Are Libraries Neutral? A Media Analysis

News coverage of library programming has traditionally painted libraries as “safe” and “neutral”—but the library field has good reasons not to fully embrace either of these terms.

Photograph of a person with their back to the camera, facing a large bookshelf.
Libraries should be wary of describing themselves as “safe” or “neutral” spaces, as these concepts are both fraught and difficult to put into practice.

Though the media often focuses on how libraries “offer safe space for everyone,” neither safety nor neutrality are easily put into practice. There are instances in which creating “safety” or “neutrality” for some people might actually cause harm, or prevent the kinds of learning libraries are designed to facilitate. To understand how safety and neutrality might be both unobtainable and undesirable in certain circumstances, let’s consider these separately.

The concept of safe space has historical roots in minoritized communities’ need for spaces free of discrimination or persecution, linking psychological and physical safety. But critics have noted that psychological safety can be confused with comfort—and discomfort is necessary for learning. Librarian Rachel Wexelbaum adds that “safety” remains aspirational for many libraries. To share several of her examples, patrons and staff alike may experience harassment inside the library building; historical discrimination has consequences for present-day representation and cultural competence among library workers; librarians, especially school librarians, often engage in censorship due to pressure from parents and administrators.

Library critics of neutrality note that it is impossible in practice. For example, in remarks at 2018 ALA Mid Winter, Emily Drabinski describes students seeking help finding references that contradict widely held scientific consensus. To remain neutral in the face of such a request would mean knowingly providing disinformation. More to the point, “neutrality” too often boils down to a slippery both-sidesism that posits the humanity of certain people as up for debate. In remarks at the same event, Chris Bourg notes that libraries must constantly make decisions about what materials to include in their collections. And Amelia N. Gibson and colleagues note that “neutrality” simply means adherence to the status quo. ALA itself “acknowledges the role of neutrality rhetoric in emboldening and encouraging white supremacy and fascism.”

Within news coverage, the meaning of these terms also depends on the program topic. In a study of 100 news articles, we found consistent patterns. For libraries creating health programming, “safety” and “neutrality” are about removing obstacles to accessing needed services, and about creating stigma-free spaces where patrons know they won’t be judged if they ask for help. Meanwhile, for libraries creating programming about race and diversity, “safety” and” neutrality” are much more fraught terms. In some cases, it was unclear whose safety was being prioritized; in other cases, neutrality was used as a smokescreen.

Written by Jena Barchas Lichtenstein and Melina Sherman of Knology. This blog has been co-posted on Programming Librarian and the Knology website.

Knology is a nonprofit research organization that produces practical social science for a better world. The organization pursues this goal to help professionals in a variety of sectors build inclusive, informed, and cooperative societies that can thrive together with the natural systems on which we all depend. As a transdisciplinary collective of over 30 social scientists, writers and educators, the organization's work process is built on equity, transparency and deliberation.