Last week I was lucky enough to attend the RLUK Conference at the British Library. The programme was varied and interesting, but underpinning many of the presentations was a common concern about recent political events and the role of the library in countering the rise of so called alternative facts. On the last morning there was an excellent presentation from Dr Darren E. Lund, who spoke compellingly about the award winning work he had done with schools in Canada to promote equality and diversity. Although he never mentioned libraries, it was perhaps pointed that he shared with an audience of librarians the quote from Desmond Tutu that I have seen many times over the last few months: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
That loaded word “neutral” pursues librarians and has been much analysed and debunked in the professional literature over the last few years. Since the EU referendum in the UK and the rise of Trump in the US there have been movements of politically engaged librarians working to encourage public libraries in particular to reach out to disadvantaged or disaffected sectors of their communities and help develop their critical information skills. As an area studies librarian I have been interested for a while in a different aspect of our so called neutrality: how libraries supporting research and teaching on the rest of the world engage with some of the more difficult and controversial issues that we encounter. This has nothing to do with the regular and normal back and forth of party politics, but is concerned with our core values at a time when they seem to be under particular threat worldwide.
Over the last few years in monitoring events in Russia and Central and Eastern Europe there have been a few images that have stayed with me and will probably do so for ever: a glorious field of sunflowers in eastern Ukraine, strewn with the debris of Malaysian airlines flight MH17 and the remains of its passengers and crew; the Russian ambassador to Turkey being shot in the back and falling forward to his death again and again in rolling video on twitter; the sight of 2000 desperate and abandoned refugees in a warehouse in Belgrade; hundreds of thousands of women marching in Poland against greater restrictions on abortion, and succeeding in getting those restrictions lifted. These evoke many emotions but neutrality is never one of them. We might be shocked or angry or sometimes traumatised (and that can be an issue for library staff dealing with distressing material), but we are not neutral, although as librarians we have an unfortunate tendency to say that we are without actually thinking about what that means.
If we need to stop trying to be neutral what are the positive things that we could be doing? Here are just a few thoughts about how we might develop a framework to allow us to think more constructively about the way we develop our international collections and services in the current unusually difficult circumstances. Such a process has to involve recognising and addressing our implicit values and prejudices and those of the institutions and people surrounding us, and understanding how they influence our professional decisions.
1. We should recognise that our professional values are not neutral. All our professional organisations talk about supporting equal access to information and opposing censorship, not just in theory but in practice. That can mean making sure that minority voices are properly represented in our collections and that we develop those collections taking into account the need to have the widest possible range of voices from the countries we study, whether they are political parties, social movements or cultural trends. As all libraries face increasing restrictions on budgets it is easy to fall into the trap of being passive and simply supplying those resources that are going to be most used, but that will never help scholars understand complex international events and will lead to collections being skewed. We are seeing that happen with Google and with Facebook, where the power of the algorithm can be and is being manipulated. It should be our responsibility to make sure that does not happen with our collections. As there are relatively few libraries that collect extensively on other countries that can be hard to achieve alone when budgets are tight, but it should be one of the primary goals of a coherent national collection of overseas materials.
2. We should recognise that we work for organisations that are not neutral. Universities are increasingly making explicit their respect for scholarship, for rigour in research, and for evidence. Equality and diversity have never been more important issues, and in her keynote at RLUK Professor Kalwant Bhopal made a convincing case for embedding the social justice agenda in all aspects of UK higher education. That has to include our work in libraries. We can support these agendas by promoting relevant content in our libraries and on social media, including it in guides for students, and displaying it in exhibitions. Whether it is LGBT rights or women’s rights or the rights of minority ethnic communities across the world, they are all causes we can be active in supporting through our collections and our expertise.
3. We should recognise that we live and work in countries that are not neutral. In the UK we are part of that rather malleable construct that is the “international community”. It is the international community that condemns crimes against the accepted international order, wherever in in the world they are committed. At various times different countries can find themselves suddenly outside the international community, being criticised for acts of terrorism or crimes against humanity. Librarians have traditionally gone out of their way to collect and make available the work of international agencies, charities and the testimonies of individuals caught up in dreadful events across the world. With the rise of social media there is much more that librarians who have expertise on particular countries can do to participate in this effort.
When looked at like this neutrality as a concept simply dissolves and has no utility for us. It is a negative which encourages passivity and a lack of serious thought about our role, and which potentially could get in the way of high quality evidence based scholarship. We have been warned about the danger of neutrality often enough, and those of us who promote greater international understanding through our collections have a special responsibility to ensure that we never end up on the side of the oppressor by default.