Title

Is neutrality overrated? A few thoughts on librarians’ legitimacy to take action for the common good

Submission Type

Paper Abstract Submission

Symposium Selection

Post-neutrality librarianship

Keywords

Legitimacy, neutrality, public debate, engagement, impact

Abstract

Is neutrality overrated? A few thoughts on librarians’ legitimacy to take action for the common good

Librarians should be neutral, as they commit to providing their users with unbiased information, thus allowing people to access a great plurality of content. As such, neutrality is perceived as a guarantee against political motives, censorship and threats against freedom of thought, speech and action. Yet, does guaranteeing a plurality of views necessarily imply that librarians stay in the background and give up on tackling societal issues? How could we define legitimacy in this context and on what grounds are librarians legitimate to act?

An insight of Marc Suchman’s typology of legitimacy[1] could help picturing libraries’ as a potential field for experimentation.

First, Suchman singles out “pragmatic legitimacy”, referring to services provided by an organization to satisfy an audience. In our field, librarians are civil servants who provide their users with a variety of services, as part of a cultural policy framework. In democracies, social ties are based on the confrontation of (often contradictory) personal interests[2]: public debate aims at defining a common ground which civil servants are then tasked to implement. For librarians, improving the quality of democratic debates by ensuring access to information while remaining neutral bears a potential contradiction. Hence, how can librarians find the right balance? The boundaries between the legal framework of librarians’ action and militancy tend to be blurred and to depend greatly on circumstances of time and place.

Second, Suchman identifies “moral legitimacy” as the belief that one acts for the common good. Libraries consider themselves as institutions promoting knowledge and education[3]. Librarians have demonstrated their willingness to measure the impact of their actions for common good, through guides[4] and advocacy. Beyond this declaration of intent, do librarians have sufficient means to convince decision-makers and people that they can do more? Librarians are progressively considering all available tools, both human (human resources, student communities, teachers, children, the elderly…) and material (space, contents, digital networks…) to imagine new ways of serving communities’ evolving needs.

Third, Suchman uses “cognitive legitimacy” to describe the comprehensibility of organizational activities. Libraries cover various realities for their users: they can be a place to study, to discuss, to meet or more simply… to read. How can librarians deal with such a great variety of representations and expectations? Reporting, public consultations and surveys help professionals develop their services and adapt to their users’ demands. The successful development of new activities (exhibitions, musical instrument lending, screenings, training…) also tends to demonstrate that there is room to increase libraries’ impact on people.

[1] Suchman, Mark. « Managing Legitimacy: Strategic and Institutional Approaches ». The Academy of Management Review 20, no 3 (1995): 571-610. https://www.jstor.org/stable/258788?seq=1.

[2] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Du contrat social (1762). Flammarion. GF, 2011.

[3] The signatories of the Lyon declaration of 2014 “believe that increasing access to information and knowledge across society, assisted by the availability of information and communications technologies (ICTs), supports sustainable development and improves people’s lives”, https://www.lyondeclaration.org/

[4] Europeana Impact Playbook, 2017, https://pro.europeana.eu/page/europeana-impact-playbook

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Is neutrality overrated? A few thoughts on librarians’ legitimacy to take action for the common good

Is neutrality overrated? A few thoughts on librarians’ legitimacy to take action for the common good

Librarians should be neutral, as they commit to providing their users with unbiased information, thus allowing people to access a great plurality of content. As such, neutrality is perceived as a guarantee against political motives, censorship and threats against freedom of thought, speech and action. Yet, does guaranteeing a plurality of views necessarily imply that librarians stay in the background and give up on tackling societal issues? How could we define legitimacy in this context and on what grounds are librarians legitimate to act?

An insight of Marc Suchman’s typology of legitimacy[1] could help picturing libraries’ as a potential field for experimentation.

First, Suchman singles out “pragmatic legitimacy”, referring to services provided by an organization to satisfy an audience. In our field, librarians are civil servants who provide their users with a variety of services, as part of a cultural policy framework. In democracies, social ties are based on the confrontation of (often contradictory) personal interests[2]: public debate aims at defining a common ground which civil servants are then tasked to implement. For librarians, improving the quality of democratic debates by ensuring access to information while remaining neutral bears a potential contradiction. Hence, how can librarians find the right balance? The boundaries between the legal framework of librarians’ action and militancy tend to be blurred and to depend greatly on circumstances of time and place.

Second, Suchman identifies “moral legitimacy” as the belief that one acts for the common good. Libraries consider themselves as institutions promoting knowledge and education[3]. Librarians have demonstrated their willingness to measure the impact of their actions for common good, through guides[4] and advocacy. Beyond this declaration of intent, do librarians have sufficient means to convince decision-makers and people that they can do more? Librarians are progressively considering all available tools, both human (human resources, student communities, teachers, children, the elderly…) and material (space, contents, digital networks…) to imagine new ways of serving communities’ evolving needs.

Third, Suchman uses “cognitive legitimacy” to describe the comprehensibility of organizational activities. Libraries cover various realities for their users: they can be a place to study, to discuss, to meet or more simply… to read. How can librarians deal with such a great variety of representations and expectations? Reporting, public consultations and surveys help professionals develop their services and adapt to their users’ demands. The successful development of new activities (exhibitions, musical instrument lending, screenings, training…) also tends to demonstrate that there is room to increase libraries’ impact on people.

[1] Suchman, Mark. « Managing Legitimacy: Strategic and Institutional Approaches ». The Academy of Management Review 20, no 3 (1995): 571-610. https://www.jstor.org/stable/258788?seq=1.

[2] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Du contrat social (1762). Flammarion. GF, 2011.

[3] The signatories of the Lyon declaration of 2014 “believe that increasing access to information and knowledge across society, assisted by the availability of information and communications technologies (ICTs), supports sustainable development and improves people’s lives”, https://www.lyondeclaration.org/

[4] Europeana Impact Playbook, 2017, https://pro.europeana.eu/page/europeana-impact-playbook