Recently, David Lankes has argued that
librarians must be political. That is they must be aware of politics, aid their members in political pursuits, and actively participate in the political process.
With the recent media attention given to the various Occupy Movement libraries, Lankes’s sentiment seems to fit in with the current library zeitgeist. Reading is empowerment! Knowledge is power! Libraries are the arsenal of democracy! (That last one may be a mixed metaphor.) And, you know, there’s something to be said for approaching librarianship as a political activity. It’s compelling to think of libraries as change-agents and of librarians as some sort of 21st Century salonnières fomenting revolution in the streets. An informed public is necessary in a flourishing, progressive republic and, as a nexus for information, libraries serve a vital political role. But, it’s one thing for libraries to serve a valuable socio-politcal function (which they certainly do), and quite another thing to treat librarianship as inherently political.
It should be noted that Lankes is advocating a political, not partisan, librarianship, and he is careful to distinguish the two. Political librarianship is most certainly not about picking teams. Instead, it is about playing an active role in the political process as advocates for informed and open political participation. Or, at least, that’s part of it. Lankes gives three criteria for political librarianship: the political librarian “must be aware of politics, aid their members in political pursuits, and actively participate in the political process.” These three criteria are intended to be guided by the principles of fairness, neutrality, and intellectual honesty. It certainly sounds compelling, so, what’s the problem? Well, we can look at two overarching issues, one descriptive and one normative. First, it isn’t clear that librarians are inherently political already and, second, it isn’t clear that they should be political, either.
Is librarianship political?
Two things are offered in proof of the political nature of librarianship: that “libraries are enmeshed into the larger concept of democracy” and that librarians empower their community members as informed political participants. As to the former, it’s true that libraries play in enormously influential and important role in society as places where any and all citizens are free to access trustworthy information. I’m not even going to waste your time proving it because, really, the sociopolitical value of the library is self-evident. The problem is that what is true of the library is not necessarily true of the librarian, and vice-versa. Lankes argues that “libraries are political entities, and librarians are political creatures.” But, this common type of reasoning is also known as a fallacy of division, and though some librarians may, in fact, be political creatures, that’s not because libraries are political institutions. Put another way, the fact that libraries are political by nature does not by itself entail that librarians are political by nature. Libraries are made of brick and mortar, but that doesn’t mean librarians are. Your library has a $5 million budget, but that doesn’t mean that you do. Libraries have a role in the political process, but that doesn’t prove that librarians do.
Moreover, the mere fact that librarians (sometimes) empower political participation is insufficient evidence that we are already political activists. The problem here is that the vast majority of what we do has nothing to do with political empowerment. From helping a student find sources for a paper on King Lear, to helping a patron cite a source in APA, to locating the Chilton Guide for an ’84 Dodge Aries, the majority of our work is apolitical. Children’s libraries have nothing to do with politics, nor should they, ElmoPAC be damned. Readers’ advisory can’t always end with Das Kapital. And even though the Hewlett-Packard lobbyists are a powerful force, clearing another damned printer jam is not a political statement.
Yes, sometimes we help patrons find information about how to write a grant for government funding, write a petition to city council, or understand a current policy debate (to name just a few things I’ve done in the past month). But, this no more makes me inherently political than today’s research consultation with a chemistry student makes me inherently a chemist. Librarians are not defined by the nature of the questions they are asked. In fact, even if…hold up…what’s that tapping? Are you furiously typing an objection? Are you about to argue that “EVERYTHING is political!” Are you going to tell me that every little thing we do to improve the library or to help educate our students is a means of empowering them as more knowledgeable political actors, hence a political activity? Sorry, dude or dudette, it’s just not true. If we take the “everything is political” angle, we only cheapen the meaning of the word “political” to the point where it becomes a useless, watered-down abstraction. Not everything is political. Claiming that everything from early childhood literacy programming to e-book lending is “political” doesn’t add anything to the conversation. Besides, I have good evidence that everything is philosophy instead. (For an excellent rebuttal of the “everything is political” line of thinking in academia, check out this article by Stanley Fish.)
So, librarianship is not inherently a political profession. Sure, there are politically active librarians, and that’s a good thing. But, there are also bridge-playing librarians, and we can’t say that librarianship is inherently about playing bridge. Of course, if librarianship is not already political, perhaps it should be…
Should librarianship be political?
I think the real question is whether librarians should be political, if we aren’t already. Should we ”be aware of politics, aid [our] members in political pursuits, and actively participate in the political process”? Well, the first is incontestable. Librarians should be aware of a lot of things, from politics to business to culture to technology and more. But, what about the other two? I think the answer is a lot less clear.
For all of the accolades poured upon the People’s Library at Occupy Wall Street (and rightly so, I might add), one thing is certain: they didn’t have official library sponsorship. You see, there’s this little thing called the Hatch Act that places limits on the political activities of federal employees. Most states have drafted similar restrictions and you can read a nice little rundown of librarians and political speech in this handy article from the ALA. Apparently, there are limits to using taxpayer-funded resources for political activities. Shocking, right?! I mean, who knew!? Who would have ever guessed that you probably can’t use public resources to “actively participate in the political process”? Sure, you absolutely can (and should) be politically active as a citizen. We just can’t do it in an official capacity unless the nature of the political activity falls under one of the narrowly circumscribed, acceptable venues for libraries (i.e., library advocacy, though Lankes explicitly argues that he is talking about more than “politics related directly to the library”). Put another way, we absolutely should be advocates for nuanced and informed political expression, but the duty to take an active role in the political process arises because we are citizens, not because we are librarians. Every citizen has the same duty to abide by intellectual honesty and fairness, librarian or not.
Well, if being politically aware is a gimme, and our duty to participate in politics isn’t really a duty of librarianship, then what about the idea of aiding patrons in political pursuits? I guess it depends on how much we aid our patrons. In one sense, aiding patrons in political pursuits entails that we provide multiple points of view on controversial subjects, we adhere to principles of intellectual honesty, and we serve all patrons who need help, without judgment. Basically, it’s about being advocates for intellectual freedom. The thing is, we’re supposed to be advocates for intellectual honesty regardless of how political we are. We’re supposed to help patrons fairly and honestly no matter what their needs are. It’s even written in the danged Library Bill of Rights: “Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” But if, on the other hand, aiding patrons in political pursuits entails going above and beyond how we help with other information needs, then it’s unclear (1) how we’re supposed to justify giving more attention to political needs than to other patron needs and (2) how we’re supposed to do that in light of the restrictions on campaigning, protesting, circulating petitions, and other political activities.
At this point I can’t see any reason to embrace a political librarianship. Either ‘political’ is interpreted to mean “fair, honest, offering multiple viewpoints, etc.”, in which case that’s no different from what we’ve always been obligated to do. Or, ‘political’ is interpreted in a stronger sense, meaning “a duty to actively engage in political activities” in which case we’ll need to make a librarian exception to the various laws following the Hatch Act, and we’ll need to explain how that duty is peculiar to librarianship and not founded in the more properly basic citizenship. Or, we could go with door number three…
I’m just going to throw this out there: rather than being political, the values inherent in librarianship are apolitical. The library qua institution has political power precisely because it is apolitical, it “rises above the fray”, so to speak. I think Andromeda Yelton hit the nail on the head when she recently wrote that the power of libraries is in their role as “safe spaces” for questioning political authority and testing new ideas. And the librarians working in those safe spaces are already prohibited (both morally and legally) from political involvement. As Wayne Bivens-Tatum explains in a great post on the subject of politicized reference questions, “librarians aren’t supposed to take sides in a debate when helping readers find information, or refuse to help find information on topics they disagree with.” And that includes taking the patron’s or reader’s side. Actually, now that I think about, that just sounds like the fairness and intellectual honesty that supposedly makes librarians necessary in politics. Hmmm…librarianship is political because it’s apolitical? Sounds like a walking contradiction to me (cue the Green Day).
So, “political librarianship” is either inconsistent, incoherent, redundant, or self-contradictory. We can’t be political librarians, but we can politically active citizens who are also librarians. Sorry it took 1700 words to say it; I tend to ramble sometimes. Anyway, I’d love to hear what you think. Is there a way to be a political librarian in the strong sense? Should we show preference to political needs over other information needs? Is librarianship fundamentally about speaking truth to power? Go ahead and cast your ballot. (Just don’t do it from the reference desk.)