In one of the first blog posts in this series, I declared my purpose as follows: “I… acknowledge… that I’m not entirely sure how I’m going to get from point A to point B… but let me just state that Point A is (waves hand in air vaguely) all this and Point B is either “libraries are objective, but not necessarily entirely neutral” OR “libraries need to update their definition of neutrality” OR some other statement that reflects the “big tent-ness” of libraries while protecting appropriate boundaries for all users. I’m hoping that this is not an “underpants gnome” situation. When I wrote this, I never thought I’d still be working on these posts in August, but this will be the last one, and I’m really excited to get back to writing posts about quirky booklists. I’ve been getting my fix by making quirky videos in which they let me free associate about books for 10 minutes each month; you can find them on our Youtube channel JCLS Beyond

At the end of my last post, I managed to express how reference services stay neutral. Neutrality is a word that gets thrown around with abandon in library conversations, and what it means, given all the things that libraries do, can quickly become unclear. Actually, entire sessions have been devoted to this topic at national library conferences. Here’s a summary of one. I’ve heard some librarians suggest “objective” is a better term to use than “neutral.” I’ve also just occasionally felt like “neutral,” as a word, is really complicated to deploy, given the multifaceted nature of library services. It gets messy because it means different things with regard to how we select and deselect items, how we choose topics and presenters for our programs, how we interact with patrons, how we provide access to our meeting rooms, and beyond (*coughs*—this blog). And in all of these cases, decisions are being made that some would see as non-neutral because we do not have infinite resources (funds, space, and staff), which means we can’t buy all the materials, provide all the programs, feature all the books, and so on. 

Maybe, at the end of the day, what’s really important is that libraries are, by design, just very big tents: full of jostling, competing, chaotic, and contradictory ideas. Like Walt Whitman, we contain multitudes. We do absolutely have to be neutral when it comes to politics related to specific candidates or policy positions. (We can’t even take a side when our own funding is on the ballot.) We will also explore and research ideas with you no matter our personal opinions. Ask any librarian in your life. I’d venture that all of us have a story where, as part of our jobs, we’ve interacted with ideas we found personally distasteful without sharing these strong personal beliefs during the interaction. We also disagree with each other… All. The. Time. Witness the article above about libraries and neutrality! At the same time, we are a taxpayer-funded entity, and, as we’ve recently discovered, we partner with other agencies when crises such as the Almeda Fire or the COVID-19 Pandemic happen. We get the word out about masking and vaccines. There are those in this country right now who would dispute the neutrality of doing such a thing. And, yet… here we are, and here we will stay.  

But I think the other thing that is sometimes the real core of the conversation about neutrality is that we contain and share ideas that are important to our communities that aren’t necessarily supported by the entire community (like sharing information about vaccines, which we contend should not be in any way controversial, but also recognize that it has become such). Keep in mind that there are materials in the library with which EVERY reasonable person must disagree because there are contradictory ideas in here. We find that pushback in libraries in general happens frequently when it comes to inclusion of materials in our collection that serve to fully represent our entire community, by representing those who are less represented within the community. So, for example, materials that allow our BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ communities to feel fully seen may result in those who don’t fall into these groups feeling like these types of materials are taking up more space than they used to, because they are… and this can lead to feeling like their specific worldview is less represented, which is also true because of limited space availability. This doesn’t reflect a lack of neutrality, but a rebalancing of a collection that was underserving a portion of our community previously. So, when we display materials during Pride month or Black History Month, these conversations about neutrality take a weird turn into “whataboutism.” For example, see this Library ComicJCLS takes being welcoming to our entire community seriously. We do regularly feature and lift up parts of our collection through displays to tie into what is going on in the world around us.  

Libraries are open to all… and “all” means “all.” It also means we all need to coexist in such a way as to not do each other harm… which brings us to one last note about the Big Tent and Structural Racism: There’s a great story from Representative Elijah Cummings about how white librarians helped him when he was growing up… librarians LOVE this story for good reason: it’s heartwarming. That said, it is incredibly short-sighted to consider Representative Cummings’ experience in Baltimore without juxtaposing it against Representative John Lewis’s statements about not being able to access libraries in the Jim Crow South. Libraries have not always been welcoming to all and continue to have room to improve. Both the American Library Association and the Oregon Library Association have made a response to these structural deficits a priority. Here are links to ALA and OLA resources around anti-racism work in libraries. The point being, this is not just JCLS, this is a conversation that is being had in libraries throughout the country. We have moved as a library culture to be clear that we believe that opting out of the conversation by saying “we aren’t racist” is inadequate to creating real structural changes, and so we are looking to find ways to move the needle to a point where we can serve our entire community effectively. The fact that this paragraph will raise some hackles is a symptom of that… and yes, hackles of folks who challenge the existence of anti-racism work and hackles of those who do not believe that the statements made by these library organizations are actually being followed-up with action. Hackles on BOTH SIDES… is that neutrality? ::shrug emoji:: 

Where do we go next, I’m not sure… but let’s find out. Together. 

I want to leave this with what I think is the true statement of library neutrality to which our organization is firmly committed: the list that the JCLS Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee drafted and that is now hung prominently at all our branches. In order to be neutral, all of our community must be able to exist safely and openly in our spaces. That is, and will continue to be, our goal. 

We Welcome and Value 

All Ages 

All Races and Ethnicities 

All Religions 

All Migrants, Immigrants, and Refugees 

All Languages 

All Genders 

All Sexualities 

All Sizes 

All Abilities 


The Library is for all of us. 

Please help make it a welcoming space.