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Chapter 6: “Objectivity is not neutrality,” pp. 290-295 February 14, 2010

Posted by Kate T. in Chapter 6.

I found this short section very rewarding. Before reading it, I would probably have said that the two words could be used interchangeably (and indeed in common, everyday use, they probably can). But I think Jimerson is right to bring up the discussion of the distinction between these words and the associated stances they represent for historians as well as archivists. As I understand it, broken down into the simplest terms this argument states that for an archivist to be “neutral” is to say that he or she (or we, as a profession) have no opinions or values about the matter at hand. To require this kind of neutrality in matters relating to our professional activities is not only unrealistic (we all have opinions, and we cannot help but have them affect our performance), but only unnecessary if we are “objective.” Although I could not find a clear single definition, it appears that objectivity allows an archivist (or a profession) to have a position or opinion on a matter, as long as the associated behavior is based on “evidence, logic, fairness, and honesty.” (p. 292) Does that capture it accurately?

Transparency should probably also be added to that list. Particularly in light of the commonly-held belief that historians and archivists are “neutral,” it seems critical to me that we make our positions clear up front and “show our work,” if you will. A good example of this is Jimerson’s preface to this book. As he writes (p. xv), “Before entering this discussion, however, the reader has a right to know something about the author and his perspective on these issues.” This kind of transparency, as has been discussed in terms of adding supplementary material to finding aids, is a way of revealing and admitting that we are, like everyone else in the world, not neutral, but that we are striving to demonstrate our own objectivity.



1. Alison Stankrauff - February 15, 2010

I also found this section very compelling…

I keyed into the quote from Thomas Haskell’s book – on page 292: “Objectivity is not something entirely distinct from detachment, fairness, and honesty, but is the product of extending and elaborating these priceless and fundamentally ascetic virtues… The demand is for detachment and fairness, not disengagement from life”.

I found this section of the book very affirming of how I’ve viewed what I do in my own shop and my outlook on my work and the sphere that it is – and I am – a part of…

And I agree, Kate, I think it’s essential that we add transparency to the mix here… It absolutely can be a way for us to articulate that need to insert our own voice/sense of openness…

2. Jim Cartwright - February 17, 2010

I also have conflated the two terms for years, if not always. I think the general public usually thinks of these two terms, “objectivity” and “neutrality,” as being synonymous. Yet drawing a distinction as Jimerson and his sources, Harvey Kaye and Thomas Haskell, have done serves a valuable purpose.

Until, however, the concepts behind our use of these words begin to permeate society we will likely have to define what we mean as we write and speak.

3. Rand - February 17, 2010

As Jim suggests, this is a distinction that most of us are not accustomed to making. As one of my footnotes attests, I have conflated the two terms in previous writings. Yes, we may need to explain the distinctionn we intend, in using these terms to signify two separate concepts. But I think it is a difference that is worth noting, and explaining it can help us make the case for an active engagement with societal concerns. BTW, I have already taken some flak for making this argument, so feel free to help us debate these ideas!

4. Lincoln Cushing - February 22, 2010

The distinctions between neutrality and objectivity have been actively percolating in other professions, perhaps most notably journalism and science. I think that this book does a decent job of putting out the differences and why they matter, but perhaps some more examples within the profession would be useful. For example, the statement of purpose of the Progressive Librarians Guild (PLG) includes the phrase “Members of PLG do not accept the sterile notion of the neutrality of librarianship…”

I definitely agree that it’s useful to add transparency to the mix, since it is a very useful tool for defusing criticisms of advocacy work. I’ve added a recent item to our Resource links from Library Juice that suggests exactly such an approach in classification. Also, raising the issue can encourage the patron public to ask that institutions be held to similar ethical accountability.

Jim Cartwright - February 22, 2010

Lincoln’s call for transparency will also help us explain the distinctions between objectivity and neutrality to patrons (researchers). If we are open in the finding aids and in our conversations with researchers, we will also concurrently explain how our actions in the archives work helps attain to objectivity while not being neutral.

5. Joshua Zimmerman - March 2, 2010

I’m slowly catching up with the reading. I really liked this section. I am familiar with the work of Novick, Haskell, and Megill. In Haskell’s work, he states that Novick’s book, The Noble Dream (about the impossiblilty of historical objectivity) is by his definition, objective. Novick examines the debate from both sides, presenting each case. Haskell also states that historians who take strong ideological positions can still write good objective history. His example of this objectivity but not neutrality (or the one that I remeber) is Marxist historian Eugene Genovese and his work on the American South and slavery.

I agree with Jim and Lincoln. If we want to continue to associate with objectivity, we must explain difference between objectivity and neutrality not only to archivists, but also to our users. I think this breaks down if we can’t communicate it to the public. It’s one thing to take part in academic wordplay and quite another to let our users know why we strive for objectivity (Haskell) and not objectivity (Novick), two very different things. There’s the challenge!

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