When working in a library or archive, all bias needs to stop at the door. Not just some of it; all of it! If it is not left at the door, it can lead to bad decisions made on the job.
The goal of librarians is to provide access to information for everyone (see the Library Bill of Rights). Personal and external forces should not force material out of the library. This goes doubly if it is an academic library as they are storehouses of material to be both used and preserved for future generations. When in doubt, use the library’s collection development policy to justify choices. Patrons have varying interests and should always feel welcome. Having proper and varied material helps with this. Also, unbiased service also helps patrons to have good experiences at the library.
The goal of archivists is to preserve material for future generations (see Core Values and Statement Code of Ethics). When they process a collection, they cannot let personal feelings about an item get in the way. If bias is used, the archivist might decide not to save a document someone else may deem important. How would lack of relevant documents affect the understanding of the collection? Or of the people the collection represents? Or of history in general? It would alter the meaning greatly.
Whether a person is a Democrat or Republican, a Christian or Muslim, or straight or not, those beliefs should be “shelved” upon entering the library or archive. The librarian or archivist’s beliefs should never be forced on another person via spoken opinion, lack of service, or the choices within the collection. This means librarians and archivists should be open-minded while at work, especially when working with the collections. Why mostly when doing collection development? That’s the best way to insert bias. What one chooses to add or not add to a collection speaks volumes as it can alienate whole groups of patrons.
Here are some past examples of my own. At Southeast Missouri State University I worked with a collection that belonged to the late judge, Rush H. Limbaugh, Sr. I think his namesake Republican radio-host grandson is more well-known. Later, at The State Historical Society of Missouri, I processed the J.V. Conran papers. Conran was a Southeastern Missouri Democratic political boss. Also at SHS, I also wrote a biography for future addition to their Historic Missourians website about Betty Cooper Hearnes, wife of Missouri’s former Democratic governor Warren E. Hearnes. Later, she served as a Democratic state representative herself. At Ellis Library, during an acquisitions project, the subject specialist said I could recommend an approval plan book for rejection. One book I could have rejected was an unofficial biography of former Republican presidential hopeful, Ron Paul. I don’t want to give away my political leanings (I want to leave politics out of this blog!), but in these four examples I had the option that I could have removed material that would represent a political party I don’t agree with. However, I left any bias at the door and did not use it to remove material.
Part of my reason to remove bias comes from my library and archive training, but the vast majority came from my historical and political science training. When I took the methods and research classes, learning about both sides (or, in some cases, more) was critical to understanding the whole picture. Leaving out a side could lead to a corrupt view of history or a political situation. For example, could one retell the story of a famous battle focusing on only one side? Yes, but is it the whole story? No. In an unbiased account, while one side might be the focus, usually at least some counterpoints for the other are featured.
In an unbiased library the only material that is not included is that deemed not necessary by the collection development plan. For example, does a scientific library need children’s literature? No, thus no bias is inserted.
In an unbiased archive, the only material removed from a collection are things with no important reason to be kept, like envelopes or a store-bought card without a handwritten message added. If something in a collection is deemed damaged enough not to keep, like a newspaper clipping, it must not be recycled before a copy is made. Then the copy will reside in the collection, taking the original’s place (it usually has a note reading something like “copied for preservation purposes”). Thus a whole and complete unbiased collection continues to exist.
And don’t forget, leaving out bias also works well when providing service. If you make all patrons feel welcome, regardless of obvious differences (ex. skin color, ethnic clothing, disability, etc.), they will be grateful and return many times.
Do you think that you could keep your biased checked at the door? Do you think this might be one of the hardest ethical situations in a library or archival setting? Also, as this is Banned Book Week (Sept. 30-Oct. 6), do you think libraries should limit access to protested books?
From the American Library Association: Library Bill of Rights, Diversity in Collection Development: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights, The Intellectual Freedom Manual, and Banned Books Week