Well, that was quite a year, wasn’t it? I don’t know what all the “words of the year” are going to be, though Dictionary.com has gone for “complicit.” I’d nominate “disorienting” myself, mainly because “covfeve” feels too much like shooting fish in a lexicographical barrel.

It’s been quite a year for us in Libraryland as well, raising issues we wouldn’t have thought we would have to deal with in 2017, questions we thought were long settled, and generally shaking up a lot of assumptions underlying what we do, why, and who we are as a profession. Exhibit A: for the 2018 ALA Midwinter conference, ALA president Jim Neal has organized his president’s program as a debate around the questions “Are libraries neutral? Have they ever been? Should they be?”

I applaud Jim for doing this—it’s great to see ALA raising a little hell now and then, particularly at a time when the stakes feel pretty high. And this is a topic of some currency in the library world, although, for many of us who have been around for awhile, it’s a little stunning to entertain the notion that libraries as institutions might view themselves as something other than neutral.

In fact, the library profession actually has a somewhat checkered history when it comes to responding to issues in the broader society. Historically, collective action always seems to come more easily for librarians around matters of intellectual freedom. For example, the Freedom to Read Statement, issued in 1954 with the American Book Publishing Council (a precursor to the Association of American Publishers) came as a rejoinder to Joseph McCarthy. And then there are the profession’s strong responses to the rather clownish Library Awareness Program of the 1980s, and the considerably less clownish PATRIOT Act (which famously led to then–Attorney General John Ashcroft’s immortal 2003 characterization of librarians as exhibiting “baseless hysteria.”) Ah, those were the days.

Librarians were less nimble and notably less courageous when it came to the civil rights movement. It took years for ALA leaders to finally grow a spine and insist that not only should libraries be open to all, but our professional associations should be as well—a shameful period we don’t always talk enough about.

I can imagine much of how Jim Neal’s discussion will go in Denver, particularly since it’s arranged as a debate with a responder panel, and there are some very fine people involved. There will be those who argue for a familiar vision of libraries as unbiased, and those who say that is folly in a world that seems turned upside down. And there are valid points to be raised on both sides.

But the answer to the fundamental question “Are libraries neutral?” seems pretty predictable. As is so often the case: “maybe.” Or better still, “it depends.”

Really? Maybe?

Yeah, I know, “maybe” feels like a cop-out. But in this case I don’t think it is, because the question of library neutrality actually conflates two questions—one about the political lives of librarians and libraries as institutions, and another about their professional work. Trying to think about these questions together often muddies the waters and causes confusion and consternation. Pulling them apart, however, reveals a more complicated and therefore fraught environment.

The political part of this discussion today covers a lot of ground, much of which is well trodden. The fight to preserve net neutrality, for example, fits with a long pattern of policy advocacy efforts regarding a range of issues that affect how librarians do our business and serve our communities, which librarians and our organizations have taken on for decades. And, while there might not always be perfect agreement on specific policy stances, that the library profession would undertake this kind of policy advocacy is neither shocking nor controversial.

The second sense in which people raise the question of neutrality is in the day-to-day work of libraries and librarians: offering services, acting as community meeting places, and especially building and maintaining collections of materials. Here we have a long tradition as well, of representing and encouraging multiple points of view, seeking balance, and enabling a reflection of the tastes and interests of the communities we serve. It’s an imperfect process, to be sure, and nobody’s ever 100% happy. But this is what we do, we’ve done it for a long time, and we still do it all the time.

Today, however, it sure does seem like the questions are getting thornier. Do the neo-Nazis get to reserve the community room? Should we have materials in the collection describing and advocating conversion therapy? Or placing creationism on an equal footing with, like, science? Some among us seem to be suggesting that we must draw lines, or even choose sides, and articulate the kinds of people or ideas that are simply beyond the pale, unacceptable, and not welcome in libraries. And, I’ll admit, it is oh-so-tempting to say something like “let’s just stick to the facts.” But in today’s environment, in which facts seems to be up for grabs on a regular basis (and not in a cool virtual-reality or Blade Runner kind of way either), what hope would we ever have of resting our work on “objective” “facts”?

The good news is that the library world is accustomed to change—in technology, demography, policy, the economic environment, and society. We’ve had little choice. But still, the kind of shift in the political environment we’re experiencing today feels different, which is why so many librarians are feeling so uncomfortable. When the ground feels like it’s shifting under your feet, it’s hard to stand upright.

With that in mind, it strikes me that the debate in Denver won’t really be around the question of “neutrality” so much as a broader reconsideration of the role of libraries and librarians. Let’s face it: the 19th-century vision of American libraries as providing worthy reading for moral improvement and fostering an informed electorate might not entirely cut the mustard any more. Rather, we are witnessing a new phase in a decades-long recalibration of libraries from a passive, repository model to a more active—activist, even—community-engagement model.

Thus, the more relevant question may not be whether libraries are neutral, but rather what role or roles they should play in fostering or creating change. There is no easy answer to that question, and there is no single answer to that question, and there never will be.

Our Common Mission

Which brings me back to Libraryland. That name has been around forever, certainly as long as I’ve been around, an affable, cozy, slightly-too-cutesy, tote-bag-flavored characterization.

But to extend the metaphor, if we want to think of the library community as a “land,” we should recognize that Libraryland is not a continent, but an archipelago—dozens, hundreds of islands big and small representing a dizzying gamut of types, perspectives, purposes, and clienteles, from tiny volunteer-run reading rooms open a few hours a week to offer a few hundred donated books in isolated communities, to the grandest and most richly appointed palaces in the largest cities and the greatest universities holding the treasures of thousands of years of human exploration.At first glance, it would seem that little could unify a profession this diverse and fractious, and there are days when we all probably think that’s true. And yet, here we are, in all our rambunctious glory.

As we gather in Denver for the 2018 Midwinter Meeting, and as we debate our roles in an American society that sometimes feels like it is being torn apart, we can at least start our discussions from this point of agreement: What drives us all—vast and tiny, academic and public, school and special, urban and rural, left and right—is a deep-seated desire, a calling even, to serve our communities. And it’s that commonality of purpose that must guide us now.

Joseph Janes is associate professor in the University of Washington Information School and author of Documents That Changed the Way We Live (Rowman Littlefield).

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