Libraries as Neutral Spaces

On March 2nd, Dr. Seuss Enterprises released the following statement:

Today, on Dr. Seuss’s Birthday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises celebrates reading and also our mission of supporting all children and families with messages of hope, inspiration, inclusion, and friendship.

We are committed to action.  To that end, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, working with a panel of experts, including educators, reviewed our catalog of titles and made the decision last year to cease publication and licensing of the following titles:  And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry StreetIf I Ran the Zoo, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra!, Scrambled Eggs Super!, and The Cat’s Quizzer.  These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.

Ceasing sales of these books is only part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises’s catalog represents and supports all communities and families.

(source: https://www.seussville.com/statement-from-dr-seuss-enterprises/)

After this announcement was made, conversations began in the library world about what to do with the six Dr. Seuss titles that would no longer be published. The KCLS system made the decision (it wasn’t a larger conversation, unfortunately) to keep the six books (we have about 50 copies of each, now with LONG waiting lists – with how much these books are selling for, I’m curious how many will actually be returned?). Which then begs the question – shouldn’t something done to educate readers about the content, especially if the publisher themselves are no longer publishing the books due to how they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong” ?

Professional librarian guidelines that are often used for weeding (aka taking paritcular books out of the library collection), like the CREW method, defines poor content as including Material that contains biased, racist, or sexist terminology or views (pg. 20). However, the American Library Association (the organization which represents the librarian profession in our country) emphasizes the US library’s association to protected free speech and universally defines censorship as the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons — individuals, groups, or government officials — find objectionable or dangerous. Obviously, this definition of censorship clashes with the CREW method of weeding.

Why is that? Well, there is a HUGE ongoing debate in the library world as to if it’s actually possible for libraries to be a neutral space. And if they should even try to be.

Let’s take an example – at the end of 2019, Seattle Public Library allowed a group of “radical feminists” (who advocate against transgender rights) utilize their meeting space. This decision was made in the spirit of neutrality – their controversial views were not “censored” by the library. However, this decision impacted the library’s relationship with their trans patrons, allies, employees, and the larger community of LGBTQ+ folx.

Is allowing a political group to use library space to advocate against others neutral? “[D]angerous” and “objectionable” perspectives are protected under the first amendment, but is giving it a platform an act of neutrality? Is it neutral to host a group speaking against transgender rights when transgender individuals already face high rates of being targeted for violence?

I think it’s hard for individuals who have the priviledge of operating in a “neutral” identity within the dominant narrative of Western culture – white, cis-gender male, financially comfortable, straight, usually Christian – to understand why neutrality isn’t as straightforward as allowing diverse representation, including narratives and platforms that target marginalized identities. Marginalized humans like me (a queer woman) don’t have the privilege of a “neutral” identity in the world. My existence is politicalized simply because it falls outside the dominant narrative, no matter who I am as a person otherwise.

So how does this translate to our conversation about libraries as a neutral space?

Because of my identity, who I am is literally welcomed or unwelcomed/invalidated in different ways – laws, rights, moral or religious views, etc. – as a default. As a small example, say I’m looking through “Happy Anniversary!” cards at a store and only finding “husband to wife” or “wife to husband” terminology. A heterosexual individual wouldn’t even necessarily notice or think about this terminology on greeting cards (and what kind of relationships it excludes), let alone understand that it plays into a larger experience of a marginalized identity being made to feel unwelcome/invalidated.

On the flipside, some individuals feel unwelcome/invalidated when particular marginalized identities are made welcome (to be clear, this definitely is not in this same category of experiences as what I discussed above -instead, it is a form of gatekeeping) . Let’s revisit the store in the example and change the scenario so there are anniversary cards for an inclusive array of sexualities and relationship types. Inclusion is neutral, right? But now there are some individuals who are upset that these other relationships are being represented, viewing their inclusion as a decidedly non-neutral action.

What can be considered a neutral environment for one person isn’t necessarily a neutral environment for another. Who then decides what neutrality looks like – or is it impossible?

Discussion of libraries as neutral spaces smacks of the intellectual snobbery historically embedded in the librarian profession (“knowing best” for our patrons) as well as the privilege evident in this very white profession. Any realist would point out the very finite extent of library resources – not every book can be on a library’s shelves (there’s no library with enough room or enough budget!), not every group can utilize the library’s meeting rooms (the library is only open so many days for so many hours with so many meeting room spaces!). How does one make decisions then about what gets included or not included? Is it neutral to make space for perspectives or ideas that are unabashedly unwelcoming towards traditionally marginalized or still vulnerable groups? What are guidelines that could be set that then don’t become censorship?

Let’s bring this back around to where we began – the six Dr. Seuss books no longer being published. KCLS choose to keep these books on the shelf. Their justification is that not removing these titles is a neutral act. But, is it? Have they engaged the communities affected by the derogatory depictions in the conversation about whether they should keep them? Is it neutral to make these decisions without the feedback of these communities and still place on them the burden of navigating the consequences from negative stereotypes, some of which these books contain? Unfortunately, there is no room at KCLS for conversations about collection development – there are only decisions made at the top. I knew that pursuing this issue in an attempt to spark larger conversations about seeming “neutrality” would get me nowhere. However, the one action I suggested to adminstration and have gotten traction on is adding a bookplate inside these six titles. The bookplate would include information about the publisher’s decision to no longer publish the books, including part of their statement. As these are books outside of a particular “time and space,” there’s no way a parent uneducated on the topic could anticipate the harmful content these books contain – picking up To Think I Saw it on Mulberry Street isn’t like picking up Huckleberry Finn.

However, when I started a conversation with other library professionals outside my system about the idea of bookplates, they were quick to point to the ALA’s policy about labeling materials. Labeling is considered a form of censorship, as it is: predisposing people’s attitudes toward library resources. Prejudicial labels are designed to restrict access, based on a value judgment that the content, language, or themes of the resource, or the background or views of the creator(s) of the resource, render it inappropriate or offensive for all or certain groups of users. This statement is interesting to me, since it is literally describing how collection management works – deciding what is and is not appropriate for library patrons. Librarians invisably making these value judgements for others is just fine, but if we contextualize materials for our patrons to be able to self-select, it is somehow censorship? If a museum includes a contextual plaque on the wall next to a painting for the viewer, are they censoring the art because they have prejudiced how the viewer approaches the piece?

Is contextualizing a children’s book that has no obvious context for its dated content by including a statement from the publisher truly censorship? I’ve given this whole topic a lot of thought recently, and I really don’t think that it is. In the same way that permissiveness is not neutrality, giving readers power to self-select based on factual context is not censorship. I also acknowledge I’m another white voice in a predominantly white profession whose perspective on these topics is limited because I also enjoy a degree of priviledge – which is to say, this matter and conversation is further evidence for the importance of diversity and representation in the library profession.