Is Libraryland really Switzerland?
While attending VALA2018 I overheard several conversations about Swiss neutrality. The topic appears to have come up through the activities of Librarians For Refugees, who staged a welcome guerilla action at the conference with a popup stand. Here was their relevant message:
"Libraries and librarians are not, have never been and should never be neutral. Neutrality perpetuates the unequal status quo and prevents us from being proactively inclusive."
I must admit some surprise that this was even debatable, but apparently so. From my perspective, as a public librarian, I have never thought of libraries and librarians being neutral. For libraries associated with local government, this can mean liaising with other departments to promote events, themes and content on topics ranging from public health and good nutrition to celebrations of the cultural diversity of our communities. Public libraries are promoters of inclusion, be it digital or ethnic, for the right to read and the value of lifelong learning, for the right to access and we advocate through lobbying, content, displays, events and technology for these things. That we provide our services (mostly) for free and funded by rates and taxpayers is in itself controversial to some. None of this is neutral.
We sometimes stumble beyond neutrality unwittingly. I remember when a modest NAIDOC Week display on the theme of Australian indigenous culture and history was responded to with threats of bricks through windows. To us, there was nothing controversial about the display, but on reflection, of course it was promoting an acceptance and understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. That such a thing would be triggering enough to cause such a response had not been considered. To their credit, council and library management doubled the time of the display's exhibition (and the troubled potential brick thrower declined to follow up). Neither the creation of the display nor the response was neutral. It showed our bias :)
Several of ALIA's interest groups are self-described as being involved in public advocacy, the most prominent of which are probably those involved children:
- "ALIA Children's and Youth Services promotes library services to children and youth, highlighting children's literature"
- "ALIA Schools promotes the interests of school libraries and teacher-librarians... lobbies for school libraries with state and local groups." ALIA Schools provides "advocacy" resources "to promote the role of the school library, to your principal, parents, staff and wider community."
When people like Horrible Histories author Terry Deary say that libraries lending books "for free, at the expense of authors, publishers and council tax payers" is outdated and the position of school libraries is under threat, these acts of advocacy and promotion are political acts.
These are not neutral activities, but are examples of Librarlanders promoting what they see as the public good. ALIA has a page of "Ideas for campaigns and events in your library": note the subheading in capitals in the screenshot below.
One of the events listed on the page is Harmony Day, which coincides with the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The Australian Harmony Day theme is "a celebration of our cultural diversity – a day of cultural respect for everyone who calls Australia home": which makes it contested ground. Held every 21 March, Harmony Day shares this date with White Pride Day. In 2011 Andrew Bolt recognised Harmony Day in the Herald Sun with a list of police reports noting the non-white appearance of some recent alleged offenders. To celebrate Harmony Day in a library with events and displays is not neutral, but to be taking a side in a contested political and cultural space against racism and xenophobia in favour of embracing diversity and inclusion.