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A Library for All

Reading PEN America's recent report on free speech on campus and thinking about the never-neutral library.

October 20, 2016
 

PEN America recently published a substantial report on freedom of speech on campus (covered here). This seems a natural subject for the organization to address, given its mission.

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

Given the contentiousness of discussions around safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions, and so-called “political correctness” in recent years, their report is welcome, as is their finding that freedom of speech is compatible with inclusivity and sensitivity to minority perspectives. It should be of great practical use on campuses for prompting discussions and negotiating common ground around these issues. The call in their Principles on Campus Free Speech to cultivate an appreciation of free speech without categorizing issues as right- or left-wing is particularly timely. The use of the phrase “politically correct” in this election cycle has positioned free speech as a thing conservatives and libertarians defend against liberals, progressives, and members of minority groups, but as PEN points out, it’s something that is valuable and valued across the board. It’s certainly  not something the left should cede to the right just because discussing race, ethnicity, sexuality, and social justice is fraught and difficult.

Skimming through this report made me think about a discussion librarians have been having recently. Somewhere along the line, it became received wisdom to say libraries and librarians are neutral. I’m not sure where there came from, exactly – it’s not neutral to value intellectual freedom; it’s a stand we take, actively. Ensuring that we have multiple voices on subjects in the library is a conscious choice to promote access to a diversity of thought, something that gets librarians in trouble from time to time (though far more often in school and public libraries than in academia). Encouraging students to value evidence-based thinking is a cause we advance in our instruction, but it's not universally embraced. Taking social responsibility and the public good seriously – that’s not a neutral stance. It’s even a little radical these days.

Some of the issues we encounter are a microcosm of campus-wide issues. This year at my library we highlighted Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day. We have created guides to resources on hot topics: Black Lives Matter, Islam in the news, the refugee crisis, gender identity and the bathroom debate. Often these resource guides and displays have been created to support events on campus – a workshop or lecture – but sometimes they are merely intended to expose what we have to offer related to national debates.

This doesn’t mean we aren’t supporting more traditional categories of knowledge; we have guides to philosophy and religion and chemistry, too. We just want to make visible our belief that every issue can be examined more closely, that the research habits students develop in their courses is equally valuable for interrogating what’s happening in the wider world. To be honest, students are too busy managing their course work to read up on these issues, but we still want to convey that message: this isn’t just for school. Even after you graduate, libraries can help you find stuff out and make up your mind.

The architectural language of libraries and the organizational systems we use are never neutral. I make a point of talking about how helpful it is to know something about the ways knowledge organization can skew things. Just look at the heated brawls that erupt on Wikipedia, arguing whether or not something violates the NPV rule – that it doesn’t adhere to a neutral point of view. For some editors, mentioning race or gender in an article is a violation of neutrality that needs to be edited out. Search engines are more blind; they encode our biases algorithmically. Old-school biases are embedded in the Library of Congress classification system. No, we’re not going to relabel and move all those books even though times have changed and the relationship of one category to another has shifted. But we can help researchers think about how all systems of organization take a stance.

The architecture of an older library may announce its mission through impressive flight of steps leading to the front doors over which, perhaps, the names of great men are carved. We might wonder why those particular names were chosen and not others, and we have to find ways to  make the building accessible, not because it’s the law but because all those steps say to some people “this place is not for you.” We have to be aware of those silently-voiced statements and ensure our buildings and collections express our values and are open to debate.

In libraries and across campus we have to achieve a balance. You are welcome here, and so are you. We stand for a diversity of voices, and we are against censorship. There’s nothing inconsistent in that, nor is that a bland kind of neutrality, a non-position. I’m reminded of something Wesley Lowery, an African-American reporter for the Washington Post, said in an interview on Code Switch, one of my must-listen podcasts:

When we talk about trying to be objective, we begin the conversation with a lie. Like, we begin the conversation with the lie that we don't have biases and that we don't perceive the world certain ways, right? I strive to be fair. And that fairness means that I have to interrogate my own biases. That fairness means I have to go out of my way to make sure I'm giving a fair, good-faith hearing to people who I know I disagree with.

That’s fair enough. Never neutral, never totally objective – but striving to do justice to a wide variety of perspectives.

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