What ails SRRT: a diagnosis
The Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT) was the permanent structure formed out of progressive political organizing in the American Library Association during the revolutionary time of the late 60’s. (For a good history of SRRT’s beginnings, see Toni Samek’s Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility in American Librarianship, 1967-1974 (McFarland, 2003). Since then it has served as the political “conscience of the association,” applying internal pressure from an egalitarian moral and political point of view (e.g. opposing ties to corporate America) and taking a public stand on many issues not directly related to librarianship. When I was in library school in the late 90s, SRRT’s existence and the passion of the people who worked within its structure were deeply encouraging, because it affirmed what I saw as an important tie between librarianship and broader social concerns. I was energized by SRRT and became active within it. It was my primary place of activity in the profession outside of my job over the next decade, and I met most of the people I know in librarianship in the process of contributing energy to SRRT. I owe a tremendous amount to SRRT, so it is with a sense of, I don’t know, guilt actually, that I say what I am going to say.
SRRT has run into a wall.
What do I mean? SRRT is the largest round table in ALA (or it was the last time I checked), with over 2000 members. The leadership of SRRT, that is, the people who are active in SRRT discussions, run for and are elected to office, attend regular meetings and make the decisions, are dedicated and passionate people, with strong politics that stem from a sense of moral responsibility. For the most part, they have been involved in SRRT for a long time, some from its very beginning. They are activists, and pursue activist goals within the framework of SRRT, as it was created for. That SRRT is and should be an activist group has never seriously been questioned, but in fact that isn’t what it is for the majority of its members. For the majority of its members, SRRT is something to join in order to support the activities of this activist group and to show ones identification with the idea of the importance of social concerns within the profession.
Only a handful of SRRT members are interested in using SRRT for activist goals. That group is mostly older SRRT members whose idea of activism comes from the era in which SRRT was formed. Their political priorities, assumptions about the way things are, and modes of acting come from that era. There are some younger SRRT members among the activist group – people in their 30s and 40s – but in my experience we have not been able to change the round table’s direction or ways of doing things, due to the strength and entrenchment of the long-time leaders. That is one reason (of several reasons) that I am no longer active in SRRT.
The past few decades have not been friendly to activists of the SRRT stripe. I think that makes it remarkable that SRRT is still around, and as the largest round table at that. SRRT members should be proud that we have not been beaten down by the forces we’re up against as the country has shifted rightward. But it also has to be acknowledged that those forces have had an impact on SRRT, often making it a place of shared frustration for the activists who keep it alive. Many of the difficulties that SRRT has encountered have amounted to an ongoing clash with a worsening reality, a clash made more painful by the obsolete assumptions on which our actions were often based.
I think that SRRT is now in a period of protracted crisis based on a conflict between the activists at its core and the majority of its membership, who have grown less interested in seeing SRRT pursue activist goals over time. This crisis has been precipitated by the issue of the Cuban “independent librarians.”
I have given up discussing the Cuba issue, because I found that no matter how well I explained SRRT’s position, people would inevitably say they understood it and had heard it before but would not be able to explain the argument if asked, let alone answer it, and seemed to remain unaware of the reasoning that led the SRRT leadership to its conclusions. Because of that, I will not rehash the debate, but will only comment on it to point out a few small things. First, it must be appreciated that there are many possible positions to take on the issue, something people often don’t realize. I can discuss a variety of positions on this issue privately with people who are interested (contact me privately if you want). Second, the ideological nature of the debate has led to such a feeling of disgust, among both participants and observers, that issues surrounding the debate have a bad feeling to them and are more difficult to work out. Third, while I feel that SRRT members’ arguments were often more insightful and fair to the real situation, it also has to be stated that they were often fueled by loyalty to the Cuban revolution as a real, successful socialist revolution, which the majority of SRRT members cannot be expected to appreciate or care about.
To report a bit about my experience serving on SRRT Action Council, when the Cuba issue and other contentious issues came up in our discussions, someone would often suggest that we don’t know what the majority of our members think. The idea of polling the membership would sometimes be raised for the purpose of saying that we shouldn’t do it, the reason being that people who don’t know or care much about an issue are happy to idly fill out a poll and have their vote determine something. Instead, this conversation would always conclude, we need to do a better job educating our members about what we are doing and the reasoning behind our position. Action Council has never been interested in knowing what its members think, even during times when membership was declining. (When membership was declining, there were logical reasons to cite that had nothing to do with what SRRT Action Council was doing or saying.)
I don’t know where SRRT’s membership stands on the issues that SRRT has taken up; I imagine that its views are varied (much more so than the core group, I would think). It does seem clear to me, though, that the majority of SRRT’s members are not activists and don’t view SRRT as an activist organization, while its core members do. And, over time, the awareness of an activist orientation for SRRT and support for that orientation have declined, so that for most SRRT members, SRRT is like other round tables, meaning that it is a place to associate with librarians with a shared interests. Still, the official statements of SRRT and its other activities are known, and the leadership is right to assume implicit support for those statements and actions in members’ ongoing membership. While members are free to join the SRRTAC-L listserv and share their opinions, I can tell you that the leadership for the most part has little interest in what those opinions are. Part of the reason for that is that it is rare for a member who is unknown to the leadership to step up and start talking. When one does, the question in the leaders’ minds is normally, “Who is this person?” and not so much, “How big a part of the membership does this person in effect represent?”
I call this gap between the membership and the leadership a “protracted crisis,” but there are more acute crises from time to time that SRRT deals with, or if not crises, then at least problems. The most current one involves all of these issues, and it is over control of the SRRT Newsletter. The SRRT Newsletter has a new editor, Myka Kennedy Stephens, who is not in the activist mold. It seems to me (and I should probably talk to her before writing this) that she is in SRRT because it is the place where her professional ideals are most alive in the association, but not as an opportunity to be a political activist. The core group in SRRT feels that it goes without saying that being active in SRRT (e.g. newsletter editor) means being a political activist. So, when the Myka decided to run an article by Steve Marquardt, who opposes SRRT on the Cuba question, to use a cliché, “all hell broke loose.” As the newsletter editorial board, the newsletter editor, and Action Council have been trying to work this problem out (read “new rules”), there has been a certain amount of misunderstanding between the newsletter editor and others stemming from these different basic assumptions about what SRRT is and what it means to be involved in it.
So, now it seems that SRRT is facing a question. Is there support among the membership to continue it’s 60s-style activist work within the association? Or do members want SRRT to be more like other round tables? Does the SRRT leadership want to know the answer? Or would it prefer to ask another question, such as, “How can we better sell what we are doing to our members?”
I used to feel that this kind of thing should stay in SRRT, but I no longer feel that way. I think it is good to talk openly about what is happening in SRRT and in other groups that we care about.
Regarding Cuba: I know some readers are going to post about Cuba in response to this, but I would ask that if you do, please don’t ignore what I have written on it in the past. The arguments I have made have been responded to many times but never answered, and I am too tired of the discussion to continue in that manner. Posts concerning Cuba in response to this are off-topic, and I might decide not to approve them if they don’t add anything new.
24 comments on “What ails SRRT: a diagnosis”
I think, Rory, that another angle to the generational nature of this is that for you, for me, and for the SRRT First Ones, the Cold War was something we lived and experienced, along with the lies and distortions generated by all sides. To younger librarians, those born in the 1980s (and soon those born in the 1990s) the Cold War is something they know only from their History textbooks and teachers, if at all.
I feel especially for Gen X people like you and me…well I know I felt like I passed through a singular moment in History…I was still young enough to where I hadn’t questioned the general Cold War narrative yet, was still a “true believer” when suddenly it came to an abrupt end. I did further research and came to understand just how much I’d been lied to during the Cold War. The more I’ve researched US Foreign policy, etc, I look back at old Cold War anti-US propaganda images from the other side and I find I am no longer knee-jerk dismissive of them the way I certainly was when the Cold War was still “on”. I see to my chagrin they contain more truth than I ever wanted to admit. It feels pretty bizarre…and yet those for whom the Cold War existed only in the History books and who conclude only that Western Capitalistic Democracy WON, end of story, have no reason to take seriously such images or ponder them or question the Cold War narrative, as it was not lived reality for them.
The Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy Assassination, Vietnam, etc, and the Sexual Revolution recede further into history. I was born after Kent State but before Watergate broke.
For those just entering the profession, even though some of the protests against Iraq and Afghanistan rivaled in size some of the anti-Vietnam war protests of the 1960s, The Right and The Establishment learned their lessons and have been much more effective at marginalizing dissident voices, purging disturbing images from TV.
The minor documentary University, Inc. showed how even campus architecture and design at UT-Austin has been changed over time to hinder the ability of large scale demonstrations to form and march as happened in the 1960s and 1970s. Many universities, including where I got my library degree, created and still maintain their odious “Free Speech Zones”…while it used to be understood the entire campus was a free speech zone; the Berkley Free Speech Movement of the 1960s wasn’t fighting to establish “Free Speech Zones” on campus. Their assertion was that Free Speech meant everywhere; everywhere citizens chose to peaceably assemble for a redress of grievances.
SRRT leadership are in the uncomfortable position of being much better informed and having experienced the Cold War as lived history than much of the younger lay membership. They aren’t interested in what the lay membership really want because in their view the lay membership are not as informed or experienced as they are. On some level, perhaps, they want to remain Lenin-esque vanguards, which I can understand and even sympathize with.
Time was when no SRRT editor would think to publish anything from the “usual suspects” (Kent, et. al.) on the Cuba issue. This new SRRT editor probably doesn’t know the history of the debate or the key players the way we both do, however.
It’s frustrating, the lack of historical awareness. I don’t know any easy answers, either.
Of course, I might be considered biased, or one of the “usual suspects”, and I am not in SRRT, but an outsider. That said, I don’t know why it should raise such a fuss within your organization to publish a dissenting view on Cuba in the SRRT newsletter. Even if you think Steve Marquardt (with whom I largely agree) is totally wrong on Cuba, it should not be that difficult to present a counter-view. Also, is it not possible that some SRRT members might actually agree with him?
I think you missed the point of my post, Stephen. I think lots of SRRT members agree with him.
My apologies, Rory. In any case, I am glad to see there is more openness to different views, even on Cuba, within the SRRT than there was a few years ago.
Actually, Stephen, I don’t think that has changed a bit. I think there have always been a lot of people in the SRRT membership who have been in agreement with Steve.
I should have clarified that it was the SRRT leadership to which I was referring when addressing the question of openness toward divergent views. I don’t know about the views of rank and file SRRT members on Cuba or other issues.
I am pretty sure that Rory thinks of me as one of the SRRT old timers. I am actually amused by this. As a matter of fact, many of the original SRRT founders are no longer attending SRRT meetings. Many are retired and no longer attending ALA. Others have also passed away and we can no longer draw on their knowledge and insights. I was not in ALA in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. As a matter of fact, I was not involved with ALA at all until 1978 and not involved with SRRT until several years later. Being a 1970 graduate of Idaho Falls High School, ID and going from there to Idaho State University hardly put me in a position to be very involved in a lot of political activism, though I was politically aware. I am just giving this bit of personal history because I am quickly becoming one of the older members of SRRT and think that Rory is off on his view of the generations in SRRT at this time.
I really admire the activist who founded SRRT. They are also the people who got ALA policies changed so that we have open meetings. In the spirit of open meetings I would like to point out that anyone can find the whole April 2010 SRRT Newsletter at http://connect.ala.org/node/64489 .
I am not sure what SRRT meetings Rory has attended but every time I attend one I see new faces. I have not tracked the turn over on SRRT Action Council in the same way that I have done with ALA Council but I think that if someone did this for us we would find that there actually is a fair amount of turn over. There are also many people on SRRT Action Council that have been around for some time. There are also people who attend the meetings who are not official Action Council (AC) members, a couple from the time SRRT began and many of the newer members. Most of the time everyone is allowed to speak, though only AC members are allowed to vote. So, there is no accurate survey of turnover on SRRT AC at this time so anything Rory says or I say really is only observation from our own perspectives and may not even be close to reality.
I have felt that the discussion about the SRRT Newsletter has been a good one and a constructive one. It is a time of growth and change so values need to be reexamined as well as content and format. Any group that does not have this kind of healthy discussion from time to time does grow stagnant. I have not agreed with everything suggested for the newsletter policy but that is just fine. We all express our opinions and then we work together to find a policy that we think most benefits SRRT.
It is always a struggle to write new policy, as any library administrator will tell you, that satisfies everyone. We need to be seriously thiking about the direction we want to go with the newsletter. It is so easy to do so much more with it now that we are doing it electronically and are not limited by size because of the cost of mailing paper newsletters. I really like and respect the work Myka is doing to find a way to make a more interesting, vibrant publication. With a good policy in place then the newsletter editorial board has a good structure from which to work to do just this. I consider this change exciting and not a “crisis” situation.
I know that people new to a group often feel on the outside and like their views are not being heard. I think this is frustrating and I wish I knew good ways to have this never happen. People are always more comfortable with what they know from experience or who they know from experience than the new things and people. SRRT is no different from other groups in this. I do know that many of us really appreciate hearing new ideas and new perspectives in groups, including SRRT, even if we don’t make this obvious.
The oddest thing in Rory’s piece, to me, is the idea that SRRT AC does not care about the views of SRRT members. I don’t know where this perspective came from but it is not my perspective. I want to hear more views, not fewer. I think the more ideas we hear the more likely we are to make good decisions and move ahead as an organization. I don’t want us to become stagnant. I am not sure that polls are really the way to go because they don’t usually allow for very many perspectives. I guess I wouldn’t mind essay type polls. 😉 I just don’t like polls where there are only a few options and none of them fit my real views.
Well, I have gone on for too long. I think I have more to say but this is enough for now.
Oops, I said “In the spirit of open meetings I would like to point out that anyone can find the whole April 2010 SRRT Newsletter at http://connect.ala.org/node/64489” and I meant to say “find the whole newsletter discussion…”
Alison M. Lewis has ensured that the SRRT newsletter is indexed and available full text through Full-text library literature. This will be ongoing and means that those interested in the context and subtext can easily review the documentation over the last decade.
This spring 2010 Myka Kennedy Stephens has preserved the legacy of SRRT history at the website. She did the huge job of scaning. All interested in SRRT history can look. The entire backfile of the SRRT Newsletters has been archived and made available here:
Reading Rory Litwin’s comments, it appears that sunlight is finally breaking through the clouds which have obscured the SRRT’s principles, thanks to the sacrifices of library workers in Cuba who have refused to be silenced. Building on the principled stand being taken by younger SRRT members, it is time to restore the SRRT’s integrity.
Clearly, some SRRT folks need reminding that the first loyalty of library workers is to intellectual freedom, not governments or ideologies. Congratulations are due to the newer SRRT members who are holding the encrusted leadership accountable for its lamentable history of stonewalling and deception on the Cuba issue.
It is time for the ALA, including SRRT, to respect the rights of everyone, not just people we happen to agree with. As Noam Chomsky (who has spoken out against repression in Cuba) has eloquently stated, “If we don’t believe in intellectual freedom for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”
That’s a pretty strange reading, Robert, but about what I would predict from you.
Mr. Litwin wrote: “That’s a pretty strange reading, Robert, but about what I would predict from you.”
In response, here is what Mr. Litwin wrote in “What Ails SRRT: a Diagnosis,” to which he invited comments:
“I think that SRRT is now in a period of protracted crisis…. This crisis has been precipitated by the issue of the Cuban ‘independent librarians.'”
In other words, ten years of lies and coverups have failed to prevent new SRRT members from raising the pesky issue of book burning and library repression in Cuba, no matter how much the oldtimers try to suppress the inconvenient facts.
Litwin: “I have given up discussing the Cuba issue, because I found that no matter how well I explained SRRT’s position, people would inevitably say they understood it and had heard it before but would not be able to explain the argument if asked, let alone answer it…”
In other words, it is more and more difficult to defend the indefensible. So far, so good, but then Mr. Litwin indicates he has learned little or nothing from this 10-year old dispute by hinting he will censor “uppity” messages on the Libraryjuice blog.
As newly-assertive SRRT members know, but Mr. Litwin still appears not to know, this 10-year old dispute over Cuba revolves around Article 19 of a certain document, the ethical basis of principled library workers everywhere, which dares to assert that everyone, everywhere, has the right to “seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
I think you are right about the make-up of the SSRT committee now. The majority of it’s members aren’t in the activist mode and shouldn’t be. This committee should only deal with issues directly related to libraries.I hope you can change the direction of this roundtable to fit with all the mission of the other roundtables of ALAI . The cuban librarians issue should become history now and the committee should move on with new committments.
BGS… I wasn’t saying that SRRT shouldn’t be activist, just that a difference does exist between the activists who are in touch with SRRT’s traditions and many members who may not be. It’s just an analysis, not a recommendation.
And Robert Kent, when are you going to admit the truth that you are undercover – and I am not talking about the CIA. I think that you are the secret identity of Cuba Libre Man, able to leap tall dictators in a single bound. Unlike Superman though, you let your mild-mannered cover pursue the crusade.
The confusion between comic book fantasy and library reality is the only explanation I have for the way your campaign fits such a romantic comic book narrative, so blind to the complexities of the real world.
I’m a member of the so-called “generation x” and I’m not surprised by anything written in this article. A small group of radical left-wing Baby Boomer activists maintains a death-grip on the leadership of the SSRT, and they do not care about what their membership thinks. How different is that from the rest of our society?
What bothers me the most about this is that for a profession that says it believes in intellectual freedom, it allows a small group of people to censor any information that the group disagrees with. The purpose of having a “round table” is to allow everyone to have a voice. If the leadership of the SSRT refuse to allow those voices to be heard, then I think the round table should be dissolved.
The “leadership” of SRRT (yes SRRT not SSRT)is a combination of members that YOU as SRRT members elect to SRRT Action Council and a representative from each Task Force and a representative from each Chapter.
Anyone can volunteer to run for SRRT Action Council. In fact, people are begged to run sometimes so that there is a full slate of candidaes.
If you are in one of the task forces you can volunteer to be the representative on Action Council.
You can also volunteer to be your state chapter’s representative on SRRT Action Council.
There are so many ways for new people to volunteer and serve in SRRT that it would be difficult to impossible for one group to have control of SRRT.
If you want to make changes within SRRT then volunteer. It is my experience that you will be welcomed.
If you have no experience with SRRT AC then sit in on a few meetings at a conference, sign up for the discussion list and actually contribute to the discussion (http://lists.ala.org/sympa/) or follow and contribute to discussions (kind of in the beginning stages) on ALA Connect (http://connect.ala.org/srrt). Don’t fully believe Rory’s analysis or my rebuttal until you actually have some experience with Action Council and/or any of the SRRT Task Forces.
Yes, I am a “baby boomer.” Yes, my political views are to the left. Yes, some think of me as an activist, however, others don’t think I am enough of an activist.
SRRT is what you make of it for yourself, as are all organizations. If you expect others to make changes for you then you will be EXTREMELY disappointed in SRRT and in life. If you get active, speak up, help plan programs, activities, etc. then most of you will get a lot out of SRRT or any other organization that interests you. It really is up to you.
I am a gen X librarian and find it disturbing how the entire “Cuba debate” as a sophisticated manufactured disinformation campaign is doing exactly what it was meant to do; act as a destabilizing wedge, which in my view is actually working to create needless tension and false debate. What has been interesting to me is how this strikes at the heart of librarianship in such a way that really gets deeper into the nuances and cross-sections of information warfare,foreign policy,propaganda, and education. As librarians we have a stake in this and are in many ways in the middle of the cultural battlefield.
The following is from the introduction to the Tactical Reality Dictionary by Konrad Becker. This sums up what has influenced my thinking.
Culture and Technologies of Control
Culture is not just the expression of individual interests and orientations, manifested in groups according to rules and habits but it offers identification with a system of values. The construction of cultural memory and establishing a symbolic order through setting up mental and ideological spaces is a traditional practice of cultural engineering; symbolic scenarios generate reality by mediating an implicit political narrative and logic. Maps of the world radiating an aura of objectivity and marking out the ways of life are exploited as cognitive tools. An image of the world as simulation or map of reality can be highly inductive and that explains the investment in cultural representation. From historiography to education, perception is influenced by mental scenarios that establish the symbolic order. According to Edward Bernays, a pioneer of modern public relations, the only difference between education and propaganda is the point of view. “The advocacy of what we believe in is education. The advocacy of what we don’t believe is propaganda.” The development in electronic communication and digital media allows for a global telepresence of values and behavioral norms and provides increasing possibilities of controlling public opinion by accelerating the flow of persuasive communication. Information is increasingly indistinguishable from propaganda, defined as “the manipulation of symbols as a means of influencing attitudes”. Whoever controls the metaphors controls thought.
The ubiquitous flow of information is too fast to absorb and creating value in the economy of attention includes the artful use of directing perception to a certain area, to put some aspects in the spotlight in order to leave others in the dark. The increasing focus of attention on the spectacle makes everything disappear that is not within the predefined event horizon. Infosphere manipulation is also implemented through profound penetration of the communications landscape by agents of influence. Large scale operations to manage public opinion, to evoke psychological guiding motivations and to engineer consent or influence policy making have not been exclusive to the 20th century. Evidence of fictitious cultural reconstruction is abundant in the Middle Ages; recent findings on the magnitude of forgeries, the large scale faking of genealogies, official documents and codices attracted broad attention and media interest. In 12th century Europe in particular, pseudo historical documents were widely employed as tools of political legitimacy and psychological manipulation. According to some conservative estimates, the majority of all documents of this period were fictitious. With hindsight, whole empires could turn out to be products of cultural engineering. Moreover, writers such as Martin Bernal, author of “The Fabrication of Ancient Greece”, have clearly demonstrated to what extent cultural propaganda and historical disinformation is contained in the work of European scholars. On the basis of racist ideas and a hidden political agenda historic scenarios were fabricated and cultural trajectories distorted in order to support the ideological hegemony of certain European elites.
The increasing informatization of society and economy is also the source of a growing relevance of culture, the cultural software in the psycho-political structure of influence. During the so-called cold war, too, issues of cultural hegemony were of importance. In publications such as “The Cultural Cold War” and “How America stole the Avant-garde” Frances Stonor Saunders and Serge Guilbaud offer a behind-the-scenes view of the cultural propaganda machine and provide a sense of the extravagance with which this mission was carried out. Interestingly there were efforts to support progressive and liberal positions as bridgehead against the “communist threat”. If one chooses to believe some contemporary investigative historical analyses, it seems that there was hardly a major western progressive cultural magazine in the Fifties and Sixties that would not have been founded or supported by a cover organization of intelligence services or infiltrated by such agencies. In the light of this, the claim made by Cuba at the UNESCO world conference in Havana 1998, according to which culture is the “weapon of the 21st century” does not seem unfounded.
Information Peacekeeping has been described as the “purest form of war” in the extensive military literature on information war. From cold war to code war, the construction of myths, with the intention of harmonizing subjective experience of the environment, is used for integration and motivation in conflict management. While “intelligence” is often characterized as the virtual substitute of violence in the information society, Information Peacekeeping, the control of the psycho-cultural parameters through the subliminal power of definition in intermediation and interpretation is considered the most modern form of warfare.
I started a conversation about this blog post and comments at http://connect.ala.org/node/102013#comment-9356 . Michael Marlin says that he is unable to post on this blog but he did comment on ALA Connect.
I think that the discussion started on Rory Litwin’s blog about the state of SRRT is a good one. I agree with Rory on a number of counts:
1—The SRRT leaders and hard-liners are dedicated, passionate people whose strong political stands stem from a sense of moral responsibility.
2—There is a disconnect between what the Action Council and the hard-liners want SRRT to be and what the majority of members want SRRT to be.
3—The Cuban “librarian” issue has taken up too much of SRRT’s efforts and is more a result of the political views of the hard-liners than a result of concern for social responsibilities.
4—SRRT hard-liners don’t care what the membership thinks and are not interested in finding out.
5—“ For the majority of its members, SRRT is something to join in order to support the activities of this activist group and to show one’s identification with the idea of the importance of social concerns within the profession.”
I also agree with Fred Stoss:
6—“An individual can be rhetorically pilloried, ridiculed, threatened, bullied, chastised, and generally intimidated for expressing their viewpoints or ask a simple question.”
7—“[What] SRRT found core was that of responsibilities for social, racial, gender, sexual, and other causes. For five decades, SRRT’s voice is heard and has directed the entire Association to more humane means for upholding the dignities of individuals, organizations, causes, and actions. SRRT was equally vehement in pointing out abuses, atrocities, and indignations of people against other people.”
I have a different take on some of these issues, however.
I doubt that a majority of SRRT members have been as radical as the hard-liners for 35 years ; perhaps they never have been. I don’t think that there’s much of a generation gap. I know some younger members of SRRT who are hard-liners; I know even more of the older members who are not hard-liners.
I don’t think the issue is that the hard-liners are activists while the membership does not want to be. Instead I think it’s a difference of what to be active about. I think the issue is that many hard-liners are more interested in international affairs, are against the excesses of capitalism, and use anti-government rhetoric that is offensive to many folks in ALA, both in SRRT and outside.
A good example is the Cuban “librarians” issue. I don’t favor taking up the Cuban issue because there are many more serious human rights issues in other countries that would have precedence for me and because I think that the few people interested in this issue are U.S.- government supported. At the same time, if Israel were restricting Palestinian “librarians,” does anyone doubt that the hard-liners would jump right on that issue and SRRT would have a strong resolution condemning Israel?
In contrast, I think most of the membership is interested in narrower social and economic activism on a narrower scale: pro-choice; anti-trust, against racism, sexism, and homophobia; for rights of minorities, including the physically and mentally challenged; for economic justice, support for the environment, for treating everyone fairly, with dignity, and with justice. They seek less confrontation and more collaboration.
Certifying SRRT Bonafides
I personally disagree with the notion that anyone with $15 should be able to be a member of SRRT. Instead I believe that one must share a belief in SRRT’s mission. As a result, I prefer not to have members of the conservative Cuban “librarians” group send me emails about their issue, which only encourages other people to respond.
However, at what point do we decide who’s progressive enough to be a “real” member of SRRT. We all know how quickly some of the hard-liners will jump on someone who doesn’t toe the line and how quickly the attacks turn personal. Many members do not post because they don’t want to face that.
I have personal experience with this problem. If I were in the U.S. Senate I might be the most liberal senator in the country. However, because on ALA Council I don’t vote in favor of every SRRT resolution that is hastily composed, contains offensive rhetoric that detracts from the issue, or is just wrong-headed, I am seen as a poseur by the hard-liners.
I agree with Deidre Conklin and Fred Stoss that we need to have issue summaries on the SRRT website that can help remind the old-timers and inform the newcomers about what the issue is about and why SRRT has taken a certain stance. Such summaries would be good vehicles for setting the parameters of the debate when viewed by other people.
I don’t think that these issues are new issues, and I don’t think that SRRT is in a crisis, but I think that SRRT needs to make changes to be more open to all of its members and less combative in its positions.
Another Perspective on SRRT
I agree with other respondents who have noted the value of this discussion. Rory has demonstrated repeatedly that he is a librarian who cares passionately about the field of librarianship, about social justice, and about SRRT. Also, Rory has given serious thought to the role of librarians and of our professional organizations in a broader social context. So I haven’t been surprised that I’ve found my own thinking provoked and stimulated by Rory’s original post as well as by contributions of others to this discussion. But, as in other recent discussions, I again find myself disagreeing with much of Rory’s perspective.
I have to confess that the first thing about Rory’s account that confused me was his characterization of SRRT as an “activist organization” with an “activist orientation” and “activist goals.” My own understanding of the term “activism” is close to that of the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary: “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.” I’ve belonged to various organizations that were activist in this sense. In contrast, the main activities of SRRT revolve around passing resolutions and organizing programs for ALA conferences. As important as these activities are, in my mind they hardly constitute an “activist” agenda.
Instead, I think that Rory is really objecting to the strongly political—and especially leftist—emphasis of SRRT’s resolutions. This is suggested by his complaint about the leadership’s “political priorities, assumptions about the way things are, and modes of acting” which originated in the 1960s. Unfortunately, Rory doesn’t specify which priorities, assumptions, and modes he finds so objectionable. But he is convinced that these are no longer appropriate, for since the “revolutionary time of the 60’s,” and especially in the past few decades the “country has shifted rightwards,” there has been a steadily “worsening reality,” which has contradicted the leadership’s “obsolete assumptions.”
Rory does not attempt to substantiate these assertions, apparently assuming they are self-evident. But there is at least some reason to believe that they are highly exaggerated, or even inaccurate. One of the most important sources for political attitudes in the U.S. over decades is the General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center, begun in 1972. Data from that survey show that, in fact, a high point of progressive sentiment in the U.S. was 1973, when 4% of the population identified themselves as “extremely liberal.” GSS data show a drop in “extreme liberalism” since then —but only to 3% in 2008, and only after having again reached 4% in 2004. The total percentage identifying themselves as liberal to any degree has dropped from a high point of 31% in 1973. But that drop occurred mainly between the early 1970s and the mid-80s. Since 1987 it has varied between 24% and 27% (with a dips in the early 1990s perhaps connected to the collapse of “actually existing socialism,” and in the early 2000s following 9/11). Furthermore, it has risen steadily since 2004 to 26% in 2008. [H.W. Stanley & R.G.Niemi, Vital Statistics on American Politics 2009-2010, CQ Press, 2010), 111, 112.]
A few other figures are also worth noting. Since 1970, studies by the Higher Education Institute at the university of California have measured the number of college freshmen in the U.S. identifying themselves as liberal or far left. After a decline from almost 40% in 1970, this percentage has risen fairly steadily from a low point of about 20% in 1980 to about 38% in 2008. Finally, I might note that a recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press discovered that a surprisingly high 29% of Americans currently view “socialism” positively. [Stanley & Niemi, 113; “’Socialism’ Not So Negative, ‘Capitalism’ Not So positive, A Political Rhetoric Test,” Pew Research Center, May 4, 2010, http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1583/political-rhetoric-capitalism-socialism-militia-family-values-states-rights%5D
Of course, figures such as these also oversimplify and distort a complex reality. One can legitimately question the value of political self-identification, the categories employed, etc. Still, they suggest a number of conclusions: 1. Although the wave of radicalization in the late 60s and early 70s was real (and magnificent!), it would be inaccurate to characterize the overwhelming popular sentiment of that time as revolutionary, or even liberal. 2. Although there have been various shifts within the U.S. since the early 70s, a strong current of liberal opinion has remained constant. 3. Liberalism and radicalism have been growing among young people for some time; and more recently liberalism has been on the rise within the broader population.
It seems to me that it’s been the sentiments of this broader current—and not just stubbornness on the part of a handful of grizzled 60s holdovers—that has nourished the progressive activities of SRRT over the years. I think this is reflected in the fair number of younger librarians— including inactive SRRT members as well as nonmembers—who have spoken positively to me about many of the resolutions we’ve adopted. It’s been reflected in the fact that SRRT remains one of the largest round tables in ALA. It’s even reflected in the positions taken by ALA Council. Despite occasional frustrations, I’ve been positively impressed by the ultimate willingness of Council to adopt important resolutions on such controversial international topics as the destruction of Palestinian resources, the American use of torture, and the Iraq war. Likewise, this broader progressive current has inspired similar resolutions and actions by other professional and academic organizations, including the AFL-CIO, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Anthropological Association, the American Sociological Association, and the American Historical Association.
Rory also suggests that an old SRRT leadership, which has retained control for decades, is hostile, or at best indifferent, to the views of the membership. In response, others have noted the fairly high rate of turnover within AC, as well as the openness of SRRT in-person meetings. That corresponds closely to my perceptions since I first got involved it in SRRT in 2001. Like Julie and Jaime, I still feel a bit intimidated about presenting my views on a large email list. That may be inevitable. At any rate, I believe we’ve made substantial progress in the past few years in overcoming the problems of incivility on the SRRT-AC list mentioned by Fred—though there may be more we can do to make the list a more comfortable environment for participation.
With Diedre, I feel Rory’s assertion that AC members don’t care about the views of the membership is inaccurate. But I also think the issue is somewhat false. When a member raises a point in discussion, as a member of AC the first thing I think is neither “Who is this person?” nor “How big a part of the membership does this person in effect represent?” Instead, I ask myself how the member’s comments fit with our goal of promoting social responsibility as a core value of librarianship. And I respond on the basis of that, rather than trying to represent an imaginary constituency. I suspect that’s what most AC members do.
Having said all this, I believe we could do more to encourage participation and the exchange of ideas on the part of the membership. But in contrast to Rory, I think the best way to do this might be by INCREASING the level of activism of SRRT, not decreasing it. Currently members can express their general views on resolutions under consideration or on topics for programs. But much of the actual discussion and debate about these inevitably takes place in relatively small task forces or AC meetings at ALA annual or midwinter. I’ve wondered at various times if there wasn’t more we could be doing that would engage a larger portion of the membership.
A few examples from Pittsburgh might help illustrate this. In recent years a loose grouping of librarians—mostly SRRT members, and primarily at Pitt—have created a website for the Allegheny County Labor Council; we’ve spoken at rallies, at city council meetings, and in a documentary about the Patriot Act; we’ve participated in a Progressive Librarian Skillshare; we’ve created a web page of Alternative Resources on the G-20; we’ve volunteered to assist with Radical Reference for the G-20 protests; we’ve initiated research on articles related to the question of public access to academic libraries and the availability of alternative publications; and we’ve begun to explore ways we might help promote information literacy skills within disadvantaged communities.
I’m sure the experiences of other librarians in SRRT are similar. It seems to me we could be doing more as an organization to promote and coordinate these kinds of activities, and to share our experiences about them. Along these lines I would shamelessly like to appeal again for help, ideas, and all kinds of input for the (long overdue!) redesign of the International Responsibilities Task Force web site to make it more appealing, current, and useful to librarians and others who are concerned about the same kinds of international issues that concern us.
Terminological disagreements about what constitutes “activism” aside, Rory may even agree with some of these ideas. In his original post Rory spoke almost exclusively about what we shouldn’t do. I hope that in future contributions he’ll talk more about what he thinks SRRT should be doing.
Thanks and my apologies for the length of this contribution!
Thank you Tom. I think your comments are very helpful.
For what I think we SHOULD do, I refer readers back to my post of October 25th of last year: Two Sets of Priorities
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