Library and non-library issues

I am going to take another stab at outlining my views on “library and non-library issues.” Last time I did it I was sloppy in the way that I stated my views, and I surprised and disappointed some people who I think would not have been so surprised and disappointed if I had been clearer and more thorough in explaining what I actually think. It is a core issue for the profession that gets discussed only at a shallow level most of the time. I’m not claiming to give a really deep philosophical analysis of it here, but I do think I have a few points to touch on that I hope will change at least a few people’s thinking on the question.

First of all, we need to start from facts, and one good place to go for these is the record of Council actions since 1997 on the ALA website. If you spend a little time reading through these, you will notice immediately that it is a very small proportion of ALA Council business that has been about “non library issues.” You may also notice that of the business that some conservatives might call “non-library issues,” most items are about things that are directly related to both library and non-library issues at the same time – these are things like the representation of the library community in international trade agreements and policies on contracting with hotels in conference cities that are engaged in labor disputes, etc. These are things which directly relate to either the Association or the library community but would not be addressed at all if it weren’t for the social concerns of ALA Councilors. ALA and the library community benefit greatly from Council’s attention to issues like this, which connect libraries to their social context. Council largely has the Social Responsibilities Round Table to thank for bringing this type of issue to its attention. Without paying attention to this type of question, we would simply be isolating ourselves artificially from the social context in which we really function. These, to me, are clearly library issues.

There are a smaller number of resolutions, which altogether comprise a very small proportion of Council actions but a rather large proportion of Council’s emotional energy, that are about issues with a more indirect connection to libraries, such as the war in Iraq or the genocide in Darfur. I will call these “non-library issues” without intending to indicate that I am categorically opposed to dealing with them. This type of resolution usually comes from one Task Force within SRRT – the International Responsibilities Task Force. Usually at least one resolution originating with this Task Force reaches Council at each conference. The arguments in favor of these resolutions have two general forms, both of which I think can be valid. The first is that the issue is actually a library issue, because libraries are affected by it in ways that though they may not be obvious are definite and real, or more indirectly, that the issue is an obstacle to the ultimate aims of libraries, which may be shared by other institutions (literacy, political enfranchisement, a good society, etc.). The second form of argument in favor of this type of resolution is that the issue is of such significance from a humanitarian point of view that it would simply be irresponsible and unethical not to use our collective voice as a profession to speak out about it. I think that both of these forms of argument for this type of resolution can be very persuasive and often really do justify Council’s choice to support them. It should be remembered that it is Council, not SRRT, that has passed a number of “non library issue” resolutions over the years, and that Council’s political makeup is far to the right of SRRT. In each case, the process of deliberating the question on the Council floor was difficult and serious, and the decisions were not taken lightly.

I have been saying privately to progressive Councilors and to people in SRRT for quite a while that I would like to see a shift in how we handle the “bleeding edge” issues that constantly challenge Councilors to commit ALA to political positions. My thinking on it is mainly strategic, and for this reason I haven’t wanted to share it publicly, but I now feel that enough people will agree with me that I should come out with it.

My view relates to what I feel are the costs of addressing those “non library issues” and the great potential, as I see it, to inspire Councilors about a set of progressive issues that are equally challenging in the context of the public sphere but potential grand slams within the library world.

Not everybody in the library left agrees with me about the cost of addressing non-library issues, such as the genocide in Darfur. (Apologies to those who object to the expression “non-library issues” – I recognize that they can be connected to libraries, but I think honesty demands recognition that those connections are often quite remote.) The cost, as I perceive it, is an emotional cost. These are issues which place serious demands on Councilors emotionally, and these demands create emotional fatigue. The hostility toward this type of issue on Council at the Midwinter Meeting in Seattle was due, I feel, to an emotional fatigue that was predictable and unavoidable given the attention to similar issues at recent conferences. To me this means that progressive Councilors’ choice to address an issue such as this should involve a weighing of the emotional cost. One aspect of this concerns the second form of argument in favor of this type of issue – that the issue is of such pressing humanitarian concern that not to speak out about it would be irresponsible. For most people, that argument is an argument in favor of making an exception from business as usual. In fact, from the point of view of the public outside of ALA, the weight that a public statement from us on such as issue has comes in part from the sense that it is an exception to business as usual, and that therefore the issue being addressed is of great significance. (For the record, I think the war in Iraq and the Darfur genocide both qualify as issues of that significance.)

I would not argue that Council should stay away from non-library issues altogether, but that from a strategic point of view, especially at the present historical moment, there is another direction that we should be going most of the time, another progressive direction. I feel this way because during the Bush era in particular, there are certain solid information issues that go to the heart of librarians’ passions and which also happen to be an important key to our great political problems. The Bush administration has been marked by information policy changes that are outrageous from an ethical standpoint, changes that indeed led us into the war that is our primary problem today as a nation. The Bush administration has taken government secrecy, propaganda, and disinformation to levels perhaps not previously seen in this country. (I wrote an editorial about this in Library Juice right before the Annual Conference in 2005.) Government secrecy, propaganda, and disinformation are issues that are just as significant from a progressive standpoint as the issues that are regularly brought forward by the International Responsibilities Task Force, and just as challenging for the public, but in terms of Council strategy they are potentially more generative than costly in emotional terms, because of having their basis solidly in the core values of librarians.

How would I like to see these issues addressed? Well, I think they create an occasion to be creative and dream up a way of doing something that is more publicly visible than what we normally do. There are specific issues in these areas to address one by one, such as supporting the bill now in Congress that would overturn Bush’s executive order making Presidential papers secret, or making a public statement deploring the Bush administration’s hiring of a PR firm to promote the case for going to war. There are many potential resolutions in this general issue area that I think would be extremely productive to address (productive from a number of points of view).

Additionally, however, I would like to see ALA do something larger on the general theme.

I am familiar with the way policy studies by think tanks and advocacy groups are digested by journalists as a source of news. A journalist will pick up on a major conclusion, spinning it in a certain way, and write an article that uses the study as a source. Often these reports are written by independent researchers whose work is commissioned by the organization that publishes it (and those researchers are credited). I would like to see ALA commission a study on government secrecy, disinformation, and propaganda in the Bush era, and for it to be published with a major media release. Doing this would have a double benefit, because it would give publicity to this issue area, which is grossly underreported in the news media, and it would also help to clarify for Americans a few things about the values on which their libraries are based.

Without blaming a “60s mentality,” I will just note that changing contexts require new strategies, and it seems to me that the people who have been in SRRT from the beginning, who are still really in control of it, tend to approach the work of SRRT in a way that is similar to what they have always done. But things don’t work the same way now. I hope my suggestions will be taken without offense and I hope people will listen.

4 comments on “Library and non-library issues

  1. Symptomatic of the Bush administration’s systematic erosion of our civil liberties, America is in a bad way, both domestically and internationally. Secrecy, propaganda, disinformation, wiretaps, the invasion of mail, the interception of email, the censoring of anti-administration demonstrators, and warrantless searches of personal information and personal property are becoming common.

    These are all serious violations our civil liberties, and need to be addressed before the situation spirals further out of control. These issues, deal primarily with information and privacy and are subsequently library issues. They relate directly to the free exchange of ideas, information, and personal privacy on both macro and micro levels. Another ancillary issue, and the most egregious violation has been the eradication of habeas corpus. This affects everyone. America has started down a dangerous path.

    The SRRT should concentrate on these issues before we don’t have the ability to concentrate on other issues at all.

  2. Thanks, Rory, for this clarification.

    As I see it, it is a continuation of an ongoing tension within SRRT, and other progressive library circles over the question of are we 1) progressive LIBRARY activists or 2) progressive ACTIVISTS who just so happen to be librarians or library workers.

    It is in some respects also about a rational division of Labor on the Left…do we end up being a little redundant re-covering ground already addressed by more specialized Activist groups? If we don’t talk about information issues as pertains to democracy, civil liberties, access…then who WILL? There is of course room for crossovers, the boundaries are not fixed;

    I deeply admire our stance against the destruction of Iraqi libraries and cultural institutions, for instance; a great way to couch anti-war activism in library terms.

    But I agree it’s impossible to go charging after every Left/Liberal/Progressive cause celebre du jour under the sun. To those who feel the need to do it on their own time, great.

    I’m personally deeply involved in Freethought circles, but I would only bring this up to my progressive library colleagues if I uncovered an act of blatant censorship or vandalism towards Freethought materials in libraries, for example…something I can tie directly to the library world.

    The last issue of Progressive Librarian was really chock full of good articles about the kinds of things we need to keep on doing, working on, theorizing about, etc.

    A lot of the goings on at LC behind the scenes, which we get some candid snapshots of from the writings of Thomas Mann and other LC employees union members, is deeply disturbing and of profound significance to libraries everywhere.

    Library Juice remains my go-to place on the web for keeping up to date on Progressive Library issues, along with PLG, and yes, Anarchist Librarian’s Web, Information for Social Change (UK) and LIS News. The Feliciter (the Canadian Library Association’s flagship publication) has a good cadre of regular contributors writing from a Left-Progressive perspective, too.
    I was a student member of CLA back in the day but can’t afford the professional dues, especially employed in a lower-paid, non-library office job.

    The spirit of the 1960s still inspires me, even though I was only born in 1971.
    Neil Postman’s older books from the mid 1970s still contain valuable insight and nuggets of wisdom. Rory has been very talented at drawing wisdom and wit from library history better than nearly anyone, because so many of the profound issues are utterly timeless.

    Let’s keep fighting the good fight.

  3. Thanks Rory. It is a good to be self-reflective and I don’t think we do that enough. I like the way you describe the two overriding reasons for introducing what some see as “non-library issues,” that the issue is really a library issue and that the issue is of such significance that we can’t ignore it. For the second, you use the word “humanitarian,” but we could also use the word “political.” I am sure I qualify as one of those with a “60s mentality,” but of course, I see that as a good thing. I will agree that conditions are always changing, but perhaps I disagree about the present situation. We did badly at the last ALA Council meeting, but remember that there were a lot of new councilors. On the other hand, we did great in the previous year passing the resolution on the realtion between the war in Iraq and libraries as well as the resolution on disinformation campaigns. I think we did so well last year because public opinion had finally caught up with us. We did poorly last meeting parlty because we didn’t frame defunding the war in the right way. I can take some major responsibility for that. The impeachment resolution was a grassroots initiative that we all knew would go down heavily. But we decided to do it becasue we felt it to be the right thing to do. So although situations changes, I don’t think my 60’s mentality is a problem. Of course, maybe it is time for younger folks to take on the leadership. I would be pleased to see candidates come forward.


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