In a February New York Times opinion piece provocatively titled “The Battle for the Soul of the Library,” conservative commentator Stanley Kurtz derided librarians for what he views as promoting "progressive views on race, policing, sexuality and other issues.” Instead, Kurtz argues, the library should “recapture” its role as a “neutral sphere above the fray.”
To battle for the "soul" of the library, however, one must first understand the library's mission and its history. And what Kurtz gets badly wrong is that libraries are not now—and have never been—neutral.
Throughout his essay, Kurtz struggles to align his personal understanding of “library neutrality” with the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights, which, in its first tenet, states that library resources should be provided for the “interest, information, and enlightenment of all people” in the community. “Library neutrality shares the classically liberal presuppositions that informed America’s founding,” Kurtz states. "Human beings enjoy equal rights and free individuals can be trusted to make their own decisions about what to read and believe.”
But in unironically grounding his idea of library neutrality in the values held at the founding of America and venerating the traditions that protected the “equal rights” of “free individuals,” Kurtz conveniently ignores reality: most people at the time of our nation’s founding—and for much of our history—were not free.
For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, for example, Black people were not permitted to use the library in many parts of the country. What exactly was neutral about that? Within the library profession, it wasn’t until 1964 that pioneering Black librarian E.J. Josey finally forced the American Library Association—which was founded in 1876 on the values of equity and democracy—to confront segregation, drafting a resolution to hold state library associations accountable for prohibiting membership to Black librarians. Again, not a neutral position.
Kurtz is not alone in his misunderstanding of library work. Neutrality in libraries is a concept often employed without regard for what it means in practice or in context with our greater society. As components of and contributors to their communities, librarians can never be “above the fray”—nor have librarians ever existed as “impartial referees.” Societal and community changes exert force on libraries; libraries in turn exert force on society.
Furthermore, every healthy community contains a wide, evolving array of interests, traditions, lifestyles, and personalities, and librarians must strive to serve them all, as articulated in the ALA’s Library Bill of Rights. But with limited space and funding, decisions must be made virtually every day. What library professionals learn in graduate school and in their training is to make these decisions ethically, not in some vacuum of partisan political neutrality.
The history of the United States is the story of our hard-won growth toward a more inclusive and equitable society, slow and winding as that road may be. This is an ongoing effort that we should all learn about, care about, celebrate, and embrace. Working toward a fairer and more equitable society for everyone should be a source of pride and motivation. Today, however, there is a growing movement that seeks to reduce our rich, diverse communities into opposing political sides. In mischaracterizing the work of librarians, Kurtz gives this movement cover.
Throughout his essay, Kurtz builds an army of straw men out of right-wing talking points, relying on people’s anger and fear to fill in the factual gaps. He falsely suggests that politically motivated public and school librarians are emptying libraries of “traditionalist” texts and replacing them with their personal favorites (apparently Marxism, critical race theory, and pornography). And he sweeps anti-racism, LGBTQ equality, disability inclusion, and other vital equity work into a single pile, which he dismisses as “woke orthodoxy.” As some of the librarians whose work is cited in Kurtz’s piece, we must respond—because this view of libraries just isn’t the way libraries and librarians work.
At the same time, we recognize that Kurtz’s broadside isn’t really about librarianship. Rather, his focus on librarians is part of a wider effort to revitalize old battles over basic equality. Look no further than his use of the pejorative label “woke librarian,” which serves no purpose other than to undermine people’s trust in those of us trained and committed to providing the very best information resources and public service to our communities.
“Balancing books is in everyone’s interest,” Kurtz argues, criticizing what he falsely portrays as “politically one-sided collection building” by “avowedly nonneutral” librarians. But this “both sides” approach operates from a history-free context. The reality is that we now have access to a wider array of stories and voices and more complete histories than ever before. And these voices and resources are revealing very different lived experiences for much of the population. It is this reality—not some profession-wide political orthodoxy—that has librarians committed to pursuing equity work. Acknowledging past injustices and working toward a more equitable society is and has always been essential to being an aware and informed librarian.
Certainly we can all agree that libraries should provide materials with different perspectives, especially in times of growing political polarization. But we must recognize too that there is a difference between providing multiple perspectives and providing a platform for hateful, intimidating, dangerous, or dehumanizing speech that targets a specific community. To serve our communities, libraries must be safe spaces where all people can come together, see themselves represented, and discover and share different points of view. And because of the historic inequities and discrimination against people of color and the LGBTQ community, for example, the library profession’s commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion is not only warranted, it is imperative.
As challenges to critically acclaimed, popular, award-winning, diverse books are surging nationwide, it is important that librarians uphold our commitment to this important equity work—and that we defend it. We must stand up to ill-informed attempts to mischaracterize and politicize our work. We must make sure that our work is truly understood in our communities. And we cannot allow political actors to turn “woke librarian” into some ill-defined bogeyman. Let's elevate the truth instead: America’s librarians are dedicated, trained frontline professionals working to promote equity in our communities and to help preserve democracy and truth telling in our society.
Nicole A. Cooke is the Augusta Baker Endowed Chair and an associate professor at the University of South Carolina.
Renate Chancellor is the chair and associate professor in the Department of Library and Information Science at the Catholic University of America.
Yasmeen Shorish is an associate professor at the James Madison University Libraries.
Sarah Park Dahlen is an associate professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign;
Amelia Gibson is an associate professor at the Univ. of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science.