Flat Earth, bigotry, and bias: Should the Library be neutral?

Does fake news have any place in the Library? What about pseudoscience, like the sort that has animated a small but vocal throng of flat-Earthers?

What obligation does the Library have to present opposing and polarizing views, even when someone could find them abhorrent?

At the heart of these questions is the issue of neutrality — a complicated conundrum that affects everything from what librarians collect to how they serve patrons.

We asked a group of librarians, plus a couple of Library users — a professor and a recent graduate — the same question: Should the Library be neutral? The responses offer a glimpse into librarians’ important role as curators, collectors, and providers of knowledge. Answers touch on such themes as the importance of rejecting hate and bigotry, representing voices of marginalized communities, and including a range of perspectives — even ones people might find objectionable. But the responses, too, raise a multitude of questions of their own: What does it mean to be neutral? Who gets to define it? And how does neutrality — or a lack thereof — affect the Library’s ability to carry out its mission to help scholars find, evaluate, use, and create knowledge?

As might be expected, a unified answer does not emerge. Taken together, the answers reflect the range of perspectives that, subtly and not-so-subtly, help shape the Library into the indispensable, inclusive wealth of knowledge it is — not only for Berkeley, but for scholars across the (ahem, demonstrably round) world.

The Library cannot be neutral in our policies and procedures when it comes to services for our patrons or our staff. We must reject bigotry, hate, and their byproduct, discrimination, in all its forms. This is difficult work, and we are not alone in doing this. However, when it comes to building and growing the collection, we need to do so broadly, which includes adding some reprehensible materials. This is also difficult work, but if libraries do not collect and maintain this information, how can future generations build a better, more enlightened society without studying and learning from the mistakes of our collective intolerant, bigoted, and at times barbaric past?

Jesse Silva
Scholarly resources strategy librarian


Yes — libraries (at least academic libraries, which I am most familiar with) should collect a range of viewpoints on various topics. But does this mean ... that all positions and viewpoints are somehow equal and deserving of merit? I think not. ... We are entitled to our own opinions but not entitled to our own facts. Yes — the Holocaust did happen, HIV causes AIDS, human-caused climate change is significant. Library materials that state otherwise may be useful to read in order to assist in refuting pseudoscience, and are thus worthy of being in our collection. But no, they should not be reflected “equally” in our collection, neither in quantity nor prominence.

Michael Sholinbeck
Public health librarian

There are potentially multiple answers to a single but complex question. I chose to answer it as follows. Should libraries be neutral is a complicated question, and any answer to it is context-specific and driven by the ideological stance that might be prevalent in a particular society. Also, the same problem can be answered using another equally valid question — whose neutrality? Who is the arbitrator of what is neutral or not? Traditionally, American libraries and librarians have been at the forefront of the fight for the preservation of intellectual freedom. ... For me, the neutrality lies in the fact that as librarians in an academic setting, we value and fight for rights of our patrons to privacy and their freedom of unhindered access to unclassified or legally declassified information.

Liladhar Pendse
Librarian for Latin American and Eastern European collections


As a librarian in the Social Sciences Division, one of my responsibilities is to select books, journals, and other materials in support of research in the Graduate School of Education. Among the many goals of the Graduate School of Education is to explore the role of schooling in sustaining a democratic society in the face of social inequality and economic restructuring. This mission is decidedly not neutral. Indeed, the core mission of UC Berkeley — to address the world’s most pertinent challenges — is not neutral. And, as librarians supporting the research and teaching of the university, we should not be neutral either.

Margaret Phillips
Librarian for gender and women’s studies, education, and psychology


I think an academic research library has to be neutral to be successful in its mission of being a repository of knowledge and information that it makes accessible to its patrons. In any discourse or controversy there are at least two sides and, most often, the standpoint of one cannot be fully understood on its own without reference to the other. If libraries were to take sides they would end up building ideologically truncated collections that would negatively impact scholarly research by eliminating important voices and points of view.

Adnan Malik
Curator and cataloger for the South Asia collection


In my 46 years at Berkeley, I benefited from the Library, enjoying the effective mix of electronic and physical publications. I loved that I could find everything I wanted and discover new treasures. I work on agricultural biotechnology, which is controversial, and I was able to obtain even obscure publications that provide multiple perspectives. When the university has to make budgetary choices, it’s crucial to be unbiased and seek and aim to satisfy the opposing point of view. Pursuing diversity also means understanding and seriously considering points of view that we may not agree with.

David Zilberman
Professor, Department of Agricultural & Resource Economics


The Library is not and can’t be neutral. When students created their own reading room and eventually a Chicano studies library in the 1960s, they were reacting to the exclusion of their culture and perspective from the main libraries on campus. That exclusion was not neutral, and neither was the reaction of the students. Deciding whose archives and personal histories are excluded is not a neutral act. Neither is the decision to purposefully gather and select voices from one’s own community to preserve and celebrate.

Lillian Castillo-Speed
Head librarian, Ethnic Studies Library, Chicano studies librarian


The Library as a space, and its services, collections, and staff, should be neutral. ... Seeking knowledge is not an easy task in other parts of the world. In other countries, books and other scholarly resources are censored for political, religious, social, or other reasons. Researchers in these countries do not have the option to examine different or opposite views or thoughts. In my point of view, supporting neutrality in libraries will secure access to knowledge in all aspects, here in the U.S. and in the world.

Mohamed Hamed
Middle Eastern and Near Eastern studies librarian


This is one of the most complicated questions in our profession. At the core are issues of systemic inequity, including the selective restriction of access to goods, services, and wealth, rooted in a continuing tradition of ignorance, bias, and hate. In my work with researchers exploring similar big topics, I advise them to articulate unresolved questions. In this case: Is it even possible for an individual — let alone an institution — to be neutral or operate neutrally?

Gisèle Tanasse
Film and media services librarian, Media Resources Center


Without question, a library should treat its authors, sources, and patrons equitably — which is not necessarily to say with neutrality. Should a library be nondiscriminatory? Of course. But should it be neutral? The shelves of a library should be exactly as neutral as the voices of the community it represents — or, put another way, not in the least. ... It is the admirable work of the Library to diligently make space for even the quietest voice in the room, to consider every side. Far from non-participation, a library’s non-neutrality is its best hedge against prejudice. With the capacity to facilitate any conversation, to present any angle, to build a platform for anyone with something to say, the worst position a library could take is no position at all.

Julia Burke ’18
Charlene Conrad Liebau Library Prize winner, 2018, English and history double major