The Role of the Library in the era of Alternative Facts

Preface:   I am not expressing any political or other views in this essay.   I am writing to discuss my views of the role of the library (and the librarian), in a time where facts – formerly a cornerstone of society’s collective knowledge – are becoming political tactics.  These are my views and not necessarily those of Auto-Graphics, Inc.

Observation 1:  The library isn’t, and shouldn’t, be an umpire on the social, religious, and political issues confronting the country.   Our role is not to decide what facts are correct or incorrect.   Our role is not to buy materials that lean a certain political direction, nor is it to provide reference help that pushes the librarian’s social views on the patron.  Our role is not to advocate

Observation 2:  The library, and the librarian, should be collecting materials that expose differing points of view on any of these topics.  Even (especially!) if the point of view of the material is anathema to the librarian.  A library’s collection on climate change, for example, should include not only titles that describe the dangers of the process, but also materials by those who disagree.    Again, our role is to collect and present information, and let the patron – the reader – draw his or her own conclusions.

Observation 3:   No collection development policy is ever completely objective.  Staff doing collection development, despite their most honest efforts, are nevertheless the products of their education, upbringing, community, and personal history.   The choice of titles to purchase reflects, at some level, the views of the selector.    The selector, should, therefore, make an extra effort to select items that represent a broad gamut of views on a topic.

Observation 4:    Inevitably, there will be pressure on the library to buy materials that support a particular religious, social, economic, environmental, or political stance.   Pressure comes from local politicians, Library board members, donors, religious leaders, and others.    Pressure can be overt or subtle, but the result is the same.   Someone external to the library wants to tell the professional library staff to shape the collection in a certain way.   That’s not good for the library, long term.

Observation 5:  This is nothing new.  Just another chapter in the same book.   External pressure on library selection policy goes back 100 years or more.   Almost every historical event – World War I, World War II, the Depression,   the Vietnam war, McCarthyism, Watergate, the Iraq wars, Obamacare – led to the publication of highly opinionated books and materials, and with that, pressure on library staff to purchase materials supporting one side or another.    The same goes for any of the myriad of social and religious conflicts that America has experienced.

Observation 6:   “Picking sides” is unwise.  No matter what one’s personal views are, as professional librarians, our duty is to add fairly, and as objectively as possible, to our collections.   Picking sides – representing one side of an issue but not the other – will boomerang back and damage the library’s credibility, to its funders and to the community at large.   If the library wants to be valued, long term, then objectivity is essential, regardless of pressure.

Conclusions:

I could include all sorts of links to ALA, intellectual freedom resources, and similar sites.
I won’t. Rather, I’ll repeat what I wrote at the top of this essay:

  • As librarians, our role is not to convince or persuade people. Our role is not to say what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’, ‘true’ or ‘false’
  • Our role is to collect as objectively as possible and point people to all sorts of materials on all sides of social and political issues
  • The role of the library is to be a credible source of information

 

 

 

 

 

 

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