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Partial Librarians and Impartial Libraries

Last week a reader left the following a comment on my post Librarians and Journalists:

Libraries have for a long time leaned to the left. Just take a look at ALA and its emphasis on librarians becoming “change agents” and “community facilitators.” Sounds an awful lot like “community organizer.” The days of librarians claiming to be impartial are over.

In some ways it seems pretty obvious. Right-wing librarians are an anomaly, for some understandable reasons. If you want to exclude immigrants from public services, for example, you’re unlikely to go into a profession that ideally welcomes all users equally.

We know they don’t really welcome all users equally, because nobody ever lives up to ideals, but the hope is there for a lot of librarians.

What I noticed about the comment, though, is how three different things get conflated: librarians, libraries, and the ALA, and I think we can understand more about all three by separating them.

Librarians tend to be pretty left-wing. A large percentage are probably socialists, or “progressives” as socialists like to call themselves these days.

An even larger percentage are probably liberals of some kind or another. They might not agree with the socialists all the time, but they’d rather sup with socialists than with conservatives. They share the mindset with socialists that they’re on the side of the right and the good.

Then there’s the ALA, especially the ALA Council and the Office for Ineffectual Freedom, and even more especially the ALA Council when it occasionally gets hijacked by the socialists and starts going on about topics with no connection to libraries.

“War is bad,” says the ALA Council, and the world continues to ignore it.

But then there are libraries. We’ll stick to just public libraries, since that what the ALA and the general public think when they see the word “libraries.”

Librarians are partial; the ALA can be very partial; but public libraries?

Yes, they’re partial to the left in that they institutionally value intellectual freedom, equal access to their resources, and public funding for a public good. However, those are liberal values that conservatives often share. Not all conservatives are nativist Trumpkins or neoliberals, after all.

However, libraries are actually very conservative entities, as the socialists and their colleagues even further to the left point out with horror.

Libraries of some sort have existed for millennia, but even the public libraries that we know and love have existed since the 19th century, and that goes back to the 18th century if you count subscription libraries.

Public libraries of some variety have existed and steadily developed and expanded for over 200 years, and their core activity hasn’t changed: they provide access to a variety of books and magazines for interested readers.

Despite all the guff about “change agents,” libraries haven’t changed their core mission for centuries. They change, if at all, very slowly, and in ways that don’t sacrifice their very old core mission. If they change too much, they’ll cease to be libraries, which is what a lot of librarians would prefer.

And the collections aren’t particularly biased, unless one considers a bias for genre fiction and cookbooks. Librarians might be very left-wing on average, but the libraries they work in sure have a lot of books by Ann Coulter.

The librarians probably aren’t going to put up book displays of right-wing books, but they’ll buy them if people want them. The books might be the usual awful tripe that makes the bestseller list, but the local public library probably stocks them.

Librarians sometimes want to thwart this conservative neutrality, but there’s not much they can do. A book display isn’t exactly a powerful form of political speech, and when librarians try to protest politically, they often just look silly or weird.

Some librarians might want libraries to be more “diverse,” but it’s a profession overwhelmingly made up of middle-class white women. There’s only so much diversity they can handle.

Some other librarians want libraries to be “radical,” to change the world one library card at a time. But they’re always going to be frustrated, because a radical change to society would probably end public libraries, which are publicly funded social agencies. If the government goes, so does the library, because it’s a government operation.

The radicals are stuck with whatever the middle-class folks who fund public libraries want.

The vast majority of people like libraries just the way they are and have been for a long time. They don’t want libraries to change, even in nonpolitical ways. They want quiet spaces to read books, not loud community centers, and certainly not loud community centers preaching politics to them.

The fate of the partial librarians is to work in impartial libraries that frustrate their political goals by remaining steadfastly liberal, moderate, and politically boring.

That’s a good thing for everyone else.

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Comments

  1. Peter Ward says:

    Very good points; however, how can a person’s political sensibilities not influence their work, especially if work is in a public library where ideas count. Of course not every librarian has used their library as a soapbox. Impartiality is still a professional value for most of us. But times have changed. Political polarization has divided us to an even greater extent than ever before. The battle lines have been drawn and our leadership in the profession has taken a side. How long will it take before the rank and file begin to use their libraries to facilitate political change. In fact, it’s already happening.

  2. Sharon Crotser-Toy says:

    Public libraries are “socialist” by nature; the means of some mechanism or thing(s) being owned by the whole rather than a part. That is, in fact, the purpose. We cannot each own all of the books (or, these days, a plethora of items both physical and digital) but we can pool our resources and share the outcome. I don’t know why that has to be either a liberal or conservative stance. Strictly speaking, it has some of both so isn’t genuinely in either camp. What concerns me is the notion that it must be.

  3. anonymous coward says:

    But if you aren’t with us you are against us!

    Of course that’s not true, but that’s the stance we find ourselves in. It is increasingly unacceptable to say, “I agree with you on this, but disagree with your views on that.” The response is an all or nothing political gambit.

    Minimum wage is framed as a library issue, racism is framed as a library issue, gender gaps by professions (not in libraries) is framed as a library issue, funding of national parks is framed as a library issue, war is framed as a library issue, etc;, and the correct “library side” of these issues has already been defined by those who scream the loudest/care the most. It is a failure of the institution when library leaders are simply those who self proclaim the mantle at the top of their lungs, with snark and derision to those who would disagree with their cause.

  4. Ann Coulter isn’t the standard on conservative voices. If that’s all a public library is buying then they are failing. Do they have books by Ben Shapiro? Are they ordering American Pravda? Just as I expect books by Camille Paglia and alternative feminist authors I expect diverse conservative authors. I want to read them all and decide for myself.

  5. Yes, unfortunately we have books by Ben Shapiro. But, I think you already knew that.

  6. AC, you’re conflating the ALA with “libraries.” My public library has never taken any kind of public stance on “war” or “national park funding.” Racism is indeed a library issue in that we’re all about providing equitable access. The rest is nonsense.

  7. Cindy Maxey says:

    Peter,

    Would you give some specific examples of where and how this is “already happening” in specific public libraries?

  8. And that attitude sums up why the public questions the agenda of librarians. You should no more say “unfortunately” to a Ben Shapiro book than Al Franken’s or Michael Wolff’s.

  9. I have no more love for having to expend more budget resources than I would like on Wolff’s book either. Also, what “agenda” can there be if we’re still purchasing books to meet demand regardless of our personal political views? That clearly shows professionalism and a desire to meet community demand. I also dislike Shapiro more for his faux intellecualism and tone deaf arguments than his conservative viewpoints.

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