September 29, 2008

A question for Radical Reference

Over time, Radical Reference moved from being simply an experimental virtual reference service for political radicals to being an activist organization sharing the same space as PLG and SRRT, but offering a different flavor and a different set of political ideas. Its primary activity, however, remains what it was when the group was originally formed around the 2004 Republican National Convention in NYC: to provide reference service over the web for a specific radical or progressive target audience, one that identifies with the Rad Ref tagline: “Answers for those who question authority.”

The target audience is well identified and sought out through the use of youth-speak on the site and ample references to radical political ideas, most often with an anti-authoritarian or anarchist orientation. The benefit of this, and the thing that I think makes Radical Reference most valuable as an example for virtual library services (though there are other features worth learning from as well), is the way it establishes a connection between the service and its users in sharing like identities. This strong message of shared identity serves to enhance trust, improve communication, and create a sense of the service as being a part of a community – by, of, and for it. I think public libraries might do well to consider following this example and identify target audiences, or market segments, for the creation of separate interfaces and service points according to cultural needs and identifications.

An interesting question arises, though, from the fact of targeting an audience that shares cultural reference points in common with the service, especially given the political nature of the audience identity. The question, of course, is about point of view and potential bias – that is, the neutrality question.

The professional establishment has, from the dawn of the modern library movement in the late 19th century, treated neutrality as an important ethic of the profession. Progressives in the field have been challenging this idea since the late 1960s, to various degrees.

Radical Reference, as a service, a website, and an organization, is vague about its position on the question of neutrality in library services. On the one hand, in identifying with radical or progressive librarianship Rad Ref positions itself within a tradition that has for many years challenged the ethic of neutrality in librarianship in favor of information activism, or at least in favor of the idea that 1) true neutrality is impossible and 2) a stated bias is better than a hidden one.

On the other hand, the Rad Ref about page ends with a statement intended as a clarification that substantially backs away from the idea that Radical Reference has a political orientation, other than the idea that librarianship itself is radical. For the purposes of this post, I think that passage is worth repeating in its entirety:

So, on August 1, 2004, there was a post on LISNews.com titled, “Extreme-left librarians launch “Radical Reference” blog“. We posted a comment that we’d like to share here as a way to diffuse some folks’ angst about this service, or at least explain ourselves a little more clearly. There will always be some that refuse to understand but here it is nonetheless:

…If they had taken the time to investigate — rather than getting caught up with the term “radical” — they would have seen that we provide services regardless of political leaning. Remember, language is not a static thing; rather, it is a place where social struggle takes place. The term itself is interpreted within a specific social context. By using the term “radical” to define our service, we are challenging the maintream meaning which largely marginalizes the term and along with it certain groups.

We face a society where citizens are less and less informed due to consolidation and corporatization of media. I think it is our core code of ethics to help to inform citizens so that they can participate fully in the democratic process. In this way, we are forwarding the profession by reaching out to the community. Every librarian should go out to his/her own community and use his/her information skills to affect positive change. If this is radical, then by all means I am radical.
–Discordia, August 25, 2004

It is possible that Rad Ref may have erred in responding to pressure from the center-right LISNews blog by backing down from its political stance, and that its explanation is not actually true to Rad Ref’s activist practice. On the other hand, it is also possible that Rad Ref’s political identity might serve to define the target audience (anti-authoritarian political radicals) without actually compromising the neutrality of the service in terms of established conceptions of the neutrality ethic.

I have spent a lot of time reading the archive of questions and answers that Rad Ref makes available on the site (a very interesting feature that is worth contemplating as a part of a virtual reference service). I formed these impressions in my reading:

  1. The Rad Ref service does have a special ability to serve a target audience of political radicals through the knowledge base of its volunteers, in the same way that subject specialists in an academic library have a better ability to serve graduate students and upper division undergrads through their subject knowledge. This is a quality that could be transferred to other virtual reference services based on other “market segmentation” ideas.
  2. Because the target audience and the service providers are mostly like-minded, there is no question of a need to promote particular political ideas, which is the strong challenge to neutrality posed by activist librarians since the late 60s. This means that the Radical Reference project does not by necessity imply a strong challenge to the ethic of neutrality, despite the radical political identity involved.
  3. Because the target audience and the service providers share a point of view in some regards, a philosophical question arises about whether that point of view might involve a bias or a frame of reference that has an effect on what is known. This potentially raises what could be called a weak challenge to neutrality, in that facts and information sources are necessarily going to be looked at through a certain political lens in Radical Reference interactions, and that this can be chosen as something good.

Item three, I feel, shows where Radical Reference ought to own up to challenging the ethic of neutrality. In so doing it would be able to take a middle road of supporting the most basic establishment concerns (by adhering to standards about accuracy and information quality) while at the same time justifying a politicized service and challenging mainstream librarianship’s lack of self-reflection regarding its own biases. (True neutrality is impossible, and a stated bias is better than a hidden one.)

What Rad Ref does instead, however, is simply to avoid addressing the question of neutrality head-on (at least as far as anything available to the public would show us; but then most library organizations don’t publish their internal standards and policies). Avoiding a policy permits a lot of potential variation among volunteers in terms of the way they deal with the neutrality question in practice. An organization can choose that kind of a path deliberately for a variety of reasons. Maybe that’s the case with Radical Reference. But it seems to me that in its very existence as Radical Reference, the group announces an engagement with the question of neutrality that deserves to be elucidated into a clear position, for the benefit of the profession.

Personally, I think the thing that is most interesting about Radical Reference is the way it is culturally linked to its target audience. In the business world it’s called “market segmentation;” we can use that term for it or not. In any case it is a reflection of the nature of postmodern society’s fragmentation into cultural affinity groups and people’s new preference to give authority primarily to “people like themselves.” To that extent it is perhaps a preview of where library services are headed. I think that even aside from its political identity Radical Reference raises a question about neutrality and frames of reference in library service, simply by virtue of being so linked to and identified with its narrow target audience, seeing things together in a certain way. So the neutrality question would arise, to some extent, with any new virtual library service following a similar model to target a group on a cultural basis (political or not).

…. Or perhaps a new great depression will unite us all again….

16 Comments »

  1. I’m one of those who believes neutrality is a fiction that pretends the ruling class has no ideology, which leaves it unchecked and results in, well, look around and take your pick. (Disclosure: I’ve been marginally involved with Radical Reference and am sympathetic to its aims, but my inability to sustain regular meeting attendance means I speak wholly as myself.) I don’t know what the rest of the group would say in a coherent statement, but I’m not sure why that demand. Can’t RR be a loose affiliation of folks who share some political sentiments without getting bogged down in hammering out a Final Statement, something that never works and is an authoritarian project, I suspect, in itself? I’m not sure I understand your demand that RR serve up a coherent doctrine, when maybe not having one could be part of the point. I’m open to being wrong, of course and always.

    The more troubling point I see raised in this post is this question of how one can have meaningful political affiliations in a universe so tentacled by capitalism that movement-building work on the basis of anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian politics–something I do believe RR is a part of doing and making–can be so swiftly reduced to a consumer-market model like the one you describe. I don’t really think that’s what is happening with RR, I don’t think anarchism specifically and various iterations of radical-left politics generally are really that moribund, but maybe I’m too sunny and bright. If you’re right and all politics is essentially about the market, then I’d say we have a much bigger question to grapple with. How do we do meaningful political work in the center of a maw that subsumes everything under the ‘market’? Do you have any suggestions for a politics like that?

    Comment by Emily — September 30, 2008 @ 8:35 am

  2. Hi, Emily. Thanks for your comments.

    Yeah, I agree that it makes a certain amount of sense for RR not to want a statement (final or not) about neutrality, wanting to be a loose affiliation, not wanting to structure itself with policies that volunteers need to follow. I understand that desire, but I think it can lead to confusion and can pave the way for muddled thinking, as well as leaving it unclear what RR stands for. I think this is ultimately part of the problem with anti-authoritarian political movements per se. It is easy to form a consensus around ideas that are not clear or thoroughly explored for their contradictions and implications, but subsequently difficult to act on that consensus because it means different things to different people.

    That leads me to my response to your second point. I do believe that meaningful political affiliations and meaningful political projects are possible, but I think they require organization, which requires order, which requires hierarchy; and I also think they require active, oppositional engagement with existing structures (actual politics), rather than symbolic acts within a media sphere that is already structured by capitalism, and within which those symbolic acts end up being exchanged and consumed alongside other media events as cultural commodities.

    In other words, yeah, I personally don’t think that RR is doing anything real politically, aside from its service to activists who may or may not be doing something effective. I think it is primarily a media phenomenon, producing commodities that people consume to feel political without actually being engaged.

    I realize that’s harsh, but I’m just honestly stating what I think about contemporary hipster political activism and what I think about the anarchist movement. Just my own personal views! I could be wrong…

    Comment by Rory Litwin — September 30, 2008 @ 9:39 am

  3. How about neither of us are wrong but we do disagree?

    Little digressive, but perhaps slightly parallel, story: When I was in library school I helped organize a collection of founding documents related to the first organized lesbian leather group in San Francisco. The group, called the Outlaws if I remember right, had a women-only door policy: You had to be a woman to play. Cue real, material arguments about who is a woman–do transwomen count? What about transmen? Could a woman be too butch to come in? What if you say you’re a woman but I don’t think so? Instead of spending a whole lot of time defining ‘woman,’ the group said, “We’re a group for women. If you see yourself as a woman, you are welcome. We’d rather spend more time playing, and less time policing.”

    By which I mean, If you say you’re a librarian activist, I’d say that’s plenty. Considering the extent to which the world is on fire, I’m inclined to take your articulation and enactment of your left politics at face value. We need to spend more time acting, in as many ways as we can, and less time engaged in sectarian kerfuffles. And that’s all I’ll have to say on this.

    Comment by Emily — September 30, 2008 @ 11:24 am

  4. Hi, Emily.

    I can’t accept the policing versus playing analogy here, though I think it is interesting as an indication of many people’s perceptions and preoccupations.

    What I’m for is thoughtful analysis and acting in an organized way. It wasn’t my intention in posting this to dismiss the RR folks, because I definitely think there is room for all kinds of activism and all different political perspectives. My thinking on it is just my own, and I have no interest in forcing anybody to be in step with it. It’s just the thinking that guides me in my own decisions about what I think is effective. So while I disagree with many RR folks about politics, strategies and tactics, it doesn’t bother me that they think differently than I do. We’re not in the same organization, so there’s no need for us to arrive at any decisions.

    Comment by Rory Litwin — September 30, 2008 @ 11:42 am

  5. Thanks for this article. I think the point about how radical reference is better able to serve certain segments of the Left, due to our knowledge and experience base in studying and acting in movement history/work, is well put (how we don’t serve certain segments of the Left is another question).

    Good ol’ Karl Marx (and i know some of my anarchists don’t even wanna see that name) reminded us that to be radical “is to get to the root”- of course, we Leftists have a certain idea of what that root is- and i would say broadly that we feel it is Necessary to study and act on oppression and avenues of liberation. So, while we do use that definition of radical, it seems clear to me that we do take on certain tasks/questions in RR and not others (and we all volunteer and have limited time and i don’t think we should apologize for it). We have in fact reminded users that we are a specialized service focusing on certain questions.

    In terms of serving the Left, we need to be able to comprehend and challenge ideas that are used to fight us, as well as comprehend ideas that can change us to be more effective, so of course it makes sense to direct our users to a broad literature/media and, as always, let them decide how to act.

    Comment by Tripmastermonkey — September 30, 2008 @ 12:03 pm

  6. Hi Rory, thanks for the write-up, I know that your press is successful, and I would imagine many people read your blog-we like to do outreach to the community, so I appreciate your starting this “sectarian kerfuffle”. This can’t be *An Answer From Radical Reference* because we don’t operate in that way. We are a collaborative collection of people who work together in person when we can, and who each, in our own ways, try to further information activism- and I don’t believe that any of us are confused about what that means. I don’t agree with most of what you say, and would think that as someone who is not involved with RR, you would be hard pressed to have any kind of knowledge about what our lives as activists or participants in this group are, what our political views are, or how our “organization” is run. We have accomplished many amazing things that I am proud of since our inception in 2004- teaching workshops and skill shares all over the country-including at the Women Action & the Media Conference, the US Social Forum, the NYC Anarchist Bookfair, NCOR, the Grassroots Media Conference, ALA, and many others. In the past few months I and other RR “members” were invited to speak to Spectrum Scholars and to present a paper at IFLA. My point is, we are doing something that to each of us individually, is meaningful and makes an impact on both the activist community and the library community. We probably all have our own reasons for being a part of Radical Reference, and I don’t need to know political affiliations or ideologies of the people I am lucky enough to get to volunteer with. Oh, and “Internal standards and policies”, that’s a good one! We have neither a blogging pledge nor a manifesto, but if we did, we would break them from time to time I am sure—as you have done today.

    Comment by Lia Friedman — September 30, 2008 @ 12:38 pm

  7. Hi, Lia.

    I tried to confine my post to the reference service that RR provides, but I was pressed on my opinions about RR at other levels. They’re just my opinions. I don’t feel like I’m talking about any individuals, and I recognize that there’s a wide variety of people involved in RR with a wide variety of ideas about politics and activism. But I think there are some trends about what RR does, some leadership, and some agreement among members about things that are not always articulated.

    I personally don’t agree with Emily’s idea that the important thing is to be an activist as opposed to getting stuck on conceptual discussions, although I appreciate where she’s coming from. I personally just don’t see much value in activism that doesn’t have a clear goal, thought-out strategies, or a clear philosophy behind it. That’s just me. I’m not saying that characterizes all that RR does, but I think that the general attitude that position statements (or statements of policy) are undesirable feeds into a form of activism that is like that.

    Regarding my pledge not to diss people, I don’t feel like I’m doing that. I think this is a conversation that we ought to be able to have.

    Comment by Rory Litwin — September 30, 2008 @ 1:38 pm

  8. I’ve always seen Radical Reference as a space in which activist librarians can conduct various activities based around autonomist politics of affinity. As a group, Radical Reference is primarily concerned with having the activity that occurs under its banner based on the principles of direct democracy.

    I think that it is important to understand that the concept of Radical Reference grew out of the global justice movements of the late 90’s and early 00’s (e.g. WTO protests, RNC protests). These movements were often criticized for a lacking a coherent ideology. However, a major part of these movements ideology was about creating new forms of democratic organization. A corporate marketer could very well see a participatory, consensus based meeting as manifestation of, say, the “anti-RNC demographic.” However, the meetings participants all see themselves as active social subjects experimenting with new forms of social organization within the context of the highly atomized societies of late capitalism. That being said, I do think that autonomist movements can develop into subcultures which become so isolated from the rest of the societies in which they live that they are unable to find a common language with those outside of their subculture. This guarantees that they remain a part of a subculture, as opposed to a broad movement.

    Personally, I see Radical Reference as a “space” in which library activists can organize activity. To use Emily’s analogy, as long as you agree to “play” by a few basic rules, go for it. If a problem arises, we can use our processes to deal with it. I think that this structural difference accounts for a lot of the confusion about Radical Reference.

    I have a lot of individual opinions about the issue of library neutrality. But I do not think that Radical Reference is the kind of entity that should draft a position statement about such questions. But, if Radical Reference members wanted to organize a conversation about the topic, I would be supportive. I see Radical Reference as more of a meeting space in which such a conversation could take place. I would oppose any formal affiliation with a professional library organization for this reason. I think that groups like PLG and SRRT are much better equipped to deal with professional questions. Therefore, I do not think that Radical Reference inhabits the same space as SRRT and PLG.

    Comment by Jonathan — September 30, 2008 @ 2:20 pm

  9. hi again, Rory,
    I like nothing more than a conceptual discussion, Rory, and hope you don’t take my comments as a suggestion that we shouldn’t talk concepts. Of course we should! That’s why I read your blog and the books you publish! I just think framing a discussion about political strategy and tactics around a specific named activist group is potentially counterproductive–how could people not take such a thing personally? That’s the thing that seems potentially kerfuffly to me.

    I think we most definitely should talk about neutrality and what it means in the profession, and about how to do meaningful political work under this suffocating capitalist blanket. If RR’s out-ness about political bias prompts that discussion, then great. Having the conceptual discussions–that was the ‘play’ in my perhaps-muddled analogy.

    Comment by Emily — September 30, 2008 @ 2:33 pm

  10. Thanks, Emily, that’s helpful. I wish I had a way of backing out of my statements about RR as an activist group, but I don’t want to delete a bunch of comments to this post. I guess it’s connected through my sense that RR as an organization “owes” it to the library community to be clear about its position on neutrality, because of different assumptions about what organizations are and what they are for.

    I guess what concerns me, at bottom, is a sense that I’m not sure what might be going on that isn’t owned up to. This is something I wonder about groups that avoid formal structures as basically authoritarian. Not having a formal structure can serve to allow hidden structures, hidden hierarchies and power relations, to operate unrecognized and unscrutinized. Similarly, not having a written policy can allow a group to follow one line of thinking one day and another the next according to what is convenient, while giving the impression of being guided by a solid core. I don’t want to accuse RR of this, but there does seem to be the potential of attempting to both have and eat the cake regarding the neutrality issue, in the sense that RR positions itself as a part of the progressive library tradition but disavows a challenge to the neutrality ethic in its “about us” statement. I wonder if the real effect of not having an official line is less to provide a free space than it is to give the group the ability to avoid conflicts between values while giving the appearance of being value-driven. Maybe I should be more humanistic in my approach, but I can’t help thinking of that angle. I am interested in conflicts between values within individuals and groups, and often find myself wishing that people would face those conflicts more squarely.

    Comment by Rory Litwin — September 30, 2008 @ 3:31 pm

  11. Hi Rory. What’s the opposite of scheudenfraude? I’m trying to understand the reasoning behind or goals for your post about radical reference. Please let me know if I’ve got this correct? You think that because RR serves a specific community — although I’d like to point out that we’ve never turned away *any* serious question and have never asked any question submitter their political orientation — RR should take a more overt stance on “neutrality.” You hint that RR is just being trendy or hip (because of RR’s “use of youth-speak”) — read “not properly radical” — and you think that RR has somehow copped out (I obviously disagree) because RR’s about us page, “substantially backs away from the idea that Radical Reference has a political
    orientation, other than the idea that librarianship itself is radical.” You admit that RR has created a valuable service worthy of emulation. Yet you seem to have a problem because of RR’s perceived lack of
    structure, definition, policy statements, or hierarchy.

    I can’t/won’t speak for other commentors or other RR volunteers, but I can tell you that I participate in RR because I truly believe that libraries serve an important role in our society and can be agents of positive social change. RR is just one of the ways that I put my ideas/ideals of information activism into practice. *That’s* what’s important to me.

    RR is not perfect by any means, but has grown over the past 4 years into a well-respected reference service — and as Lia points out, has done a lot to reach out to activist and library communities alike through workshops, skill shares and participation in panel discussions. That’s good enough for me.

    There’s plenty of work that needs to be done. So, rather than be deliberately antagonistic, can’t you instead be happy that there’s another radical/progressive library organization (really an affinity group) out there doing good radical/progressive library work?

    Comment by James — October 1, 2008 @ 4:40 pm

  12. I have a well thought-out policy of not debating people who don’t identify themselves (first names aren’t enough), but I’m comfortable making an exception here, just to say:

    There was nothing antagonistic in my post! The opinions that you don’t like are only appearing here because someone pressed me on them in the comments (Emily Drabinski, whom I like and trust and who I know is fine with our disagreement on these questions). I wasn’t about to duck the issue or lie. So I don’t think I’m being deliberately antagonistic. I see a lot of value in RR and I said so. I’m just answering questions about my opinions and engaging in a discussion with people who are interested. If you don’t like my views, I’m sorry, but what I think is what I think. My post is not an attack but an attempt to get into what I think is an interesting question that RR raises by its practice. I am disappointed that there is less interest in exploring the issue than defensiveness around undefined ideas.

    Comment by Rory Litwin — October 1, 2008 @ 6:08 pm

  13. Thanks for this interesting post. Rory, you’ve said a lot extra in the comments, too, but I want to try to put in words some of what I feel about Rad Ref and a bit about neutrality. (Also, I started writing this last night, so it doesn’t respond to everything in the comments since then…)

    Definitely there’s no such thing as true neutrality, professional or otherwise. Being “neutral” at the public library where I work may mean, for example, that I don’t huff and roll my eyes despairingly and refuse when someone asks me for, say, “The War on Christmas,” but of course said public library system has also, for example, been criticized in the past for being too friendly to the developers’ side in a huge and controversial project here — without, naturally, openly taking a stand on it.

    I agree with most of what the commenters above have said, and I would totally echo Jonathan’s statements. I also agree with James’s description of Rad Ref as more of an affinity group. And everyone else has already explained why the comments are responding more to the discussion of Rad Ref in general than to the idea of a unified stance towards neutrality.

    “In other words, yeah, I personally don’t think that RR is doing anything real politically, aside from its service to activists who may or may not be doing something effective.” I’m not sure what you mean here. What is more “real” than operating in an “each one teach one” philosophy and assisting in direct action events like demos? I mean, I agree that people should educate themselves as to history and theory — and, hey, maybe those of us in NYC can start a Rad Ref reading group, which would certainly benefit me — but that’s not all there is, especially when speaking of “realness.” I don’t mean this to lead to a discussion of tactics and strategies of political resistance; it’s just that I find that particular statement of yours puzzling.

    One of the workshops I’ve done, for example, was about RSS and feed readers — hardly a radical and barely a political topic. But it was still well-received by the audience (at a NYC Grassroots Media Conference) and fulfilling for me, because it was sharing a little advanced Internet knowledge in a way that frankly is not generally possible at my library. And, yes, the fact that I was in front of people from, broadly speaking, my community made it all the more worthwhile — after all, I was volunteering, not doing my paid job.

    “I think it is primarily a media phenomenon, producing commodities that people consume to feel political without actually being engaged.” This, in my opinion, is more a criticism to be leveled at a group like the Desk Set — which, in fairness, does good stuff and includes smart, engaged folks and was not happy (at least the couple of people I spoke to) with the article I just linked to. But I don’t know what “commodities” that are being “consumed” you’re referring to with respect to Rad Ref.

    If I too may make an analogy…I’ve been doing books-to-prisoners work on and off for ten years, and I just came back from the Critical Resistance conference. Several of us from around North America who are part of btp groups had a meeting during the conference. Without taking up a lot of space here describing the issues and quandaries — the bottom line is that there is an enormous demand for reading material in prisons, and btp groups (whatever the motivation of the individuals in them, be they liberal feel-good or abolitionist and “revolutionary” or just the people who dump books off) send books to people there. Hundreds of them every month. So before the prison industrial complex is brought down, should those of us involved in these projects get so caught up in theorizing and questioning and doubting and worrying that we’re helping the prisons’ functions that we stop doing this work entirely? Stop sending in books? (Some might argue yes, but I don’t think we should, at the risk of being accused of activism for activism’s sake. And, as an aside, I see more of a danger of subculture in this arena than in librarianship — I can’t speak for the academic or special librarians, but working in a public library ensures you’re interacting with and learning from plenty of people outside your sociopolitical comfort zone.)

    Anyway, the problem becomes when everyone’s energy is so consumed with the answering of the questions (to name a Rad Ref activity), and the sending out of books to prisoners, that we don’t stop to consider what we’re doing and talk to people and rethink if necessary (without getting paralyzed if a “clear goal” and strategies cannot be articulated, especially, as others have noted, since Rad Ref is more a group or “space” than a structured organization). But I think that people involved with Rad Ref, SRRT and PLG, and all unaffiliated librarians interested in social justice, have lots of spaces to read about and discuss issues related to social responsibilities — here being one of them. And we should be using them.

    Comment by Melissa — October 1, 2008 @ 7:37 pm

  14. Thanks for your comments, Melissa. I want to respond first by reiterating that I didn’t intend to have a debate about the value of Rad Ref and didn’t intend to get into the issues that we got into in the comments when I posted this item, and I’m not entirely comfortable that I’ve let it move in this direction. (I think I used to be a more antagonistic person, and people’s memories of past battles are contributing to their defensiveness now, which I guess is fair.) Emily and I only got into the issues about activism because it followed from her objection that I was treating RR like an organization when it is more of a space, which it chooses to be because of its volunteers’ beliefs about activism. I apologize if I’ve avoidably created a sense of antagonism…

    I understand the objection that RR is more of an affinity group, network, or space than an organization and that therefore it’s not so appropriate to expect it to be philosophically consistent. I grant that there’s no way of discussing the issue of neutrality that I wanted to discuss originally without getting into that area, and that it’s something I didn’t foresee.

    So to answer, actually I don’t entirely agree that RR is only a space or affinity group, because it also exists as a website, and gets talked about and written about as an entity. I won’t say it exists as a brand, because that would be unfair, but I think it is true that in having a name, a style, a look, a cluster of ideas, and a feeling that it exists as a kind of entity in its own right, with a certain personality, and that in this way it represents something, stands for something. I feel that this makes it natural to expect the kind of consistency from it that I am presuming to expect. I think it’s kind of inescapable. Even if it is open ended, it is aesthetically defined, which means that it offers a set of associations that could be stated, clarified, and owned up to, making it theoretically defined.

    At any rate, if RR volunteers simply don’t accept that this expectation is natural, then it doesn’t have to be a matter of RR making a single statement on neutrality and sticking to it. I’d be happy for people to recognize that neutrality is at issue in RR’s practice and presentation, and that the issue wants to be dealt with in some way, not necessarily for finality or a binding resolution, but dealt with in the sense of honestly exploring conflicting values and messages. I think there is a tension that wants some kind of resolution (possibly in the organic or musical sense more than in the bureaucratic organization sense).

    I’m big on looking at conflicting values and ideas that are usually subsumed into a working mixture for practical purposes, because I think doing that reveals the way to think things through more thoroughly. I think we mostly operate on a lot of ideas that are borrowed from here or there without really sorting things out. I think we are mostly much more conformist (and communally policed) than we think. I love discovering contradictions in myself that I wasn’t previously aware of, because when I do that I discover a way to be more myself through resolving those contradictions. Resolving a contradiction means not having to always hide from one side of it or the other. I assume other people also like to hunt out their contradictions, so I like to try to reveal contradictions where I find them – in people, groups, organizations, affinities, etc. I guess it can be provocative and put people on the defensive.

    If anybody is still interested, I’d like to take the privilege of asking that we start over from the top….

    Comment by Rory Litwin — October 1, 2008 @ 8:26 pm

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  16. Not to over-trivialize, but for me, the phrase neutral librarian is like the phrase tolerant UU (Unitarian Universalist). I recently retired after 20+ years as a librarian and I have been a lifelong UU. I see similar challenges for both groups.

    Tolerance, like neutrality, is an ideal to strive for, but, impossible to fully realize. UUs try to be accepting of all sorts of diversity: diversity of opinion, cultures, religions, etc., and, for the most part, we are, if not accepting, at least tolerant. But fundamentalists (of all stripes) try our souls. They intrude into our lives and tell us how we must be, and when they do that, they attack our core values and a tenet of the faith: Do Not Intrude. Do not tell others how to live. In all fairness, we have little patience, much less tolerance, for fundamentalist Christians (or, probably, fundamentalist anything else).

    Librarians strive for neutrality, but in the face of, for example, an administration that intrudes into our domain and demands that we spy on our patrons . . . . Then neutrality goes out the window.

    For librarians, as well as UUs, the tipping point is the group that embodies values in direct conflict with our own. At that point we can either resist (whatever that means under the circumstances) or comply with the groups demands. If we comply with demands, we have betrayed who we are, and if we resist we are no longer “neutral” (or “tolerant”).

    It’s a helluva choice. Either let someone else redefine you, or, relinquish – for the moment – one of your most defining values.

    Comment by Pat Guyton — October 18, 2011 @ 2:15 pm

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