While I am still hoping that The New York Times Opinion Section will provide the platform for a library worker to speak to Stanley Kurtz’s recent hit piece, The Battle for the Soul of the Library, I’m not waiting to respond myself. Please note, when they get Bharat Mehra or Kelly Jensen to do it better than me, I will be the first to amplify.
Libraries are not, and have never been neutral. As President of the American Library Association’s Core Division, which serves as a professional home for many in library collection work, I am bearing witness and leading interventions in a decades-long reckoning for truth in America. It is a fight, and it is one where neutrality serves neither community nor the advancement of knowledge, the foundational mission of every library. As my colleagues across the country and the world fight to simply do their jobs, “thought leaders” like Stanley Kurtz take simplified positions to undermine our expertise and authority.
In his recent opinion piece, published in the New York Times, Kurtz writes that “Library neutrality shares the classically liberal presuppositions that informed America’s founding. Human beings enjoy equal rights. Free individuals can be trusted to make their own decisions about what to read and believe.” This represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the work libraries do and the ways in which human rights are exercised. It also ignores the fact that while library workers are trying to keep books on shelves, appointed library boards are practicing censorship. While library workers are expanding the kinds of collections we provide access to, local governments are criminalizing access to knowledge. Library workers are in fact even being arrested for doing their jobs. In a single week of February of 2022 alone, at least 25 attempts at censoring library collections were undertaken by non-library workers.
Hell, the Times itself has reported on this. May I ask, Dr. Kurtz, who is censoring what now?
Librarians are curators, not suppliers. As an institution, the public library system is in place to eliminate barriers for everyone to access knowledge, and knowledge itself is not neutral. Interpretation can be individual, but in an unprecedented era of misinformation, the importance of expert curation cannot be overstated. It is untrue that “human beings enjoy equal rights” in a country where racial and economic divides render this casual assumption of equality baseless and indefensible. I can say it is untrue because it is not a matter of opinion.
As with all American institutions, libraries must contend with our own racist and exclusionary history and end present racist practices which continue to cause harm in our communities. However, libraries are as necessary as ever because we liberate knowledge– we are one of the few remaining commons in American life. The responsibility that ensues from that unique position is to deliver services and collections that help overcome the inequities that Kurtz deliberately minimizes. Does the avoidance of the current American context represent naivete or a willful avoidance of realities? It is 2022, so the answer is probably both.
As a woman in America in 2022, I will also observe the sexist hostility implicit in this viewpoint is unsurprising as it is insidious. Library work is one of a small number of professions that have not been (completely) dominated by white men. Libraries are easy targets for this style of prescriptive opinion piece, and I challenge the desire by powerful men to tell others how to do their jobs because it reeks of a desire to dominate which is wholly inappropriate to the collective challenges we face. It also indicates a desire for passivity from a non-white-male workforce that is gendered and frankly gross. I’m tired of being told how to do my job– which I am excellent at. I am furious on behalf of my colleagues. I’m tired of fighting for respect while fighting for truth and access, and I should not have to fight for any of those things.
Libraries are unique and valuable to our society because of our curation, not despite it. We are here to liberate knowledge, not to allow for or promote misinformation. We will continue to do our jobs because more than ever that is what America needs.
What if I told you the battle for the soul of the library isn’t a battle at all? Because in this piece all I see are the same tired ideas I have seen from folks unqualified to make judgments of knowledge and information work so many times before. I’m woke enough to see that your point is tired, and it’s not a battle, it’s a bore.
American Library Association (ALA). (2017). Committee on the status of women in
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Britz, Johannes J. (2004), To Know or Not To Know: A Moral Reflection on Information Poverty, Journal of Information Science, Vol 30, Issue 3, pp192-204, https://doi.org/10.1177/0165551504044666
Department for Professional Employees (DPE) AFL-CIO. (2021). Library Professionals: Facts & Figures : 2021 Fact Sheet. Retrieved from https://www.dpeaflcio.org/factsheets/library-professionals-facts-and-figures#_edn22.
Gooding-Call, Anna. (2021) A History of Racism in American Public Libraries. Book Riot. Retrieved from https://bookriot.com/racism-in-american-public-libraries/
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Institute for Economic and Racial Equity (IERE), Brandeis University. (2021). Racial Wealth and Economic Equity. Retrieved from https://heller.brandeis.edu/iere/work/racial-wealth-equity.html#:~:text=IERE’s%20work%20around%20racial%20wealth,financial%20gain%20differentially%20by%20race.
Harris, Elizabeth A. and Alter, Alexandra. Book Ban Efforts Spread Across the U.S.(2022). The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/30/books/book-ban-us-schools.html
Jensen, Kelly. (2022). Take one step this week toward combatting censorship: this week’s book scensorship news, February 25, 2022. Book Riot. Retrived from https://bookriot.com/book-challenge-news-february-25-2022/
Kurtz, Stanley. (2022). The Battle for the Soul of the Library. New York Times Opinion. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/24/opinion/battle-library-neutrality.html
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Misra, Tanvi. (2018). Is Your Librarian Racist?. Bloomberg City Lab. Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-01-11/librarians-have-an-implicit-bias-problem-too
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