more about the fight against censorship in libraries and beyond.

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