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One of the main tenets of intellectual freedom absolutism is that the library does not take a side, but instead provides a “neutral” platform for the discussions necessary for social, political, and ethical progress. Jim Turk, for example, has written that

it is vital that the TPL uphold public libraries’ commitment to the protection of intellectual freedom and refuse to cancel the event. To do otherwise may be popular with critics but will undermine one of the foundations for achieving social justice in Canada – freedom of expression.

Furthermore, the CFLA statement on intellectual freedom states that:

Libraries have a core responsibility to safeguard and foster free expression and the right to safe and welcoming places and conditions. To this end, libraries make available their public spaces and services to individuals and groups without discrimination.

“Foundations for achieving social justice”, “safeguard and foster”, “makes available” - these are all passive, infrastructural ways of describing libraries’ role in society, and even though many supporters of IF-absolutism deny that neutrality remains at the heart of Canadian librarianship (“To my knowledge, the library profession has never regarded neutrality as an absolutist doctrine” - Alvin Schrader), this passive language reflects an implicit hegemonic neutrality. More than that, it sees the effects of library work as somehow divorced from the actions of libraries themselves. Social justice, equality, even questions of freedom and necessity, are things other people are implicated in, while the library “simply” provides a framework. In other words, the library sees itself as separate from and independent of both the social forces in which it is embedded and the social effects of its work. This is a natural consequence of the liberal theory of the state which sees state institutions as outside of and above the antagonisms of social relationships, mediating between them, but not taking part in them. It is an extremely paternalistic view of state institutions, one we see reflected in librarianship to this day. As we will see below, however, there is no “outside” to neoliberal capitalist social and power relations.

What this means is that on the one hand defenders of IF-absolutism (and, implicitly, libraries) see the ability to “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas” (from the UN Declaration of Human Rights) as in and of itself contributory to social progress. Put another way, having access to more information - increasing knowledge - should automatically lead to improved social relations and social conditions. This is the kind of idealism Marx and Engels critiqued in The German Ideology, and which I have written about before.

However, at another level, what is at play here is the inability of IF-absolutists and libraries to connect their own positions within capitalism with the effects of their work. I’ve written in Confronting the Democratic Discourse of Libraries about how libraries are quick to claim responsibility for positive social effects, but just as quick to disavow responsibility for anything negative. The library as active subject, in these cases, sees itself as distinct from its object (the support and dissemination of harmful ideas and the reinforcement of dangerous social relationships). We can see this most explicitly in the constant denial that renting rooms to bigots is an endorsement of bigotry by the library.

This ties in with work Jana Bacevic has been doing on the epistemic characteristics of neoliberalism. In her 2019 article “Knowing Neoliberalism”, Bacevic argues that criticism of neoliberalism has always been able to position itself as distinct from neoliberalism, seeing itself as a form of resistance or an agent of change, or at any rate independent of the concrete realities of neoliberal power relations and ways of knowing.. However, she further argues that neoliberalism has channeled these forms of resistance entirely into critique in order to neutralize them. Neoliberalism is amazingly adept at dismissing critique as just another perspective of which it is “tolerant”. (We can see here an example of postmodern pluralism as the “cultural logic of late capitalism”). If we think of libraries as sites of knowledge production, not only the passive “foundations” of knowledge acquisition, then IF-absolutism falls squarely into what Bacevic describes as “the politically soothing, yet epistemically limited assumption that knowledge automatically translates into action”. The result of falling into this temptation, which IF-absolutists and public libraries continue to do, is that:

Not only does this omit to engage with precisely the political, economic, and social elements of the production of knowledge elaborated above, it also eschews questions of ambiguity and ambivalence generated by these contradictions.

Ambiguity and ambivalence abound in the current defense of IF-absolutism. The statement released by Vancouver Public Library defending (once again) its decision to rent space to transphobic speakers, is full of such ambiguity and ambivalence. For example “VPL recognizes the importance of freedom of expression as a core principle of democracy, and identifies it as an organizational value. We believe that dialogue, not censorship, will ultimately lead to greater understanding and inclusion”. There is a contradiction here, not only between the enshrined values of the library (intellectual freedom vs. community), but between (yet again) freedom and necessity. I have written before about the ways in which bourgeois freedom ignores the concept of necessity. However, more important is the explicit illustration of what Bacevic is pointing out: the idea that more information necessarily leads to positive action.

Libraries believe, in the first place, that different or unusual (or offensive) views and opinions are by definition critiques of the status quo, and secondly that by providing a neutral platform for these views, libraries are contributing to this critique, holding (neoliberal) capitalist society to account. This is because, in a postmodern sense, a plurality of micronarratives by definition challenges the primacy of “grand narratives”, the totalitarian closure of modernism. More opinions are considered politically effective because they challenge the single hegemonic position of the state or dominant culture. Libraries, in this sense, are quintessentially (neo)liberal and postmodern institutions.

However, libraries are concerned only with the form these opinions take (reducing every perspective to a homogeneous “critique”) rather than their content. The ambiguities and ambivalence arise precisely from the contradiction between such views and the reality that libraries are an integral element in the social and intellectual reproduction of capitalist society itself, a society rife with intolerance, cruelty, and exploitation. Again, liberalism sees the state as mediating these antagonisms, but it is not the state’s place to do anything about them (see above on the “infrastructural” view of the library’s role).

In this sense, then, IF-absolutism and neutrality are the means by which the libraries hide this contradiction from themselves; and, indeed, “social responsibility” and critical librarianship are the means by which libraries’ self-criticism is defanged and brought back into the “politically soothing” liberal fold. As someone engaged in this kind of critique, this naturally raises important questions for my own position, and the effectivity of my own critique, but the problem does not go away simply by ignoring it, retreating to the soothing platitudes of our own privilege. Ignoring contradictions does not make them go away.

Two recent cases should help sharpen the ambiguities active within public libraries’ position on intellectual freedom. In the first place, despite claiming that unless a law is broken the public library is required to rent space to anyone, an Ottawa court has ruled that Ottawa Public Library is not obligated by the Public Libraries’ Act to rent space to anyone who asks, for any purpose. Any legal advice libraries are receiving to the contrary is pure risk-aversion for the sake of protecting the brand (an outcome which is currently backfiring).

Secondly, the screening of an anti-vaccination documentary at public libraries puts libraries in a very dangerous position. While TPL board members were unmoved by testimony by trans women of the dangers they face in Canadian society, the lives of trans people continue to be at risk; dismissal of this reality as simply “being offended” marks trans lives as worth less than others. Public libraries seem satisfied with supporting reactionary and dangerous opinions when trans people are being hurt, but what happens when people the library actually cares about start to die? Will libraries continue their misguided IF-absolutism when white suburbanites start dying because of a documentary they watched at a public library?

Libraries must begin to engage fully with the social, political, and economic contexts of knowledge production, dissemination, and acqusition. They can no longer hide behind abstract commitments to bourgeois intellectual freedom and neutrality. As calls for Indigenous sovereignty and the climate catastrophe become more urgent, libraries will need to decide which side they are on. As someone remarked regarding the VPL statement, no amount of “inclusive” posters undoes the harm of making space for (and, yes, endorsing) bigoted speakers.

One final thought: IF-absolutists often argue that critics of bourgeois IF are crypto-fascists or quasi-totalitarians, happy to let state censorship into the library. This, however, is the horseshoe theory taken to its utmost extreme. I, for one, already see the library as an agent of the state; what I am arguing for - what many people are arguing for - is commmunity decision-making, community guidance, grassroots allegiances, and anti-authoritarian relationships. Looked at in this light, the formalism of public libraries must be challenged, actions that appear (formally) to be the same must be differentiated. Censorship by the state is not the same as the self-determination of the community (and even the Canadian courts recognize that refusing to rent space is not censorship). In his book on constituent power, Negri writes that while conspiracies and plots are corrupt and dangerous when they are done by the state, “a plot is virtuous when it is democratic, because democracy is always virtuous”. Libraries need to abandon their spurious, liberal, statist view of democracy - which is, in fact, anti-democratic, and turn to the absolute democracy of the multitude. More information and better knowledge cannot overcome the contradictions at play in libraries and in the profession; only concrete material transformations of our social relationships. Libraries have an opportunity right now to be a part of such transformations, but only if they can recognize themselves as active participants in the reproduction of both the intellectual and social bases of social life.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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