Chris Bourg, Assistant University Librarian for Public Services at Stanford University Libraries, recently wrote an interesting blog post about her agenda for libraries. It's a queer and feminist agenda, which might startle some librarians - but she points out that everyone has agendas. They just aren't always acknowledged.
This is the kind of thing you rarely hear from librarians. We have strategic plans, visions, goals, and values, but we generally shy away from agendas and often try quite hard not to have opinions, or at least we keep our opinions to ourselves, quite separate from our professional lives.
Librarians often believe they and the libraries they work for adopt, like Wikipedia, a “neutral point of view.” (Wikipedia’s discussion of what that means is impressively in-depth and thoughtful.) Librarians provide access to all kinds of information on all sides of issues. That even-handedness is sometimes extrapolated into suspending all judgment in the pursuit of neutrality, witholding judgment equally when assisting a student who is writing a paper on some aspect of the Holocaust and one who is determined to prove the Holocaust a hoax and wants help finding "facts" to make that case.
We shouldn’t help students "prove" something that is contrary to the evidence. We should help them find information and encourage them to form opinions based on the evidence. Granted, they may be taking an assigned position – sometimes students have to play counsel for the defense of an opinion they don’t hold as part of a class exercise, but they are generally aware of the artificially limited nature of the exercise. It’s the students who set out to prove something they believe in, discounting all evidence to the contrary, who I’m talking about – and we meet them quite often.
I’ve heard some librarians say we can’t express any reservations about patrons' goals, that we must assist them without voicing any opinion of our own, including any suggestion that cherry-picking material that fits a belief is dishonest. I disagree. We are somewhat in the position of journalists, trying to represent diverse perspectives – but we’d be wrong to suggest all viewpoints are equally valid in order to avoid charges of bias. Wikipedia’s discussion of “neutral point of view” led me to this excellent critique by Chris Mooney of science journalism that, in striving for appearing unbiased, ends up being inaccurate and misleading.
As Chris points out, like it or not, we librarians have agendas and always have. We have deeply held values that influence what we believe libraries should be that influence what collections we provide, which services are offered and how they offered, and how we categorize and organize things. An example: The classification system is a map of what was considered important, how subjects were assumed to relate to each other, and which subjects deserved space. It was designed to accommodate new things, which can be squeezed between existing categories, but it privileges certain ways of thinking about knowledge. if you look at an outline of the system, you see all kinds of value judgments that once made sense but no longer do. (Gender and sexuality is, in fact, is an especially fraught example.) Helping students learn how to read the library against itself is part of recognizing that libraries are made by people and reflect their context.
The fact is, libraries have always had agendas, often rather grand ones. Among them is a strong belief that people should be allowed to make their own minds up. That providing information sources that represent a variety of interpretations does justice to the complexity of knowledge. That all people should be free to explore ideas, however objectionable they may be. That we should defend that exploration by providing library users with privacy and by opposing censorship.
We value certain ways of seeking and using evidence. It’s important to evaluate your sources and approach research a research question with an open mind. It’s not right to seek out only information that supports your viewpoint. It’s wrong to appropriate other people’s ideas and represent them as your own - and so forth. These are not somehow universal foundational truths. They are beliefs that are rooted historically in a particular way of knowing. We may value them deeply, but they are not the natural order of things, free of context and controversy. There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as we think through what it means, why we promote what we promote, and what really matters to us.
If nothing else, we need to acknowledge our agenda - recognize it and think about it - so that we can stand up for it.