Published February 24, 2022
Recent news stories covering clashes over what books students should read in class and have access to in their school libraries have overlooked a major player in our unfolding scholastic drama. We’ve been reading about traditionalist parents, progressive teachers and politicians of various stripes. Missing, however, has been the figure of the woke librarian.
What in the world is a woke librarian? After all, through venerable proclamations like the Library Bill of Rights, America’s librarians have long pledged to “provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues.” The declaration adds, “Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.” This professional stance is known as “neutrality.”
By vowing ideological neutrality in the provision of knowledge, librarians ideally enable readers to develop opinions based on broad consideration of the available alternatives. In contrast, librarians who allow their personal politics to control or curtail the provision of information violate neutrality and betray the public trust. A woke librarian, then, is a contradiction in terms.
Contradiction or not, woke librarians — by which I mean librarians who see it as their duty to promote progressive views on race, policing, sexuality and other issues — are everywhere. Yet the Library Bill of Rights has it right: The library should remain sacred ground — a neutral sphere above the fray — precisely because libraries leaven and inform the fray itself.
The story of increasing challenges to library neutrality reflects a broader national pattern of polarization and declining trust in institutions. This story also offers an opportunity: By recapturing library neutrality, we can provide a model for coping with our broader national conflicts.
Library neutrality shares the classically liberal presuppositions that informed America’s founding. Human beings enjoy equal rights. Free individuals can be trusted to make their own decisions about what to read and believe. By promoting the intellectual formation of independent citizens, libraries make liberal democracy possible. Public funding for libraries is still justified on these terms.
Yet this ideal of neutrality is increasingly rejected by librarians. This skepticism traces the trajectory of our cultural battles. Challenges to library neutrality occurred amid the radicalism of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and in the early 1990s, as ’60s veterans rose through the library’s ranks. By 2004 David Brooks noted that for librarians “the ratio of Kerry to Bush donations was a whopping 223 to 1.” In 2020, a Bloomberg News analysis of political donations through two online platforms found that 93 percent of donors who reported being librarians gave to Joe Biden.
Regardless of their personal politics, librarians can strive for neutrality in the performance of their professional duties. Yet by the early 2000s, the profession had become politicized. From a 2004 resolution calling for unconditional withdrawal from Iraq to today’s activism in support of the new woke orthodoxy, the American Library Association lends institutional support to the American left.
Around 2008, according to an analysis by the dean of libraries at California State University East Bay, John Wenzler, challenges to neutrality started appearing with lopsided frequency in the librarians’ professional literature. It built to a crescendo during the Trump administration. At a 2018 American Library Association event, speakers debated questions including, “Are libraries neutral?” “Have they ever been?” “Should they be?” In a 2020 article, “The Moral Arc of the Library,” two librarians described “the role whiteness and white privilege has played in the history of the library profession” and declared that “it is time for libraries and librarians to do away with arguments about ‘neutrality’ and instead reorient ourselves toward social justice in a more intentional way.”
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Some critics of neutrality draw on critical race theory to argue that neutrality is an illusion because everything is political. “Choosing neutrality (or disengagement) in time of conflict is choosing to maintain status quo at the expense of one portion of a community,” argues a 2017 article by six authors affiliated with library or research programs.
It is true, in a sense, that the librarian’s apparent neutrality has a political grounding. By means of neutrality, librarians affirm their respect for individual liberty, while demonstrating the tolerance for divergent conceptions of the good upon which our constitutional system rests. In a broad sense, classical liberalism is a “political” stance. At the same time it offers far more scope for varied ways of life and faith than competing political arrangements.
Critics of neutrality often take it for granted that advocacy by libraries will advance their vision of social justice. This overlooks the extent to which a library’s authority rests upon its reputation for neutrality. When they adopt the role of political actors, librarians cast into doubt public funding, hands-off policies toward book collections and parents’ willingness to entrust their children to the public school system. This is where we are, particularly in conservative states and school districts, where librarians’ open embrace of leftist activism is out of step with the public mood.
Neither in libraries nor anywhere else can the classically liberal principles foundational to our institutions be reconciled with the premises of the woke ascendancy. This is the battle of our day. With the fundamental character of American society hanging in the balance, the struggle between these incompatible perspectives must necessarily be waged in localities and states, where K-12 content is set. Blue states like Illinois, with new standards for teacher training, and California, by way of a model curriculum for a newly adopted ethnic studies requirement, are promoting the new progressive orthodoxy on ethnicity and race. Red states like Texas are barring promotion of the most controversial progressive understandings of race and ethnicity in K-12 public school classrooms.
The battle over what books to include in the curriculum must and will continue. I favor state laws that bar promotion of critical race theory ideology. Prohibiting the endorsement of a concept in the classroom, however, leaves room for discussion of the concept.
Students will be aware of the clashes around them. They need resources to explore the alternatives further. That is where school libraries can help. Whether the official curriculum promotes classical liberalism, woke orthodoxy or other important perspectives, students should be free to compare, contemplate and debate them all.
There is a complication here: sexual content. Battles over explicit sexual content in school library books raise issues of age-appropriateness that can be settled only through a combination of community standards and the courts. That battle includes yet goes beyond ideology, and will not be resolved any time soon.
Setting aside the issue of sexual content, however, the solution for school libraries is clear. Parent groups shouldn’t fight to ban contentious books from the library, even when they don’t make the official curriculum. They should balance controversial books instead. Don’t dump Howard Zinn’s leftist “A People’s History of the United States” from the shelf. Add a real alternative, like Wilfred McClay’s “Land of Hope,” instead. Don’t hurl the “The 1619 Project” out the library window. Instead, add Peter Wood’s “1620” to the library’s collection, along with writings from Robert Woodson’s group, 1776 Unites.
Supporting library neutrality by balancing books is in everyone’s interest. Deep public respect for the traditional library ideal will rightly cut against conservatives who offend against it. The sins of woke librarians do not absolve the excesses of the other side. Nor does purging leftist library books comport with traditional ideals of liberty. Nothing can halt the surging conservative education movement more effectively than its own overreach.
On the left, politically one-sided collection building by avowedly nonneutral librarians would amount to book banning by other means, more insidious for being less obvious than parents with pitchforks. As conservatives capture school boards, I expect examples of this backdoor form of book banning to increasingly come to light, exacerbating an already fraught situation. Ultimately, librarians who work to balance a library’s holdings will be far more persuasive advocates for intellectual freedom than those with a political ax to grind.
There is a lesson here for the professions upon whose trustworthy refereeing our society depends for its stability: judges, government bureaucrats, journalists and more. These occupations should work to recapture lost neutrality. As our political conflicts deepen, we need our traditionally fair and impartial referees far more, not less, than before.
Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank, and a regular contributor to National Review Online on education and other issues. He has a doctorate in social anthropology and has taught at Harvard University and the University of Chicago.
Stanley Kurtz is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Beyond his work with Education and American Ideals, Mr. Kurtz is a key contributor to American public debates on a wide range of issues from K–12 and higher education reform, to the challenges of democratization abroad, to urban-suburban policies, to the shaping of the American left’s agenda. Mr. Kurtz has written on these and other issues for various journals, particularly National Review Online (where he is a contributing editor).