A librarian's delicate balance
I took a phone call the other day from someone wanting a book. Not exactly unusual, but when I found the book on the catalogue my heart sank somewhat - it was one of those dubiously published xenophobic tomes that we get because they’re from New Zealand but, sigh… The caller wasn’t sure about borrowing the book saying she needed to keep an open mind about it. Seeing a chance to sneak in some subtle information literacy I agreed with her whole heartedly on this point.
This got me thinking and I’ve been wondering how, as librarians, do we navigate that delicate balance between fighting against fake news, and also ensuring that our collections represent a wide range of opinions? At Christchurch City Libraries we’ve got a newly updated Content Development Policy which provides some helpful guidelines, in particular:
To uphold the principle of intellectual freedom, the Library attempts to supply a balanced collection containing varying viewpoints on controversial issues. Material will not be suppressed or removed simply because it gives offence. While recognising the right of the individual to reject material, this should not diminish the overall breadth of the collection for other customers.
Materials will not be marked or identified to show approval or disapproval of contents.
Christchurch City Libraries Content Development Policy, page 6
I like the first statement useful as it reflects that the material we collect is powerful, contradictory and may not sit comfortably together on our shelves, physical or digital. In the same way, when we welcome all people into libraries that is a powerful non-neutral act, which can bring people face to face with groups they’d never normally encounter. The second statement is also helpful - it means that I can’t go around defacing Jeffrey Archer novels (however much I want to), or demanding that people read a particular book but I can offer an opinion on a book that I like in a blog.
It’s a tricky dance. And what right do we have as librarians to say what particular information our users have freedom of access to? If we start censoring or putting restrictions on material can this lead to people becoming alienated?
We need to find spaces where we can jump in with information literacy, to get people thinking about who is writing, where they’re getting their information from, where we can add value to a transaction. If we can provide some education in this area, in a gentle and inclusive way, perhaps our users can be better equipped to make their own mind up in an informative way about the material we provide access to?
A remember a while ago a person who I don’t think was a regular library user came in and showed me a text they’d received. It was offering them the chance to win a lot of money, and they wasn’t sure whether to believe it or not. They came to us as trusted professionals to help them out. I showed them this handy list of text scams on the DIA website, meaning that they got good evidence from a trusted website in answer to their query.
To pinch a quote from Matt Finch, I think this is an excellent example of a librarian helping a member of the community “explore knowledge, information, and culture on their own terms”.