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Neutrality in the Library? Don’t Give Me that Bullsh*t

Beth O'Brien

Staff Writer

Beth is an east coast Canadian, born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She is (unsurprisingly) obsessed with books and is a public library assistant and book blogger. When she’s not convincing all her friends to be friends with each other, she’s trying to convince them to read YA. She likes poetry and coffee and the ocean, but her true love is her cat Edith.

The other day, I was working at the library catching up on old issues of Library Journal. In the May 15th issue, I read an interesting article titled “Tolerance is not enough.” Here, the author made note that we can’t simply “tolerate” differences; tolerance implies hardship. We need to celebrate them. This is especially important in the library if we want to create safe community spaces for the diverse groups that we serve.

From there I flipped back to  the “feedback” section, which is akin to letters to the editor. There I saw a comment about politics in the library that was in stark contrast to the previous article. This reader referred to “Leftist Librarians” as “snowflakes” and mocked the idea of libraries as safe spaces:

“Does anyone suppose people visit libraries to seek shelter from reality? How presumptuous to think taxpayers want or need this, even the left-leaning ones. Your job is to serve the public, not to hijack the place for your own personal therapy. It’s time for political balance among librarians, so they can focus on their actual jobs—like running better libraries—not politics.”

This made my blood boil. There I was, sitting in the middle of a library praised by patrons for being exactly that—a safe space—and I was reading this incredibly infuriating comment.

The political climate of Canada—where I’m located—and the in US is different, but it’s not that different. The US election brought out the worst in many, even here, north of the border. It frustrates me that this reader likens literal safety to political discourse and “shelter from reality.” I agree that libraries should be nonpartisan. People of different political views should be able to feel equally safe here. But we’re not talking about debating the intricacies of foreign policy—we’re talking about actual, literal safety.

How presumptuous, using this reader’s phrase, is it to assume that all library users feel equally safe? That all library users feel the same privilege as this (no doubt) white man does? That self-care in the face of stress, fear, and adversity is not noble or necessary?

When Trump was elected, people’s lives were put in jeopardy. People were, and are, scared. And rightfully so. If those people need an “escape from reality” and a little safety, as a community space we should provide that. We most certainly shouldn’t mock them like this reader. If the library refused to acknowledge this and speak out against hatred, we would not doing our jobs. This is definitely part of “running better libraries.”

When it comes to hatred and discrimination, it’s not an issue of political leanings. It may be a Republican in the White House spewing and spreading this hatred, but it’s not about political party. It’s an issue of human rights and human decency. Here, the library can’t be neutral. That Library Journal even gave voice to this troll irks me.

This comment made me think of so many others I’ve heard about neutrality in the library. These comments were generally less offensive, but they achieved the same end. This type of neutrality is silence. And, in the face of hatred, silence is compliance. We can’t afford that.

Those that argue this say libraries need to be neutral to adequately serve the public. Politically, sure—generally speaking. But libraries are also meant to be places of education and truth; portals to information. When that’s what you’re meant to do, you can’t remain neutral in the face of “alternative facts” and blatant hatred.

It may not be our place to espouse partisan ideas. But it most certainly is our place to educate, to inform, and to welcome—and that includes people of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, religions, genders, sexualities, et al.

How can we possibly make all those people feel welcome and safe if we don’t take a stand in resistance to hatred? It’s not about Democrat or Republican, Liberal or Conservative. It’s about truth, equality, information, and community. We need to openly embrace and celebrate our differences and disavow the hatred that would divide us.

So, neutrality in the library? Don’t give me that bullshit. Not now.