War and Peace in the Library

What lessons can the field yield from the interplay of tolerance and intolerance on micro and macro levels?

Tolerance is not a moral absolute; it is a peace treaty. Tolerance is a social norm because it allows different people to live side-by-side without being at each other’s throats. It means that we accept that people may be different from us, in their customs, in their behavior, in their dress, in their sex lives, and that if this doesn’t directly affect our lives, it is none of our business. But the model of a peace treaty differs from the model of a moral precept in one simple way: the protection of a peace treaty only extends to those willing to abide by its terms. – Yonatan Zunger

Libraries and library workers find themselves at a precarious historical moment, as efforts to ban books and/or otherwise curtail the operations of libraries and other places of education have been rising in the US, with some states passing legislation to officially remove certain titles or outlaw the discussion of sex and race. Seeing how tolerance is being eroded, legislators elsewhere are taking measures to protect people’s freedom. In Colorado, there is perhaps some sense of security because censorship efforts here have been less successful than in other states.

In this article, I will discuss the significance of this moment, wonder about what library neutrality means today, and offer suggestions to library workers eager to move forward.

Canceling culture

The materials and services that are so objectionable to censors are generally those programs and resources created to promote better understanding of history and tolerance of people, especially minorities. Specifically, the most frequently challenged books, resources, and programs are by and about people of color and LGBTQ+ people.

The intolerance that underlies these challenges conflicts with a more open-minded worldview that libraries and their staff have come to take for granted. Libraries, schools, library staff or other educators who display too much tolerance are branded under the catch-all, “woke” – a badly-defined stereotype that seems to galvanize a range of intolerant viewpoints.

These attacks on libraries are part of a larger trend of anti-intellectualism that has been gaining steam in America for years. They are often fueled by misinformation, rumor, and social media campaigns that are uninterested in the facts. How ironic, then, that libraries — the place one goes to be well informed, to understand the world, to know the truth of things — are the targets of such vitriol.Renée Loth

Library neutrality

In general, library workers and other educators tend to model tolerance of others and build on existing tolerances (such as multiculturalism) as a means for improving the library’s response to the needs of more people in their communities. Libraries seeking to have a greater impact are now more likely to focus efforts on helping their local service population thrive.

Why? Libraries are community hubs dedicated to maximizing their reach, making them one of few indoor public spaces where all people can receive invaluable “free” services and naturally drawing some of our most vulnerable community members. Library workers tend to operate better with a deeper understanding of the many different people living in their communities who rely on the library. Black Lives Matter protests and the pandemic brought to light the ways in which libraries had to step up their response and do better for minorities.

Modeling or actively promoting tolerance and acceptance for different sorts of humans is not a neutral position. Therefore, the twentieth century idea of library neutrality (in which the library can never be seen taking a stance on issues) seems increasingly anachronistic and impractical to a significant chunk of today’s library workforce, especially in light of world events and increased censorship/intolerance.

Library neutrality is a concept that harks back to an imagined time when libraries were just neutral keepers of information. The public library has indeed traditionally remained neutral, even when it came to issues like segregation, meaning that it actually enforced segregation along with all other public spaces. Many in the field now recognize that “neutrality” was tantamount to complicity in a time when horrific intolerance was systemically ingrained in law, and wonder if today’s neutrality can be meaningfully different to the neutrality of the past.

Culture wars

Today, libraries – and more concerningly, their staff – are dragged ever further into the so-called “culture wars” raging in the US and abroad, and no amount of neutrality seems to be changing that unfortunate fact. (That term, “culture wars” is rather debatable but describes the tension surrounding social and cultural issues, or as journalist Jon Ronson puts it, “the battle for dominance between conflicting values.”)

For the intolerant groups and individuals challenging libraries today, cultural heritage organizations are not a foundational aspect of society as much of civilization sees them, but corrupt partisan organizations deserving of takeover (by presumably un-biased people), or in the most egregious cases, complete erasure. That the library is embroiled in this conspiratorial “battle” for dominance is not up for debate in most circles – just look at recent headlines and see how much these themes have taken center stage. But what is up for debate is exactly how the library should respond. The challenge is on our doorstep, and for an increasing number of the profession it’s already taking place in our stacks, prompting confusion, fear and even resignation, instead of calls for unification and new best practices.

When libraries risk being defunded and even closed for lending certain titles, or face protests over displays, services, and events for or about people whose personal characteristics fall too far outside of American orthodoxy, what place does (or can, or should) neutrality hold as a core aspiration for the library? It is worth bearing in mind that censors are not necessarily arguing for a more neutral library space, but for institutions that reflect only their own worldview, or against the legitimacy of institutions in general.

Tolerance vs. intolerance as a historical lens

The history of world events can be broadly conceptualized through the lens of two competing forces: tolerance versus intolerance. For example, look to the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Second World War – the theme of intolerance looms so large as to almost be pointless to mention. As noted in the quote at the start, tolerance is not really a moral principle, but the result of a “treaty” – a social contract, which Google defines as “an implicit agreement among the members of a society to cooperate for social benefits…”

Viewing history and society through this lens leads us to another (almost-too-obvious) observation: the competing forces of tolerance and intolerance directly relate to much of our daily work, though we may not always be conscious of them. Library workers deal with these forces on an interpersonal, or micro, level with colleagues and patrons all day long: from the tone of a voice in an interaction, to developing collections, responding to disruption in the library, or working with marginalized populations such as the unhoused, or people who don’t speak English as a first language.

It is no coincidence that libraries model increased tolerance and intolerant groups target libraries. Yet, despite what censors argue, topics such as equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging are very much the business of both public and school libraries everywhere, because – like the library itself – they ultimately speak to the needs and realities of people living today and growing up in an increasingly diverse world. Library workers have come to see the importance of EDI initiatives because they have the potential to make them more responsive to the needs of marginalized people in their community.

Can tolerance go too far?

People tolerate each other remarkably well because we understand that tolerance enables less conflict and builds to more tolerance, whereas intolerance often leads to more conflict and less tolerance. Understanding all this requires a little bit of nuanced thinking, because absolute tolerance for all things is obviously not going to work either. We should be continually aware as a workforce made up of mainly white people that passion for tolerance can have the opposite effect with, for example, pitfalls like the white savior complex. But there isn’t much of a “paradox of tolerance” to worry about so far as libraries are concerned: tolerance of others (and intolerance of intolerance) does not generally result in worse intolerance.

These theoretical/philosophical conundrums deserve thought and discussion. However, on a more practical level, libraries and library workers need to be ready to defend their operations and collections, and by extension the rights of the communities they serve. The rules and procedures libraries formalize guide workers to respond to challenges that come from the community, but they may not protect the library from the larger forces of intolerance.

Let library workers control library operations

  • Keeping libraries in library workers’ hands requires a critical consensus of people employed in the field as well as the support of the communities they serve.
  • This means ensuring that the people who control the library’s operations (cities, districts, boards, management, etc.) are properly qualified and sensitive to the importance of opposing censorship for having an educated population.
  • Anything less than this professional standard should be a cause for major concern both in the library’s staff and for the community at large.

Libraries should be clear about their partiality for tolerance as opposed to intolerance, as well as the repercussions that intolerance has on people’s intellectual freedom, instead of insisting on comforting notions of neutrality. One way they can do this is to widely and incessantly reaffirm the freedom to read and work to rebuke destructive intolerance when it rears its head, neither of which can be considered neutral acts today.

Libraries also need to better communicate this chronic problem clearly and consistently to the communities they serve, as it exists in accordance with its community. In other words, library workers shouldn’t wait until there is a crisis at their branch to make sure that the larger community understands how and when to support their library if a vocal minority seeks to upset things.

In Illinois, the House recently passed anti-book banning legislation, showing where the line of tolerance is drawn – precisely at the point of intolerance. In Colorado, we have seen how courageous governing boards can organize against the trend. We can and must do better together, even or maybe especially if we feel safe in our own bubble, on an issue that will have lasting implications on our autonomy to serve our communities.

Refocusing on the work

Most people in libraries, working day in and day out with people with real needs, have little time for philosophical quibbling and it is important we don’t get overly sidetracked, which is surely a central goal in the culture wars. We just need to get the job done. EDI initiatives, broadly speaking, are attempts to educate and prepare us for the diverse landscapes in which we exist. They can also serve to reinforce established core values, such as intellectual freedom and increasing everyone’s access to resources. If nothing else, EDI initiatives give us a starting point to connect and organize on these issues, offering a counterpoint to the destructive intolerance dominating headlines. There is a clear need for a more thoughtful, cohesive response that steps up our thinking for the realities of the hyperpolarized twenty-first century. EDI is a start, but only a start, and the problem won’t be solved overnight.

Finally, consider: where does the intolerant person or group gain certainty that their intolerance is right and should be used as justification for enacting censorship? Often intolerant people point to some external authority as justification for their intolerance, be it ideological, political, or moral, or by claiming that “everyone” thinks like them. In reality, tolerance of others need not rely on ideological authority for justification. Look instead to the complex needs of our communities to best understand what should be done today and for the future. When we do this with thoughtful intention, we worry less about virtue signaling our neutrality to those that aim to stifle us, and more about the people that rely on the library.



Also check out Sara Viner’s post on library challenges statistics.

Michael Peever
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