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ALA Recap: Libraries are Not Neutral Spaces (Things I Never Learned in Library School)

thingsineverlearnedinlibraryschoolThis past Sunday I had the honor of presenting with a panel of fabulous librarians about how libraries are NOT neutral spaces. Like most librarians, I spent a major part of my career proclaiming that we were. But over time, I have come to realize that we are, in fact, not. For example, if during the month of December you put up a Christmas tree or a Christmas display but don’t acknowledge that any other holidays exist, you are making a non-neutral statement and highlighting certain faiths and traditions over others. Did you choose to avoid putting up a Black Lives Matter display? That was not a neutral decision. This month is Pride, did you put up a Pride display? Whether you answer yes or no to this question, your answer is not a neutral decision. Every decision to do or not do something in our libraries is not a neutral decision, and it often reflects our own personal, cultural or institutional biases.

You can find the slides to our ALA Presentation here (a log in is required)

You can read tweets about the presentation under the #CritLibAla17 at #ALAAC17

It has been a process for me to learn how to examine and break down my personal biases in considering everything I do in my library, from putting up a display to deciding when, where, and how to program. The work of being inclusive and advocating for my teen patrons – ALL of my teen patrons – is ongoing and never done. It takes some intentionality on my part and I am working on training my staff to have that same type of intentionality.

In fact, for me, displays and collections are a big part of how I try and be intentional and inclusive. I didn’t have a term for it until this weekend thanks to someone one Twitter, but I regularly perform diversity audits of my YA collection. I will sit down monthly with some type of topic or focus in mind and go through my collection to make sure I have a well represented number of titles and authors that represent that topic. For example, with Pride approaching, I spent the month of April going through every single letter in GLBTQAI+ to make sure that I had a good representation of titles for each letter in my collection. And when doing so I go through and make sure that they include as many POC, LatinX, Native American, Asian and more authors as possible. I don’t want to just be diverse in having GLBTQAI+ titles, I want to make sure that those titles are as diverse and representative as possible.

I recently went through the process of re-writing my display policy and procedures for my staff to help achieve this same goal. I want to make sure that every display we put up is inclusive. If we do a fantasy display, my staff is reminded to go through and check to make sure that there are books by diverse authors featuring diverse characters on that display. A display that solely features cis-het-white male authors is not acceptable in my department, but building them takes dedicated work on all levels. It means that I have to make sure I am building good collections for my staff to pull titles from and it means that my staff has to do the work of looking at the display daily to make sure they have a good balance of titles to choose from.

#SJYALit: Making a Social Justice Book Display that Engages Teens

Storytime Underground Libraries are Not Neutral Spaces Handouts

I discuss displays more here: The Display Must Go On. In the future I hope to add a statement to my display policy, which is included in the link, specifying that 50% or more of the display must feature diverse authors and main characters. And since we have a display notebook where we are making note of past displays so that we have good notes for future displays, I would like to create a form where we list the titles put on display and the theme of the display. This not only will provide us good info for doing RA or creating/repeating future displays, but it will help us do those diversity audits so that we can make sure we are being inclusive not just in our collections but in our displays.

sjyalit#SJYALit (2017)

The Social Justice in YA Lit Project/Discussion, using YA literature to discuss a variety of social justice issues including own voices, representation, discrimination, education, poverty and more.

Although I talked a lot about displays, many others on the panel talked about other good points and I highly recommend that you check out the slides and read the work of those I had the honor of speaking with. I learned a lot from my peers. For example, I have never processed what it means that Christian creation stories are catalogued in religion while Native American creation stories are catalogued as folklore. This was a profound moment of realization for me that finally helped me more fully understand what settler colonialism means. Doing the work means being engaged in the professional community and learning from your peers. It’s important to follow and read from librarians from different backgrounds.

I want to make one final note about holiday programming, which comes up frequently when we talk about libraries as neutral spaces. Many libraries engage in Christmas programming in their libraries and there is an ongoing argument that this is what our communities want and that Christmas is a secular holiday. For me, as a Christian, Christmas is a profoundly religious holiday and I decided when I had children not to discuss or introduce the concept of Santa to my children because I did not want to dilute the sacredness of this day. So no, our communities, even our Christian communities, don’t all want us to be doing holiday or Santa programming at the library. Even some of the fundamental beliefs we have about what our communities want may be wrong.

As I mentioned, this was truly an important and enlightening discussion for me. I continue to learn and grow as a librarian and appreciate every opportunity to talk with my peers, challenge my beliefs and make sure that I am heading in the right direction as a librarian for myself, for my teens, and for my community. I want to keep doing the good work, and sometimes that means changing what I think I know, what I believe, what I do, and the how and why of how I do it. It’s often uncomfortable, but I keep doing the work anyway.

Thank you to my co-presenters:

Nicole Cooke

Assistant Professor / Director of the MS/LIS Program, School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois

Cory Eckert

Librarian, The Post Oak School

Kendra Jones

District Manager, Youth & Family Services, Timberland Regional Library, Washington

Jessica Anne Liddell

Branch Manager, Grand Rapids Public Library

Debbie Reese

Founder and Editor, American Indians in Children’s Literature


  1. Carole Dennis says

    Thank you so much for this! But when I follow the link for the slides, there is only one slide of the title of your program and the names of the presenters. Did ALA take down the slides? Is there a shareable google doc? Thanks again!

  2. Leslie Kuo says

    Karen, thank you for taking the time to write this for the #alaleftbehind! I especially appreciate how you show how your own perspective on neutrality in the library has changed over time. I am making myself a list of resources on representation in library collections, staff, and audiences and I’m adding this right now.

  3. Rachel Lenstra says

    Like Carole, I am having trouble viewing the slides via the link and would love a google doc or other way to view them.

  4. A teacher and a parent says

    Here we go again.

    If you put up a Black Lives Matter display, please follow it with an Unborn Lives Matter display. If you put up a display for Handguns Kill, please follow it with a display for Handguns Protect. If you put up a display for Women’s Rights in America, please follow it with a display for Lack of Women’s Rights in the Muslim World. if you put up a display for Christmas, please follow it with a display for The Case Against Jesus. Or else, just do displays on race relations, the abortion debate, the 2nd amendment, women’s rights around the world, and the December holidays. THAT’S neutrality, and that’s what we want our children to experiencel when they come to a library, not unsafe because of the political positioning of some librarian or another. Especially in a public school or public library.

    If we don’t want that, we need to go to work for a so-called independent (what used to be known as private) school.

    • Independent schools are as concerned about social justice issues and fairness in school libraries as public institutions are.

      • A teacher and a parent says

        @Darlene, you may be missing my point. Private (independent) schools can do whatever they want in their classrooms and libraries because they are privately funded. I have no problem with that. However, publicly funded schools and libraries have an obligation to taxpayers to be neutral and balanced.

    • Karen Jensen, TLT Karen Jensen, TLT says

      First of all, the counterpoint to Black Lives Matter is not Unborn Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter means either black lives matter or they don’t. Those are the two sides of that coin. And since every community serves people who are black, the idea that black lives matter should not be controversial.

      Similarly, Women’s Rights in America is not countered by lack of Women’s Right in the Muslim World. Women’s rights in America is countered by the lack of women’s rights in America. You are trying to compare apples to oranges and misrepresent the issues.

      Also, libraries put up controversial issues displays all of the time. In fact, any issue could be considered controversial to someone.

  5. Angela Germany says

    I enjoyed reading this article and would like to see your slides. Like the other comments above, I am also having trouble accessing the slides. When I follow the link there are no slides. I went to the ALA Annual Conference website and it shows where you can download the slides but they are greyed-out and not available. I appreciate your help.

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