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Utopia in the Stacks

In a utopian world, libraries achieve elevated status as the physical and atmospheric environment for human improvement, knowledge, hope, and personal control. Recognized for their contributions to progress, utopian librarians are deserving of extensive freedom and support to realize the full responsibilities of their leadership in that service. Libraries in a utopia are the center of both pure and applied research. They are spaces where knowledge is sought for the sake of deeper understanding and growth, perhaps with only vague hopes of contributing to the future advancement of life, as well as spaces where theories old and new might be applied and operationalized to benefit utopian existence. Utopian libraries and librarians are revered for their neutrality and equality, valued without accusation that they are altering the social and moral standards because they are reflections of social purpose.

In this world, as in the utopian one, libraries and librarians have unique obligations in serving society. They are charged with guarding the morality of pure and applied pursuits, and with welcoming perusers and practitioners alike. Like any science, library science has long struggled with conflicting morals. Morals that place libraries and librarians at the center of pure research, or knowledge for knowledge’s sake, may naturally conflict with the morality of commitment to human improvement, both of which may conflict with the morality of free perusal of the stacks for inspiration or entertainment. Similarly, the morals of neutrality often conflict with those associated with equality.

It is in this context, and with an attempt to satisfactorily meet these demands, that the ethical principles of the American Library Association (ALA) were written. But the ethical principles are written for a utopian world in which good-faith actors have the best interests of the institution and society in mind. According to Thomas Nagel in Equality and Partiality, they ignore (perhaps of necessity and perhaps by design) the very real challenges of utopian existence: reconciling what is collectively desirable with what is individually reasonable.

"Libraries and librarians often become targets of demands for all values, means, and ends to become one, and that their world both shifts and remains absolutely itself."

Daily Dilemmas

Because their services require awareness of, and adherence to, purposes and values, libraries and librarians often become targets of demands for all values, means, and ends to become one, and that their world both shifts and remains absolutely itself. The tendency to adhere to just one image in external affairs, in order to ensure there is support required to pursue other goals, only exacerbates the pressures. These conflicts manifest themselves in very real ways for librarians, who find themselves in the crosshairs. There are the obvious examples: ruined library displays, disruptive patrons, funding arguments, and book-banning efforts. A more common occurrence in an academic library is the student who asks a librarian to collude with them in a way that involves deceptive procedure or outright academic dishonesty.

ALA ethical principles are of little help in the event of a dishonorable request. In such a case, principles four and seven may contradict one another in a manner that is beyond minor inconvenience.

  • Principle 4: We respect intellectual property rights and advocate balance between the interests of information users and rights holders.
  • Principle 7: We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.

As an academic librarian, I (the first author) look forward to assisting students with their pure and applied knowledge pursuits. It is my life’s work, and I am obliged to help. Yet, how could I take part in academic dishonesty without compromising intellectual property rights or the aims of the institution? And can I be expected to sacrifice my own academic integrity for a patron?

Deeper Challenges

In 2021 the American Library Association added principle nine to its Code of Ethics to address racial equity and social justice.

  • Principle 9: We affirm the inherent dignity and rights of every person. We work to recognize and dismantle systemic and individual biases; to confront inequity and oppression; to enhance diversity and inclusion; and to advance racial and social justice in our libraries, communities, profession, and associations through awareness, advocacy, education, collaboration, services, and allocation of resources and spaces.

However, some language in the ninth principle is difficult to reconcile with the first eight statements. For example, the first principle specifically calls for librarians’ unbiased response.

  • Principle 1: We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.

How are librarians to align this first principle with that of the appeal of the ninth to dismantle individual bias and confront inequity? If a patron asks if there are any academic studies demonstrating a difference in intelligence based on race, should the librarian pretend that Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve doesn’t exist? Should they determine why the patron wants the information and make judgment before providing the information? An inquiry of that nature appears to be in conflict with the third principle calling for discretion.

  • Principle 3: We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired, or transmitted.

Is this only true if the information or service needed is deemed not to interfere with equity beliefs? Should librarians prioritize privacy, or should they answer the call to advance social justice? How would these discordant principles guide libraries and librarians if a white supremacist group has reserved a library meeting room?

The fifth principle addresses workplace collegiality, which is under more strain during this time when we most need one another, our leadership, and our communities.

  • Principle 5: We treat co-workers and other colleagues with respect, fairness, and good faith, and advocate conditions of employment that safeguard the rights and welfare of all employees of our institutions.

How are library employees (or library users) to comply with the fifth principle should they become targets of biased or oppressive behavior from patrons (or even other library employees)? Should they be unbiased and courteous (in accordance with the first principle) or confrontational (in accordance with the ninth)?

In addition to the above contradictions, it is the first line of the ninth principle (“We affirm the inherent dignity and rights of every person”) that gives me particular pause.

The language is resonant of the first principle of Unitarian Universalism (UU), which recognizes “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” While the first UU principle represents an important aspect of how I try to live my life (and do my work), librarians should neither be expected to adhere to others’ religious principles nor ask that others adopt theirs. At a time when some are using their religious beliefs to justify the removal of materials from libraries, and others are using less formal doctrine to undermine artistic license with accusations of inauthenticity or cultural appropriation, we should be especially wary of using any religious language in our professional ethics.

These concerns are exemplified, and complicated, by the case of Reverend Todd Eklof, who (as related in John McWhorter’s work Woke Racism) found himself at a UU intersection of professional duties and personal beliefs. Eklof was “censured and expelled” by the UU Ministers Association over his “heretical” criticism of the religion’s political correctness in his work The Gadfly Papers. Perhaps Reverend Eklof felt buoyed by the first UU principle in his work, or maybe he felt the full brunt of an ethics collision. Regardless, the outcome offers little comfort to librarians struggling to reconcile the collectively desirable with the individually reasonable.

Recent discussions in librarianship about neutrality and DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) have particularly exposed the inherent conflict and fragility of the ethical code. As Alex Byrne explains, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions’ (IFLA) Statement on Libraries and Intellectual Freedom: 

"locates intellectual freedom as a fundamental human right, as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948), and recognizes that it has two sides — the right to know and freedom of expression — both of which must be upheld by libraries."

"Libraries are charged with providing a breadth of information for intellectual pursuits, some of which will undoubtedly be offensive to some information consumers."

Calls to back DEI efforts appear to conflict with IFLA values of academic freedom. However honorable, concerns over language that may be perceived as racist, sexist, demeaning, or otherwise “harmful” lead to silencing and self-censorship, and inhibit the free exchange of ideas. Libraries are charged with providing a breadth of information for intellectual pursuits, some of which will undoubtedly be offensive to some information consumers. At this intersection of neutrality, academic freedom, and DEI in academic libraries, the collectively desirable and the individually reasonable are often in a collision course.

The guidelines must take into account the individual conduct they demand, the character and motivation required to follow them, the reasons there may be conflict between them, and the kinds of lives librarians must live under their combined pressures. “What is right must be possible, even if what is possible can be partly transformed by arguments about what is right,” Nagel writes. Reconciling what is collectively desirable with what is individually reasonable requires the guidelines to reach librarians as occupants of the library, their profession, and the community, and as occupants of their particular roles, which have distinct demands and unique interactions. Guidance that ignores the morally valid dilemmas faced in the everyday exercise of librarianship does so at the peril of the profession and the individual.

Do we have enough commonality to avoid having to put too much pressure on individual motives and still attain utopia? What are the conditions under which individuals can maintain both personal and impersonal motivations? When resources are plentiful and discomfort is temporary, the choices are easier and the outcomes more transparent. Nagel uses the last éclair as an example; two of us want it, but either might sacrifice for the greater good. Under conditions of scarcity, such as the last remaining life vest on a sinking ship, the choice is far more difficult.

Final Thoughts

Civilized life — and good librarianship — challenge us with the constant overlap of individual motivations and collectively ethical practices. Both are advantageous and risky. Institutional principles can impose order, but only under threat of individual punishment. Adherence only to personal ethics would not offer the protection afforded by our institutions. Libraries, librarians, and their professional associations must embrace this ethically complex space. There may be nobody more equipped to openly and candidly address the natural hypocrisies inherent to standards that protect individual pursuits while defining boundaries with general standards. ALA ethical guidelines sometimes serve everyone’s interest, but they also serve — or even sacrifice — the interests of some in the interests of others. Claims of neutrality or equality are the stuff of utopian dreams.

As Sarah Hart explains in her book Once Upon a Prime, the word “utopia” “is derived from the Greek for either ‘no place’ or ‘good place’, depending on how you convert that ‘U’ into Greek.” Libraries are “good places,” but they are also “no place” for neutrality.


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