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The Right To Be Apolitical

by on July 20, 2018

With the current political milieu, many of us have found ourselves thinking more about social justice, activism, and our personal as well as professional roles in politics. We have questioned the role of library staff and libraries in this context. We have asked ourselves, where are the lines between being an institution that openly welcomes all and not allowing bigotry, racism, and intolerance? Many of us have actively sought to challenge and explore ideas and press some traditional boundaries. We have done this through display, programming, and collection development.

For many of us, myself included, we have strong feelings and fears about what is happening in today’s world. We see challenges to concepts such as free speech and democracy, that traditionally public libraries hold dear. Because of this we have tried to expose a diversity of ideas and educate through our roles as librarians. Some have debated the process and policies that indicate all sides must be represented if any given topic is raised within the library. The current climate has prompted some institutions to formalize a politically neutral policy. This in turn has caused others to question and object to this path. Some have gone so far as to express anger at those who, for personal perspective or institutional policies, avoid all controversial topics.

Although I do not believe a library should avoid controversial topics, and that such action is against the mission and core values of a public library, I also understand the choice. A sad truth is that in many locations the public library is not an independent organization, but one that exists at the political mercy of others. As such, a policy on political neutrality maybe be a protection for existence. It may also be the only means possible to ensure that all views are represented within the institution.

I am not happy to see public libraries codify a neutral position. I do worry that there may come a time when in the name of neutrality, we will in fact ignore gross injustices. However, to force an individual or institution to take a political position can enable gross injustices that much quicker. The forced position can make the situation more divisive and more precarious.

I am very sensitive to the notion that when I start telling others, ‘you can’t…’ I am legitimizing their saying the same to me. I personally believe that politically neutral is a political position. I personally believe that neutral is a dangerous position to hold. But I also believe that to keep my freedoms and beliefs, we all must be very careful when we tell others what they can and cannot do. Given this, doesn’t everyone have a right to be apolitical?