Library Neutrality and Pluralism: A Manifesto

November 2023

Over the past several years I have become increasingly concerned (along with my colleagues now associated with Heterodox Libraries) that contemporary librarianship is experiencing something of a crisis owing to the fact that an appreciable number of its practitioners are no longer willing to defend its most basic principle, institutional neutrality. Many progressive librarians and librarianship scholars now see neutrality as not just abstract but insensible (if not outright hostile) to the cause of social justice. This tension has a long history in librarianship—and is the subject of a substantial body of literature (e.g. Lewis 2008)-–going back at least 50 years to the “Berninghausen debate,” named after University of Minnesota librarian David Berninghausen, who argued that activism on the part of librarians risks undermining their professional obligation to preserve and protect the intellectual freedom of users (see Wenzler 2019).

In this article, I hope to build on this argument for neutrality in a systematic and a holistic way. As a “heterodox librarian,” I believe that this principle is fundamental for our profession because it is not merely a technical professional guideline, but is in fact deeply-grounded in liberal political philosophy (e.g., Immanuel Kant [people must be treated as ends, and not merely as means]; John Stuart Mill [speech with which you disagree or that is actually incorrect strengthens your own ability to argue your case]; Alexander Meiklejohn [we value freedom of speech more for the listener and their ability to make informed decisions as a citizen, than we do for the speaker]; and Karl Popper [we cannot prove our theories, only disprove/falsify them]). In particular, I believe we should be guided by the political liberalism of John Rawls, who argued that pluralistic societies are comprised of too many competing conceptions of the good (held by diverse cultures and stakeholders) for any single such conception to be enforced on the whole; therefore, a politically liberal society would be premised on the means by which a minimum shared sense of justice on which all can agree should obtain, for only through such a consensus can individuals and the communities of which they are a part enjoy the freedom to seek out these greater conceptions of the good as they so choose. All of these political philosophies as they apply to libraries are especially salient in the North American context, where libraries provide services to communities comprising residents of many races, ethnicities, cultures and faiths, and which hold to a wide range of value systems.

To address these tensions, over the past year and a half I have been assembling ideas and musing about writing a “manifesto” of sorts, in which I’m seeking to reclaim and reframe the traditional Enlightenment values of librarianship, as well as the intellectual freedom principles enshrined in the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights as well as the Canadian Federation of Library Associations’ Statement on Intellectual Freedom and Libraries.

I’d like to reframe library neutrality by stressing pluralism as a normative political value, and that neutrality is only the means by which this value is affirmed and defended. By pluralism I am referring to a humanist view of difference within the context of universalism, or a common political culture that assumes a shared humanity among its many diverse citizens. This must be distinguished from ethnic, racial and cultural particularism which, in a 1990 article, Diane Ravitch did by stating:

The pluralists seek a richer common culture; the particularists insist that no common culture is possible. The pluralist approach to multiculturalism promotes a broader interpretation of the common American culture and seeks due recognition for the ways that the nations many racial, ethnic, and cultural groups have transformed the national culture. The pluralists say, in effect, “American culture belongs to us, all of us; the U.S. is us, and we remake it in every generation.” But particularists have no interest in extending or revising American culture; indeed, they deny that a common culture exists. Particularists reject any accommodation among groups, any interactions that blur the distinct lines between them. The brand of history that they espouse is one in which everyone is either a descendant of victims or oppressors (340-341).

With 30 years of hindsight, we recognize this particularist impulse is now manifested in what are commonly referred to as Wokeness, Critical Social Justice, identity politics, intersectionality or Critical Race Theory. The open illiberalism of this movement is best summarized by its own adherents in terms of “questioning the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law” (Delgado & Stefancic, 3). Accordingly, the activism associated with this illiberalism is the desire to “disrupt and dismantle” existing structures; with what exactly these structures are to be replaced is much less clearly articulated or understood.

By contrast, I wish to further Ravitch’s argument that pluralism provides a more unifying, classically liberal and democratic path. Yet, it’s important to understand that pluralism isn’t merely a value or a static condition but rather a political “commons” —difference in the context of universalism—one that must be consciously stewardedby its participants. As mathematician Patricio Herbst argues, stewarding pluralism means “resisting any individual’s entitlement to use scholarly spaces for unconstrained promotion of ideologies” —a principle I would extend to the practitioner context as well.

Before proceeding, please note that this “manifesto” is my own and does not—and is not intended to—represent the views of my colleagues at Heterodox Libraries (although I do sincerely thank many of them for their input and suggestions!). I’m going to be referencing and building upon on a recent article I wrote with John Wright, “The Role of Multidimensional Library Neutrality in Advancing Social Justice: Adapting Theoretical Foundations from Political Science and Urban Planning,” in the Journal of Intellectual Freedom & Privacy, as well as a previous HxA Libraries blog post of mine, “The Certainty Trap and Taking Sides in Librarianship,” so the reader is encouraged to seek those out as well.

Proposed Principles:

An ethos of Pluralist Librarianship would uphold that:

  1. the role of the library—in collecting, organizing, preserving, mediating and facilitating access to information and knowledge—is both conservationistand generative, in the sense of preserving and describing the properties of informational artefacts for the purpose of making them discoverable and available for the production of further, new knowledge on the part of library users [ontology; materialism; telos];
  2. these library functions are intended to support, to the extent possible, the collection, description and organization of materials representing the fullest and most diverse selection of available knowledge, experience, ideas, theories and perspectives concerning the widest range of topics and making them discoverable and usable [epistemology; viewpoint diversity];
  3. however, the fact that libraries are built around “collections” and not the totality of all human intellectual production means that they inherently involve processes of selection and deselection, which necessitate judgment and decisions contingent upon a wide range of factors including institutional and community needs and values;
  4. these library functions are therefore not just epistemological but also political (in a strictly non-partisan sense) to the extent that they are situated in communities and support the ability of users to engage in informed, reasoned dialogue, knowledge generation and debate as part of our collective human experience from generation to generation [democratic and temporal justifications];
  5. in carrying out these functions, librarians should adopt a stance of principled epistemic humility and fallibility, acknowledging that all knowledge is incomplete and provisional, which means we must be humble in our certainties and willing to learn from others, including those with whom we disagree [epistemological fallibilism];
  6. a starting place for such humility is the recognition that publicly-funded libraries are not isolated entities but are agents of larger polities (municipalities, states/provinces, nations) and as such the individual freedoms these libraries promote and facilitate are delimited by the laws of these levels of government;
  7. these polities represent and provide for the needs, rights and freedoms of a pluralistic society, comprising peoples from nations, races, cultures, ethnicities and faiths representing a global humanity and a multiplicity of value systems;
  8. furthermore, these larger polities are facing a host of “wicked problems” concerning social, economic, environmental and political conditions and issues that affect this multiplicity of stakeholders in myriad ways, the addressing of which is charged to policymakers, planners, scientists and non-governmental organizations, but lies far outside the degreed expertise of librarians;
  9. because of these political realities, it is illegitimate for publicly-funded libraries to seek to create their own ideological foundations outside of and exceeding their approved mandates;
  10. therefore, given these boundaries and issue-contexts, a philosophical orientation based on realism (what can be demonstrably shown to exist in the mind-independent world) and pragmatism (the extent to which knowledge claims prove fruitful and resilient in the face of challenges, including confrontation with mind-independent reality) is a more ethically sound and appropriate basis for institutional principles than one premised on idealism and utopianism. While both of these latter motivations may be freely and admirably engaged in by individuals (especially philosophers), once embedded within institutions they have the potential both to imperil pluralistic values by denying multiple conceptions of the good, as well as to contradict the governance of these larger polities [philosophy];
  11. as such, librarians, their institutions and their professional bodies should neither adopt, propose, promote nor seek to impose any ideological formulation of their own (or that of a constituency with whom the librarian personally identifies or empathizes) for an ideal society, beyond facilitating the foundations for individual autonomy, liberty and equal opportunity within the boundaries established above, and including reasoned dialogue concerning diverse viewpoints among a plurality of stakeholder groups [Rawlsian political liberalism];
  12. while leading systems of library classification and cataloging are themselves premised on ideological assumptions and cultural values from previous centuries and thus have, in some cases, misrepresented certain peoples and perspectives, they should be seen as being open to ongoing incremental reform, amendment and evolution alongside and as a part of a pluralistic society, rather than being “disrupted and dismantled” [incrementalism];
  13. because pluralism is premised on the dialectical relationship between difference and universalism and necessitates a common political culture, it also depends upon the conventions of a common language (or languages); therefore pluralist librarians will resist—in both public communications and in library Metadata—radical and postmodern attempts to unmoor language from shared meaning-making.
  14. For these foregoing reasons, publicly-funded librarians acknowledge that all processes associated with the creation and operation of libraries are, consequently, inherently value-laden;
  15. and because of this, it is therefore imperative that libraries and library workers strive to adhere to principled, multi-dimensional neutrality, in terms of values (social, political, religious); stakeholders (welcoming equally all users in the community); processes (venues and transparent, consistently-applied procedures for engaging with the public); and goals (the purposes to which library materials are to be employed by users), so as not to impose on users a single conception of the good. Such neutrality is not a standard but rather aspirational and evolving;
  16. this ethic applies equally to the work of the individual librarian through the provision of collection, instruction and reference assistance such that the librarian does not seek to censor or prevent the discussion of or inquiry on the part of the user into ideas to which they personally object;
  17. this ethic is also fundamentally important to the task of relationship-building with communities in order to avoid, to the extent possible, antagonisms and mistrust;
  18. as civic institutions, libraries may therefore best address social problems (e.g., inequality, injustices, environmental issues) through facilitating access data, information, knowledge and opinion so as to enable open inquiry, reasoned dialogue and debate regarding these issues, rather than by adopting or advocating policy positions on them—that such access is, in fact, the positive contribution to addressing these issues they are uniquely qualified to provide [goal neutrality];
  19. library users should be recognized and respected as autonomous individuals embedded in their respective communities – individuals who have the shared right and freedom to use the information obtained in libraries in any way they see fit [goal neutrality; intellectual freedom; Kantian ethics];
  20. while all users have a right to access the library’s collections and spaces, none have the right in principle to be free from encounters with ideas, information or groups with which they might disagree and to which they may object, thus maintaining an environment of intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity for all [value neutrality];
  21. at the same time, in the case of minors, this environment is constrained by reasonable considerations and protections for age-appropriateness—most commonly through spatial organization according to age range and reading level and within the context of parental supervision-–and this obligation is particularly salient in school libraries, which are understood to operate in loco parentisand therefore have a duty of care towards their users;
  22. as well, because the library is a publicly-funded institution and therefore accountable to its users, it is therefore obligated to provide venues and processes whereby users may express concerns about the appropriateness or suitability of library materials and their disposition. Such concerns and their proponents must be dealt with in good faith through transparent processes [accountability; process neutrality];
  23. library users have the right to be free from the influence of the personal opinions of librarians speaking outside of their professional competencies: just as employees of all public institutions are prohibited from using their respective institutions as a platform to promote political or religious causes, so too should the advocacy role of the librarian in their institutional capacity be limited to addressing those social issues that directly relate to or have an impact on library services (e.g., homelessness, the need for more social services, etc.). This point is in no way intended to infringe on the academic librarian’s extramural academic freedom, or the librarian’s right as an individual citizen to comment on or influence public policy;
  24. while part of that institutional capacity could involve the promotion of discussion and debate regarding polarizing social issues through programming, room rentals, internet access, partnerships, collection development and book displays, this would exclude institutional public advocacy for particular policy positions or socio-political outcomes regarding those issues, or presumptions that the library has any substantive role in or responsibility for their resolution;
  25. recognizing the largely insular, practical theoretical foundations of librarianship, pluralist librarians seek to enhance and inform our discipline by way of applicable theories and perspectives from a diverse range of disciplines including communication studies, philosophy, political science, history, urban planning, sociology, etc. [interdisciplinarity];
  26. the assertion on the part of the library profession to be representing a pluralist public interest can only be justified and legitimate to the extent that it permits and facilitates heterogeneity and the expression of competing claims on the part of multiple publics. Claims of anticipated harm on the part of one constituency arising from future speech acts or the presence and circulation of certain library materials must be weighed against the possibility that the interests or rights of another constituency may be materially harmed or abridged if the ideas in question are not expressed or made available [democratic justification; viewpoint diversity; Millian principles of free speech];
  27. while incitements to violence against identifiable groups are (as per current legal frameworks) not acceptable in library settings, librarians cannot assume for themselves the ability to pre-emptively define, label or proscribe scheduled public speech in their libraries as “hate speech,” but must instead defer this matter to the proper governmental legal authorities and competencies as a matter of governance [viewpoint diversity; freedom of speech; professional scope];
  28. where there are disagreements with colleagues, members of the community, authors and activists, we strive to understand these disagreements to be with ideas, ideologies, values or principles, and not as being in opposition to—or expressed as hostility towards—individuals or groups; that is, we affirm the freedom to not accept others’ ideas or worldviews while still respecting persons, academic and intellectual rights, and the need for civil discourse [viewpoint diversity; collegiality/ethics];
  29. owing to this ethic, pluralist librarians abhor ad hominem attacks such as condemning individuals or groups as “hateful,” “bigoted,” “fascist”, “---phobic” or employing other such dehumanizing characterizations; and finally
  30. to better ensure viewpoint diversity in higher education, the academic freedom of librarians in such institutions is not to be constrained by consideration for any orthodox views on the part of teaching faculty with whom they liaise in a collections or instructional capacity; and should include the extramural freedom as independent academics to comment on matters of public interest [academic freedom; professional autonomy].

Again, these are just proposals presented for purposes of discussion and debate. And I recognize the limitations of the format: many if not most of these points could serve as thesis statements for entire articles (and some are addressed in more detail in the article I co-wrote with John Wright). However, I hope I have successfully articulated how, by being thus tied to pluralism, neutrality should no longer be characterized as a disconnected “abstract” principle, but instead understood as being not only multi-dimensional in nature (values, stakeholders, processes and goals) but in service of the broader and enduring social, cultural and political value of pluralism that has for centuries defined the American experiment, and which is shared by other Western democracies.

I believe that these principles may (in combination) offer useful guidance for a library profession working towards apluralistic public interest (as opposed to a unitary “public good”) as partof a society dealing with complex social and political issues and problems involving diverse community stakeholders. Indeed, I would argue that the promotion and defense of pluralism necessitatemultidimensional institutional and professional neutrality. By working within the context of pluralist public interest, librarians can leave it to individuals and the communities of which they are a part to pursue (and share) their conceptions of the good as they see fit.

Inasmuch as I have here defended institutional multi-dimensional neutrality, this analysis may even point to the desirability of actually replacing the termneutrality withpluralism–after all, neutrality is only an instrumental and proceduralvalue—the means by which this central, substantive and politicalvalue is embraced, supported and defended.


Delgado, R., Stefancic, J., & Harris, A. (2017). Critical race theory : an introduction (Third, Ser. Critical america). New York University Press.

Dudley, M., & Wright, J. The Role of Multidimensional Library Neutrality in Advancing Social Justice: Adapting Theoretical Foundations from Political Science and Urban Planning.” The Journal of Intellectual Freedom and Privacy7 no. 3 (2022): (13-24).

Lewis, A. M. (2008). Questioning library neutrality: essays from progressive librarian. Library Juice Press.

Ravitch, D. (1990). Multiculturalism: E Pluribus Plures. The American Scholar 59(3), 337–354.

Rawls, J. (1993). Political liberalism (Ser. The John Dewey essays in philosophy, no. 4). Columbia University Press.

Wenzler, John. "Neutrality and its discontents: An essay on the ethics of librarianship." portal: Libraries and the Academy 19, no. 1 (2019): 55-78.