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Opinion | The Battle for the Soul of the Library

Opinion | The Battle for the Soul of the Library

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.