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what libraries are and what libraries should be

In discussing the question of neutrality and libraries a careful distinction must be made between the descriptive and prescriptive elements. Descriptive: talking about what libraries are; ‘are libraries neutral?’. Prescriptive: talking about what libraries should be; ‘should libraries be neutral?’. Reading that blog post by some white guy about ‘ugly beliefs’ and library neutrality its pretty clear that, at least from the ALA’s bill of rights, that he is talking about what libraries should be.

In so doing he ellides the question (and problem) of whether libraries are, in fact, neutral. There is a lot of different literature out there discussing the issue and most of it concludes that libraries, despite the stated values, aren’t actually neutral. Additionally (and perhaps most importantly) librarians ourselves are not neutral. This is partly the motivation for my article on “Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression”. Only ‘partly’ because my article goes one step further to examine the ways in which libraries are not neutral1.

The reason why it is important to settle the question whether libraries, as they currently exist, are actually neutral is because their current state constrains what they can be (at least so long as we don’t enact radical change). Can non-neutral libraries be the foundation for neutral ones? If so, how? If we understand libraries as being non-neutral what changes must be made in order to achieve the ideal of neutrality?

One of the ways, as proposed by King is that we support free speech, even in cases of ‘ugly’ speech. If you look in the comments of the blog post he makes it clear that he is drawing a distinction between ‘legal’ free speech and ‘illegal’ hate speech. All speech up to that line should have equal place within libraries. Its interesting to me that he points out that these discussions were sparked by events in Charlottesville. Which, I’m guessing, is his example of ‘ugly speech’. Interesting because the ‘speech’ in Charlottesville did, in reality, incite violence. It would seem, then, that discussing free speech in the context of this particular event is a little misguided (but whatever).

Beyond the problems of using laws as moral compass (e.g., the legal system in the US is famous for how oppressive it is), we can see this as an attempt to dodge the moral culpability he (and others like him) bear for giving space to oppression. By pointing to the ‘bill of rights’ and the first amendment he is simply shrugging his shoulders regarding the larger implications of both this stance and the current state of libraries.

However, this stance itself is one of the ways in which libraries become sites of institutional oppression. And, please, recall that ‘institutional oppression’ isn’t about individuals but the system and institution as a whole (that said, we as individuals are morally culpable for what institutions do and are, since we are an integral part of these institutions).

The example I always love to use is when Janice Raymond was invited to speak at an event taking place in the Vancouver Public Librarie’s public space. Both within that press release and the ensuing discussion the legal code is pointed out as the line for what is (and should be) allowable. Also do note that hate speech laws are more restrictive in Canada than in the US. But the point does remain: what Raymond intended to speak about wasn’t hate speech (legally speaking). At the same time, it is also the perfect example of the kind of speech that both causes and expresses oppression.

Her topic that time was about sex workers. She (and the intellectual tradition she belongs to, radical feminism) supports and advocates for policies that leads to oppression and, yes, violence against sex workers. The key issue here is the criminalization of sex work. Radical feminists usually advocate for a position that they call ‘abolishing sex work’ which, in reality, means that they openly oppose attempts to legalize sex work. Decriminalizing sex work, however, is the goal for many sex workers (as in: this is what they frequently say they want for themselves).

As it happens, regardless of their theoretical background, it turns out that their opposition of decriminalizing sex work coincides with that of many conservatives. This is also true regarding their stance on trans women (as in how we are not women and, thus, should die). Its important because we end up seeing situations like vancouver rape relief (the same org that invited Raymond) arguing against trans rights, as in the recent debates Bill C-16. Their position on this and the issue of sex work gives fuel to conservatives and other politicians because they get to point to a group of feminists and make it look like there is a broader consensus than actually exists (it helps them to point out that it isn’t only the right-wing that wants sex work to remain illegal).

Okay. Why have I spent so much time describing this situation? Because its an easy example for how ‘legal’ speech can feed into the oppression of others. And, for the sake of clarity, by ‘oppression’ I absolutely do include ‘violence’ as one of the ways ppl are oppressed. So, yes, these ‘ugly’ (but legal!) beliefs incite violence… its just that this incitement is covert. When radical feminists talk about ‘aboloshing sex work’ it sounds good. I mean, it is frequently a very ugly and violent business. It ‘sounds’ good right up until you realize that these translates to radfems actively working against decriminalization – which results in sex workers being exposed to the violence of the criminal justice system (not to speak of all the other kinds of violent oppression it results in).

The thing is: extremist groups have long been aware of the value of propaganda. Which means that their hate is sublimated into other ideas that don’t sound nearly as dangerous as they are. And we know this from history. We know that when people talk about racial purity this translates into eugenics and genocide. We know this and yet…. we also argue that such things should be given space within libraries. That since this kind of speech is legal, we should actively work to protect it.

And we circle back to the issue of descriptive vs prescriptive. We have ample evidence to support the idea that libraries and librarians – as we currently exist – are not neutral. Which means we are biased. And the bias leans towards oppression, not liberation. It takes very little effort to find the ways in which the classification systems most english libraries use (the library of congress or dewey) is biased. It expresses a white supremacist perspective in various ways. It is sexist, ableist, homophobic, and so on. It also doesn’t take much effort to find examples and literature about how librarians have (and do) purposefully deploy classification schemes as a way to hide/bury lgbt books (amongst many others).

I don’t think King (and others) realize that some of us frame the issue in this way: given that libraries aren’t neutral and that the bias is oppressive, we shouldn’t push for neutrality where it doesn’t exist (and may not even be possible). And given that we aren’t neutral and the oppressive bias, we have a moral obligation to both correct the current bias (and all ways it is expressed institutionally) as well as actively working against current articulations of oppression to which we are already biased towards.

As in: as non-neutral libraries and librarians we only really have two positions to support. We are either for oppression or we are against it. And given that our non-neutrality is currently biased towards oppression doing nothing or supporting the status quo means we support oppression. And the idea and ideal of ‘neutrality’ is actually part of our status quo. Neutrality is, as King helpfully points out, embedded within the core ideals of our profession and their institutions.

I mentioned on twitter that I’d be super interested in seeing some other concrete plans and ideas supporters of library neutrality have for acheiving it, given our currently non-neutral state. Its weird to me that neutrality appears to come up most often when talking about free speech and the like but I never see one of these people arguing for a complete rehaul of the DDC (or a complete new replacement). If we have non-neutral libraries and neutrality is the goal, we have a shitton more work to do than simply giving more space to oppressive ideas (and people). Libraries and librarians would require radical and fundamental change in order to even begin to approach neutrality. And yet… its pretty much just crickets from these ppl.2

  1. If I were to write this article now, it’d be a very different paper. In part due to the problems surrounding Andrea Smith herself but also because I’d use different examples. 

  2. I also have to say… this concluding statment: ‘I’m a strong believer in people, and in the idea that if really wrong ideas are voiced, the community will take notice, will speak up, and will help better the community’ betrays King’s structural placement as a white d00d. I mean. Really? How fucking naive and clueless do you have to be to make this claim. For one reason or another, I pretty much constantly hear about how I should not be allowed to exist and your average person not only is not speaking up but are actively supporting. Jesus fucking christ.