Library philosophy, value neutrality

I just finished up the last bits of the chapter I wrote with a biology professor here, a “how we did it good” piece about teaching sustainability concepts through the library as a place. It was a fairly straightforward piece. I inserted a bunch of theory and history which the editors requested we remove, and we were left with a nice, flat, simple chapter.

A recent reference question veered into ethics, and I got hooked. I scrambled down a rabbit hole of ethical inquiry, and now I’m reading books and articles on librarian ethics and library philosophy. I’m ready for something headier for the next article.

I feel like we should have explored this more thoroughly in my U of I library bootcamp or somewhere along the way in the master’s program, but all I remember was an emphasis on value neutrality, which I’ve been practicing and accepting with some reservations since I graduated. I’ve sent students up into the stacks to look for one or two books, as they requested, that deny human influence on global warming, hoping they would notice the shelves of books asserting human influence on all sides. I’ve helped an international student who seems to be searching for materials that support pro-authoritarian views from her home country. I don’t know much about the political situation there, but I know enough to be certain there are two sides to the issue.

At this point in my reading on these issues, I still feel super uncomfortable with the idea of imposing any hint of my opinions on people who are on a personal quest for knowledge. I want to develop a relationship with them and encourage them to come back and learn the skills they need to to find quality information. I work primarily with undergraduates, whose opinions are growing and changing rapidly, and I want them to feel safe and not judged when they come to the librarian with tricky questions that they’re working out.

However, I’m beginning to see a glimmer of understanding in what the people opposing the concept of value neutrality in library service are talking about. Is it even possible to remove one’s opinions from collection development, reference service, instruction? It’s not easy, maybe, and requires ¬†constant personal vigilance, but like the journalistic standard of impartiality, it’s imperfectly possible to strive for, and our society is better for it. It can be taken too far, however, like TV networks trotting out some poor, supremely experienced, well-read expert to debate some preposterous issue with an hysterical conspiracy theorist. All information is not created equal.

It’s my first night of thinking this over, though, so (hopefully), like the undergraduate investigating human influence on global warming, my thoughts will develop some nuance.


About dawnemsellem

I am a librarian. I am very curious about all things. Try me! I haven't been bored yet.
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