The Limits of Neutrality

Donald Trump’s executive order banning the entry of immigrants and refugees from seven majority Muslim nations came at the very end of January, hitting at the exact moment when I typically plan the monthly picture book display I exhibit at one of the libraries at which I work. It wasn’t until I had completed the display of picture books about immigrant and refugee experiences—reading many great and not-so-great books in the process—that I stopped to think about how this explicitly political display related to the tenet of librarianship that is “neutrality.”

Discussed as a component of upholding intellectual freedom, the American Library Association includes in its Bill of Rights the dictate that “Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues.” This principle is, on its face, easy to agree with. Indeed, it would protect the very books on immigrants and refugees which I used in my display from being removed from the library should a biased patron find them distasteful. That being said, I found myself wondering: did this aspect of the Library Bill of Rights suggest that, next month, I should put together a book display on European or European-American identity? Of course, I wouldn’t do such a thing even if the ALA explicitly commanded it, but my own conviction didn’t stop me from questioning the extent to which the ALA’s Bill of Rights implicitly commands such a balancing of point and counterpoint in the interest of “presenting all points of view on current and historical issues.” As with the conversations currently occurring around the difference between free speech and hate speech, there is similarly a fine line between defending intellectual freedom and entrenching the bigotry and biases of those who are already disproportionately empowered by the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (hooks).

Just as I was getting myself really worked up about the fallout—intentional or not—of the ALA’s Bill of Rights, the Association’s journal arrived in my mailbox and I had the pleasure of reading Meredith Farkas’ succinct and articulate considerations on the matter. She writes: “… neutrality is not only unachievable, it is harmful to oppressed groups in our society. In a world that is fundamentally unequal, neutrality upholds inequality and represents indifference to the marginalization of members of our community” (2017). Not only was I grateful for Farkas’ clearly-written advocacy, I was heartened to read this in the ALA’s magazine, and to find it posted on the American Libraries website, reassuring me that the publicly championed values of librarianship have not (yet) fallen prey to the creeping shift towards conservatism noted by Noam Chomsky (2015).

It is in our hands, as future librarians and current exhibit-makers, reference-providers, and humans, to make sure the advent of this haunting “yet,” indicating a more conservative understanding of librarianship’s central values, never comes to pass. Want to read some good picture books while we do the hard work that needs to be done? Check out these!

All The Colors of the Earth by Sheila Hamanaka

Through rich oil paintings and lyrical language All the Colors of the Earth by Sheila Hamanaka shows the diverse children of the world in harmony.


One World, One Day by Barbara Kelly

One World, One Day by Barbara Kelly shows everyday scenes taking place around the world—sharing similarities, vibrant in differences—through vivid photographs.


Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester

Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester not only shares the author’s own story of growing up black in the USA, but also helps guide the reader in ways to see beyond the superficial traits of the people around us.


My Librarian is a Camel by Margriet Ruurs

You came here to check out library books today. But around the world, different communities have different ways of getting access to books: My Librarian Is A Camel by Margriet Ruurs shows some of them, from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe and everywhere in between!


How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz

After his home was destroyed by war, the young boy in How I Learned Geography by Uri Shulevitz finds joy in traveling all around the world by way of his imagination.


Hello World by Manya Stojic

Hello World! by Manya Stojic celebrates the amazing multitude of languages spoken around our planet.


I Hate English! by Ellen Levine

Mei Mei is reluctant to learn English when she moves to the USA, because she’s afraid she will have to let go of her first language, Chinese, which she loves.


The Lotus Seed by Sherry Garland

Forced to leave Vietnam during the Vietnam War, a woman carries with her one precious lotus seed. Planted many years later, this seed blossoms into a lotus flower, reminding the woman of her home.


I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien

Jin, Maria, and Fatimah all have not only a new school, but a new country! Though it is hard to feel comfortable at first in such an unfamiliar place, they come to learn that there is a place for each of them in their new home.


My Two Blankets by Irena Kobald and Freya Blackwood

When Cartwheel moves to the USA as a refugee from Sudan, everything is strange and lonely. For awhile, Cartwheel seeks comfort in the words, memories, and traditions of her home–her old blanket–until she begins to weave a new blanket rich with new words, memories, and traditions.


How My Family Lives in America by Susan Kuklin

Sanu, Eric, and April are all Americans, but they came from different countries originally. How do Sanu’s Senegalese-American family, Eric’s Puerto Rican-American family, and April’s Chinese-American family live in America?


Lailah’s Lunchbox by Reem Faruqi

Lailah is finally old enough to observe Ramadan for the first time. She’s excited to fast in honor of this important month, but finds it’s difficult to explain now that she lives in the USA instead of Abu Dhabi. With the advice of her school librarian and some personal bravery, Lailah finds a way to share her traditions with her new friends.
-Avery Smith

Works Cited

American Library Association (2017). “Library Bill of Rights.” Retrieved 20 February 2017 from

Chomsky, Noam. [Natasha Hakimi Zapata]. (2015, February 21). Noam Chomsky-The Republican Party. [Video File]. Retrieved 20 February 2017 from

hooks, bell. [leocine]. (2006, December 10). bell hooks pt. 2 cultural criticism and transformation. [Video File]. Retrieved 20 February 2017 from

Farkas, Meredith. (2017, January 3). Never Neutral. Retrieved 20 February 2017 from