Against Sophistry, Amorality and Neutrality

A major topic which has been on my mind in recent weeks is the essential nature of a librarian: are those who choose this discipline philosophers or technicians?  It must be said at risk of pedantry that being a technician is fundamentally different than practicing philosophy: the former is informed by a professional obligation to work a craft, the latter is a lover of knowledge who works a craft as an end in itself. In the Platonic sense: the philosopher is concerned with flourishing of the soul, while the technician is concerned with contracts and technologies. The nature of our vocation is such that there is no clear or simple answer to this question: we straddle both the humanities and science, serving as guardians, as gateways between knowledge and access. My cognitive dissonance on this topic goes back to our discussion of whether or not we should provide a man with the knowledge necessary to commit domestic terrorism or whether we should intervene.

The mainstream professional opinion (accentuated by Rubin and also the majority of other students in the discussion) is that we should be neutral dispensers of knowledge: we should, as a good technician asked to fulfill his contractual obligations, effectively and efficiently answer queries without judging the knowledge or those asking for our reference assistance.  We as librarians are not responsible for the actions of others who take the knowledge we have made available to them, even if it results in the slaughter of others.

Yet something about this doctrine is deeply disturbing to me. It is one thing to look the other way when a strange man in a trench coat asks you to help him access BDSM zines, we might write that off as eccentric and expediently provide guidance. We are not to judge morally those who inquire for their own personal entertainment or intellectual stimulation, but we are to judge and act against those who intend to injure others, not only as librarians, but as human beings; it is an entirely different sort of engagement when we assist a criminal in his research to slaughter innocents.

The thought experiment does not involve an engineer visiting a library to look up a special formula to clear abandoned buildings; it clearly implies that the would-be researcher is looking to commit arson or terrorism. This becomes not a matter of ethics for a librarian but a matter of ethics for a human being. Before you help our would-be destroyer kill his neighbors you must first address the question of whether or not this sort of collaboration is befitting a citizen of the community. Doctors take an oath not to harm, but those who aided the Nazis in whipping up Zyklon B were still considered criminals, even though they may not have dropped the tablets themselves. By aiding a would-be terrorist in committing acts of terrorism, you are an accomplice in those crimes and violate your sacred trust as a guardian and conduit of knowledge. I can think of no way to reason out of that conclusion.

It is our duty as American citizens to pry into others privacy when they relate to us that they are planning to slaughter others. The proper reaction for a virtuous individual would not be to aid the criminal, but to immediately report him or her to law enforcement. Terrorism leaves the domain of “personal beliefs” and enters into the realm of action. It is unacceptable for a librarian to plead neutrality on this topic. This is not a matter pertaining to intellectual freedom.

Librarians should instead serve as wise guides to knowledge, steering the ignorant, confused and curious toward materials which would enrich their mind and character. Take the example of a distraught individual who is looking for books on how to kill oneself. I might comply with that request, but I also might suggest other volumes which might be more befitting of wholesome, skillful knowledge. I suppose that complies with a general ethical maxim of mine, that one with power and knowledge should be a steward and caretaker of those without either. In this sense it is my responsibility to act against the terrorist, so that others may be preserved. If that course of action is incompatible with the ALA doctrine of librarianship, then chances are I won’t be working as one.

It was refreshing that after some heated debate in which I defended my views against the status quo doctrine that you provided a reasoned opinion on this matter which, while not as brazen as my own, seemed to support the notion that amorality in librarianship is dangerous and dubious. This topic became immediate recently with the discussion of policy’s influence on our discipline, wherein I argued that if net or information neutrality was infringed by policy makers that it would be our personal obligation as librarians to boldly resist and act against it. That is perhaps a topic for another time, as I am already over the expected length of this reflection.

To conclude, I feel compelled to behave as a philosopher and not a technician. Whether this will result in professional friction is irrelevant to me: to act otherwise would be to betray those around me and to disservice myself. It is not enough simply to perform a craft, to have knowledge. Our station demands that we wield our tools with wisdom and with justice, else we act as a destructive rather than creative force in the world.

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