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ONLINE SEARCHER: Information Discovery, Technology, Strategies

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Neutral or Not
Volume 42, Number 3 - May/June 2018

Are libraries neutral? How about librarians? Online databases? The web? These questions are surprisingly tricky. The ALA Midwinter debate on the topic, covered in the Conference Corral section of this issue, revealed deep fissures in how librarians view their own profession. The power of the non-neutral side of the debate amazed me. Even those on the pro side, who supported the idea that libraries at least should be neutral, presented rather weak arguments.

Take the belief that libraries are open to everyone. But the library isn’t neutral if people can’t get there. They don’t have a car. It’s too far to walk. There’s no public transportation. Open to all, theoretically, includes all those ebooks people can borrow if they can’t physically access the library building. To do that, however, they need an internet connection and a device on which to read the ebook.

Even when people enter a library, they can’t access all the information the library owns. In a public library, they probably need a library card to log on to the computers. In an academic library, affiliation with the institution is a prerequisite to searching its subscription databases. Corporate and government libraries frequently are closed to the public. Library websites could have some pages password-protected.

What’s the relationship between censorship and neutrality? Library collection development could be seen as a form of censorship by meeting the information desires of the community if community values are antithetical to library values. Are there really two sides to every story? Should libraries stock information from Holocaust deniers, the Flat Earth Society, or those who believe the Apollo moon landing was a hoax? What about hate speech?

As a predominantly white, female, and liberal profession, the meaning of “neutrality” held by librarians may not coincide with that of non-librarians. Do libraries seem welcoming to the politically conservative? Librarianship promotes diversity and inclusion, but that could be construed either as being neutral or not being neutral.

In theory, our online databases are neutral. But collection development plays a role here too. The editorial decision to include or exclude certain publications, data sources, or websites could be construed as an attack on neutrality or as censorship. A corporate directory with no Chinese company listings or a global newspaper database with no African sources is skewed, perhaps unintentionally, as neither may be able to acquire that information.

If librarians promise unbiased search results but depend upon databases or websites with systemic missing information, those results are not neutral. If their search strategies reflect a point of view, often the one they’ve been instructed to find, they aren’t neutral. In fulfilling the wishes of their client, they shouldn’t be neutral. Depending on the situation, they could warn the client of information that disproves their point of view.

Information professionals should analyze information, explain sources, and offer opinions. Librarians should censor predatory journals. They should use authoritative science sources, not those that push junk science. Neutral or not isn’t one or the other. It’s situational and open to debate.

Marydee Ojala is Editor-in-Chief of Online Searcher (the successor journal to ONLINE) and writes its business research column ("The Dollar Sign"). She has contributed feature articles and news stories to Information TodayEContentComputers in LibrariesIntranetsCyberSkeptic's Guide to the InternetBusiness Information Review, and Information Today's NewsBreaks. A long-time observer of the information industry, she speaks frequently at conferences, such as WebSearch University, Internet Librarian, Online Information (London, UK), Internet Librarian International, and national library meetings outside the U.S. She has adjunct faculty status at the School of Library and Information Science at IUPUI (Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis). Her professional career began at BankAmerica Corporation, San Francisco, directing a worldwide program of research and information services. She established her independent information research business in 1987. Her undergraduate degree is from Brown University and her MLS was earned at the University of Pittsburgh.


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