Our Responsibility to Voters: What Librarianship Should Look Like During the 2016 Presidential Election Season

Since the RNC and DNC have taken place, the 2016 general election is at the forefront of everyone’s minds and news feeds. I wanted to use my final FYAL ACRLog post to talk about this topic of great relevance and importance to all of us while considering the role we should play as librarians at this crucial point in our nation’s history. This topic might also appeal to librarians in other countries who are looking to us with great interest and might also have reasons to engage with politics as professionals. As we cannot and should not push partisan politics on our patrons, the best we can do for patrons is to provide as much information and education as possible to voters, and to help encourage people to exercise their right and responsibility to vote. While the act of voting is far from being the epitome of democracy in my mind, it is one small way that people can make a difference for our country’s future (especially, during the general election, in swing states), and, as librarians who seek to help people become informed and empowered, we should be supportive of and encourage democratic processes, including but not limited to voting.

As librarians, we are expected to remain neutral (and presumably, then, also nonpartisan) especially when patrons are researching topics that are controversial or contested. To insert our own political opinions into our research assistance, teaching, or collection development would be a conflict of interest and an infringement upon our students’ and other patrons’ intellectual freedom – the freedom to explore issues autonomously and independently, without any pressure to conform to anyone else’s points of view. Instead, patrons should be able to freely research the facts and evidence, and come to reasonable conclusions on their own. We can guide them during that process, and help them find information and distinguish between information that is good – information that incorporates sound evidence – and information that is bad, oftentimes because it distorts the facts.

However, neutrality is a myth. (As have many before me have done, I have written more extensively about the myth of neutrality, especially as it relates to peer review, elsewhere.) While we should refrain from unduly influencing our patrons’ research, it is hardly possible to refrain from having an opinion on matters of importance. Besides, to not have an opinion is to silently accept things as they are. No matter what we say, our opinions will influence the types of sources that we point patrons to, and the ways in which we evaluate information with patrons. So it is extremely important that we are mindful of our opinions and seek to counterbalance those by presenting patrons with multiple viewpoints, all the while modeling careful, thoughtful evaluation.

We will have opinions, and that is a good thing as long as they are supported by evidence. To refrain from having an opinion, or to withhold it if we are asked to share it, would be tantamount to tacit acceptance of the status quo. By supporting the status quo, neutral librarians, or librarians who remain silent when asked for their opinions, implicitly support structures of power and privilege that are in place, structures that are oftentimes unjust and harmful, since we do live in an imperfect society. Thus, librarians can and should have opinions about history and politics. Obvious examples include having opinions about the atrocities that have defined our nation’s history, such as the genocide of Native Americans and forced removal from their lands, the enslavement of and accompanying atrocities against African-Americans, and other forms of discrimination and injustices committed on the basis on the race, class, gender, or sexual identity, for instance.

It is quite appropriate for librarians to have strong opinions on such matters, for us to be on the side of social justice and denounce some of the actions of our country throughout our nation’s history. Having a social justice orientation aligns with our professional ethics, which require us to make information available to all people regardless of their identity or the ways in which they are privileged or marginalized. Furthermore, knowledge is power, and by facilitating the processes of knowledge and understanding, we are empowering people and contributing to democratic processes. But in order to support these processes for all patrons, some fundamental beliefs and values are implied, many of which are also principles supported by the founding documents of our nation: equality, liberty, and justice for all.

What are our obligations to our patrons given these universal values and beliefs that our profession, too, specifically seeks to uphold? First of all, we can help voters come to informed conclusions and make informed choices. To be political and encourage politics is different from pushing political positions. There are so many things we can do to help educate voters that do not involve telling people who to vote for or who not to vote for. We can provide patrons with the tools with which they can figure things out on their own – figure out which candidates align with their politics and their values. We can point people to the resources containing factual information and evidence that might lead them to similar conclusions that we ourselves would make about candidates’ policy proposals, as professionals who are also political, as professionals whose values align with those values upon which our country was founded.

How else are librarians political? I would argue that there may be cases where we might want to be political publicly as a profession, and even partisan if necessary, if our ethics requires it. Censoring or prohibiting access to information, or violating patrons’ privacy, especially on the basis of identity alone, would be examples of cases in which we should publicly denounce candidates’ policy proposals. (Librarians and National Security: An Historical Review, by Joan Starr, provides a thorough history of librarians and our professional organizations standing up for privacy rights and intellectual freedom.) As things stand today, there might not be a reason for librarians to denounce certain policy proposals on the basis of our professional values, because such denunciations are already taking place from broad-ranging sectors of our society and such denunciations do not necessarily fall within our profession’s specific purview of information ethics. Currently, I think helping to reveal the truth about candidates through education is enough.

So, finally, what are our specific obligations to help educate and inform patrons? I believe, at the very least, we should provide education about the issues that are important in this election, and about candidates’ positions and policy proposals. I believe that we should view this as a duty, on the basis of our professional ethics and values, which include access to trustworthy information and the facilitation of democratic practices. We should also encourage people to vote, because this is one little way – though not the only way – that people can make a difference to the future of this country, and because it is a part of our mission to help empower people to make use of the information that they find in ways that support their values and beliefs.

I’ve compiled a list of some practical suggestions and pointers. Not every library will have the resources or the time for some of these, but if you do, please commit yourselves to some of them.

  1. Create a LibGuide, or other type of online guide, for voters. Make sure it is in whatever languages are commonly spoken at your university, besides English! Include resources for local and national issues. Promote it in your instruction sessions.
  2. Create a LibGuide, or other type of online guide, for international students and undocumented students, on understanding the election process and about ways in which they can help educate their peers or participate democratically even though they may not be able to vote. Make sure it is in other languages commonly spoken at your university, including Spanish if you have a significant population of Spanish-speaking students. Promote it in your instruction sections.
  3. Have a voter’s guide or handouts (one for international students and undocumented students as well) available at your reference desk, for those who prefer things in print and who might see it who might not otherwise look at a LibGuide. Make sure it is in whatever languages are commonly spoken at your university, in addition to English.
  4. Help your campus and local communities understand how elections work and what will be the impact of their vote. People can decide for themselves whether they vote based on their ideals or whether they vote strategically, if these two things are competing, but you might be able to help them understand the arguments for voting one way or the other. This can be a part of helping voters to become more educated.
  5. Organize a student panel or expert panel to help educate people about the issues or learn how to vote. We’re doing a student panel at my university as an official Debate event, since UNLV is the site of the final presidential debate. Students who are involved in the political process in some way (student government or local, state, or national politics) will explain their political involvement and discuss the issues and background of ballot initiatives in Nevada.
  6. Incorporate political issues or political information into your lesson plans. You can do this if you’re teaching evaluation, for instance. Have a range of viewpoints presented in scholarly articles or other types of sources, and help students sort out the good, factual and truthful information from information that distorts the truth. Or have your students look at annotated speeches in which the commentators perform fact-checking, as an example of evaluating for accuracy.
  7. Host a debate watch party. Have a panel of experts talk about the debate before or after, to help students unpack what happened and how it is important to their understanding of the issues.
  8. Promote all of these resources heavily, on your website and other marketing materials, and make it clear why this issue is important to the library.

If you’re a librarian, it’s okay to be political. It is good to be political; it contributes to our wellbeing as human beings who desire to make a difference in this world. You don’t have to push your political positions, but through helping to educate and empower voters, you are contributing to democracy and furthering the values of our profession. Our job shouldn’t stop there, though. We should encourage and support other forms of political involvement and other democratic processes as well. Some people may not be able to vote (or may consciously choose not to vote for whatever reason), but this does not mean they cannot participate in our democracy in other ways. Encouraging these processes aligns with our values and our ethics, it also contributes to the value of libraries, and we should see it as a duty.

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