Two sets of priorities

This post is a presentation of two lists of priorities – first, priorities of the Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT), and second, a list of the kind of issue that I think SRRT ought to emphasize instead. The first list is as complete a list as I was able to compile of the subjects of SRRT’s official resolutions from mid-2002 to mid-2005 (the time during which I was SRRT Action Council Coordinator). The second is a list of many of the important progressive issues in librarianship according to the way I personally see things. They are the issue areas that have given me my motivation as an activist and now a publisher in librarianship. Because those issues have been my priorities but not always SRRT’s or the Progressive Librarians’ Guild’s, I often felt out of place in those groups even as an insider.

First, the list of topics addressed by SRRT’s official resolutions between mid-2002 and mid-2005 (at least the ones I was able to find):

  • Torture
  • Health insurance
  • The Iraq war (a number of these)
  • The war in Afghanistan
  • Freedom to travel to Cuba
  • Workplace speech
  • Disinformation in the public sphere (this one was actually initiated by me)
  • Cultural democracy as a core value
  • Racist training materials used by the U.S. Military
  • ALA partnerships and sponsorships

This is a very partial list, but based on my own memory I think it gives a fair representation of the scope and proportion of SRRT’s resolutions. I personally agreed with a lot of these resolutions.

The resolution on disinformation, which had to do with Bush administration tactics, arose from a discussion within Action Council in which I complained that too many of SRRT’s resolutions were not directly related to library issues or even issues of information ethics in general. In answer to the question, “What do you propose we do instead?” I drafted an earlier, unused version of that resolution. Part of the fallout of that discussion was that some members of action Council began encouraging me to try the Intellectual Freedom Round Table as a better place to pursue my priorities.

Here is my own list, not exhaustive, of the kind of issues and topics that I would like to see addressed from a progressive perspective and in an organized way. Some of them concern intellectual freedom, but most do not. They could all be said to be in the realm of information ethics, and in most cases have a political angle that can be drawn out through a bit of intellectual work.

  • Privacy (of library users, web users, and citizens)
  • Copyright and the Open Access Movement
  • Workplace speech
  • Deprofessionalization and deskilling
  • Librarians’ pay and status
  • “Next generation library catalogs”
  • Cataloging trends
  • Market effects on intellectual freedom (media monopoly)
  • Academic Freedom
  • Internet filtering
  • Net neutrality
  • Information as a public good
  • Disinformation
  • Government secrecy
  • Privatization of information and information services
  • Trends favoring casual users over researchers
  • The dumbing down of culture and of educational institutions
  • Funding crises / library closings
  • The decline of publishing / changes in the publishing industry
  • Digitization as a funding priority
  • Conflict over the foundations of the library profession
  • Education 2.0 and critical thinking
  • Critical perspectives on multiple literacies and media shift
  • The digital divide
  • The literacy divide
  • The middle class bias of public libraries
  • Serving the underserved
  • Racism and sexism and libraries
  • Capitalism and trends in the information landscape
  • Library of Congress priorities
  • American Library Association priorities
  • OCLC priorities
  • Library education and the iSchools
  • Media, information overload, and the educational psychology of reading
  • Critical pedagogy and library instruction
  • Queer theory, information access, and information organization
  • Neutrality and advocacy
  • Bias in systems of information organization
  • The crisis in journalism and its meaning for the public sphere
  • Change in the nature of the public sphere
  • The digital preservation crisis
  • The role of local perspectives and local needs
  • Commercialization of libraries
  • Corporate funding (of libraries, of ALA)
  • Indigenous knowledge and Intellectual Freedom
  • Intellectual Freedom and hate literature/hate speech
  • Research standards in the profession / bias in research
  • Googlization
  • Google Books settlement

First, to be fair to the Progressive Librarians’ Guild, I should say that they have often done a better job than SRRT of addressing many of these big-picture issues. Also, to be fair to SRRT, I should mention that many SRRT members are not interested in the resolutions that SRRT Action Council passes and do their work within the issues-based Task Forces that are a part of SRRT, and I have not represented their activities here.

To me, the issues on the second list have as much urgency as the war in Afghanistan, and are within a sphere which we can claim as our own by virtue of being librarians. I would like to see SRRT do more to address these kinds of issues and less to address issues that are not related to libraries. That is not to say that ALA has “no business” addressing non-library issues. I think ALA has a right to talk about the war in Afghanistan and may see the need to make statements on such issues from time to time. But I don’t think it should ever be our primary focus, not when there are urgent matters to address within our own sphere. And just because these issues relate to our professional qualifications does not make them apolitical. Part of the point of addressing these issues from a political angle would be to demonstrate the ways in which our profession is tied up with politics in various ways.

So is this a call for action? I suppose I could make it one:

  • More issues of information ethics and information politics in SRRT
  • More talking and thinking and writing about these issues

As always, Library Juice Press is accepting manuscripts and book proposals

11 comments on “Two sets of priorities

  1. Rory,
    I agree with the gist, I would only add that I think information inequality needs to be addressed in more detail. Class is on your list but I think that we forget that class is the organizing principle of the Left; it is the core value. At any rate, thanks for posting this. It is a very good conversation starter and kudos for getting the ball rolling.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Erik. I’d just like to point out that many of these issues could be analyzed in marxist terms, even if they aren’t explicitly about class. There is a political angle to most of those issues that can be analyzed in different ways. For instance, in talking about the dumbing down of educational institutions a person could say that it has to do with the capitalist class suppressing critical ideas (which I think is in fact part of what is happening).

  3. I really appreciate the thought and the effort that went into this post. I think the list of issues you wrote about should be shared with others. It’s a conversation that needs to take place. Have you thought about posting this to SRRT-AC and/or ALA Connect’s SRRT page?

    There are probably so many of our other members who agree with you and haven’t said anything. We need to continue this discussion…L

  4. Point(s) well taken, Rory, and I like (and agree) with your list.

    It’s long struck me that there’s always been tension in SRRT/PLG circles between viewing ourselves as “Left/Progressive Librarians” (attuned more to the items on your list) and “Progressives/Lefties who just so happen to be librarians, too.” (the current SRRT list).

    It is also possible, through a Marxian critique of imperialism, to argue that the war(s) in Iraq/Afghanistan ARE library issues insofar as funding that could otherwise go to improving the public sphere (libraries, schools, etc.) are siphoned off and funneled to the largely unaccountable, unelected National Security State apparatus.

    We may feel strongly as ordinary citizens about the items in list 1, but our unique contributions as librarians make it possible for us to actually speak with some authority and DO something about the items on list 2 more directly. List 1 represents spheres of action already being addressed by other activist formations. The issues in group 2 are things we can and need to contribute to as library and information professionals, joining hands with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, AAUP, ACLU, etc.
    Yeah, on some level it’s all interconnected, but it’s also a question of focus, where can we do the most good with our skills and experience?

    I continue to appreciate Library Juice, and Rory’s gifts as an essayist.

  5. Thanks for writing this, Rory. The visibly political aspects of librarianship drew me to this profession initially, and I appreciate your wake-up call.

    Could you expand a bit on what you see as the connections between “queer theory, information access, and information organization?”

    I’m thinking of problematic subject headings for queer topics and access to queer info in libraries as some examples of the intersection between queerness and information work. Yet I’m particularly interested to see how you envision connecting queer theory to information access and organization. Of course, I’d love to hear how others see this connection as well.

  6. This will probably disappoint you a bit, Sarah, but this is one topic where I don’t really have ideas of my own, except in that I have a vague idea that queer theory is philosophically very important and has a place in political philosophy that it hasn’t taken yet. I’m not very well read in queer theory, however. I have read some articles in the library literature about access to queer info in libraries and representation of gays and lesbians in subject headings – the issues that you refer to. While I think those are not exactly insignificant issues I have a vague sense that queer theory offers some larger implications. I’m just not sure what they are.

  7. I’m happy to have the opportunity to applaud the second list (as a whole) as being appropriate to the proper mission of the A.L.A.

    The first list, though — getting involved in a variety of political issues that having nothing directly to do with the core principles of librarianship — seems to me to fly in the face of one of those core principles — that of intellectual neutrality. We have an almost sacred duty to political neutrality, a duty which we abdicate when we take vocal stands on the War in Afghanistan, Freedom to Travel to Cuba, and Health Insurance.

    It’s not enough for libraries to “provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues” (from the Library Bill of Rights). If we take a public stand on these issues, we put a decidedly biased dampener on the free exploration of views which differ from ours. Is that practice not hypocritical in the extreme?

  8. Richard,

    I don’t quite agree with you.

    Take a look at this paragraph from the first item in ALA’s own Policy Manual:

    ALA recognizes its broad social responsibilities. The broad social responsibilities of the American Library Association are defined in terms of the contribution that librarianship can make in ameliorating or solving the critical problems of society; support for efforts to help inform and educate the people of the United States on these problems and to encourage them to examine the many views on and the facts regarding each problem; and the willingness of ALA to take a position on current critical issues with the relationship to libraries and library service set forth in the position statement.

  9. Rory, based on list 2 you my be interested in the Ethics of Information Organization conference.

    The 1st one took place this past May in Milwaukee and all materials are online. It was even videotaped. I spoke to the Dean of the school supposedly hosting the 2nd one–Ed Cortez–at ASIST this past week & it looks like it may go every other year.

    If you send him an email expressing interest he will add you to a list he is compiling on those interested.

    I certainly will be watching for the 2nd conference!

  10. Thanks, Mark. I will look at the proceedings and videos for that. I wasn’t able to make it to that conference but I went to the one that CIPR put on the year before and found it very good. It wasn’t focused on information organization so much. The title was “Thinking Critically: Alternative Perspectives and Methods in Information Studies.” I reported on it here. I’m in driving distance from Milwaukee so it’s not too tough to get to things that CIPR puts on. I am glad they are talking about doing more.

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