ALA also rhymes with “astray”

When I was writing the previous post about the ALA, there was something else that was sitting in the back of mind that was bothering me. I had written something for it at the end of the previous post, but then decided against its inclusion since it put the post in a different tone. After reading and re-reading it, with the intention of posting it as its own entry, I realized it was reading as something very familiar but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

It took some due diligence, but I realized that it was a similar take to the Annoyed Librarian’s post “Another Annoyed Librarian”. For those who get skeeved out by reading that blog, I’ll summarize the post: AL says that, by sticking its nose into issues such as torture, war, health care, and same sex marriage, ALA needlessly politicizes the organization and diverts time, money, and energy away from more immediate forms of action for subjects as outlined in the ALA constitution, mission & priorities, and key action areas.  These non-library related resolutions by the ALA Council distract from the actual mission of the ALA (to champion libraries and library issues) and makes the organization appear out of its element. For all of the points, I agree with the AL.

But what compelled me to put fingers to keys and write this entry was something in the comments for that post. John Berry of Library Journal posted a reply that made me sit up and take notice. His comment, in full, was as follows:

I joined ALA to amplify my voice, and to help SRRT and others make the case that librarians have a responsibility to participate in the political and social battles of our society. I’ve been a member so long I get membership free. Long before me the great library leaders like Jesse Shera saw the same needs and formed the progressive librarians caucus of their time. I was proud when ALA supported the equal rights amendment, fought racial segregation (including segregation in libraries), and opposed the Vietnam War and took sides on a host of similar issues. I do not think ALA must be neutral, like a library, and I am proud that its meetings are open to every member, and that it is run democratically, by an elected Council which very infrequently does vote to put the Association on record on "non-library" issues. Since the cost of healthcare for many libraries I use has risen 30 percent or more in the last few years, I think that one is a library issue. Indeed, you could make a pretty good case that gay rights, women’s rights, and war and peace are all library issues, but I won’t go down that path. ALA is a democratic organization, so the members can vote for candidates who believe ALA should take some positions on some social issues. I will continue as a member of ALA and continue to vote for and with those who agree with my position. A great many of ALA’s presidents have come out of the social responsibility movement, and others have supported it. I will support them and cheer them on.

(Emphasis mine.)

As to the first part emphasized, I find it peculiar that an organization that proclaims free access and dispassionate objectivity in the collections of its member libraries would also seek to take sides on some of the most hotly debated issues. What kind of message does that send to the membership, let alone the communities that these libraries serve? While it could be argued that this is an entity removed from the immediate determinations of collection development at the individual location or system level, the proximal relationship between the library and the national organization creates an unnecessary implication of bias. While I sincerely hope that no one in an acquisitions position would be swayed to exclude materials due to a resolution, it still sends out the wrong message about the ALA, its purpose, and its role in the promotion of information objectivity and intellectual freedom.

I am not certain as to Mr. Berry’s definition of “very infrequently”, but my scouring of the ALA website for resolutions suggests that this is far more of a regular occurrence (if only recently). Perhaps we are at odds about the definition, but here are the resolutions I found combing through the ALA site.

(There’s also an unadopted resolution about the Boy Scouts of America that keeps popping up regarding their exclusion of atheists and gays.)

I went through all of the ALA Council Action online (going back to 1997) and did a Google site search for resolutions (where I found some of the older ones). Just as noticeable to me were a number of defeated resolutions regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan since those wars began. The only marginal case in the linked resolutions above is the one regarding standardized driver’s licenses, but I find the rationale outlined to require a triple jump of logic. It takes six “whereas” statements to reach how it relates to the library. (“They want to standardize what appears on a license nationwide. You need a license to get a library card so it could be used as a tool to see what they are borrowing. We’re against that, even though it’s a remote possibility, so we’ll urge the government not to do that. Yeah.”)

As to the rest, there is the only most circumstantial of reasoning to link them to being ‘library issues’. By adopting many human rights documents into the organization (such as Article 19 from The Universal Declaration of Human Rights), everything has the opportunity to be championed as a library issue by virtue of being a human rights issue. The slippery slope of transitive logic begins with any usurpation of free expression or intellectual freedom, thus degenerating the litmus test of organization involvement that resembles a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon style of reasoning. (“Whereas, war is fighting. Whereas, fighting happens between people. Whereas, when people are fighting, they stop going to libraries. Whereas, if they stop going to libraries, they are denied their right to free expression. Resolved, we are against it.”)

As to the second part emphasized, Mr. Berry implies that the cases can be made for all sorts of social and political issues as library issues. To this point, I agree. If you set aside the key documents that govern the ALA (aforementioned constitution, mission & priorities, and key action areas), then any issue can be made into a library issue. If there’s a one eyed Albanian albino celiac leper working in the library, under the apparent system of logic in place, the implicit support of this unique librarian gives carte blanche for ALA to write proclamations on former Soviet states, gluten free products, skin diseases of the 19th century, and Cyclopes. Under such willy-nilly buffet logic, any group could easily qualify as having their intellectual freedoms disrupted and thus should be supported by ALA resolution. I wouldn’t break a sweat coming up with rationale for any number of groups:  Birthers, Truthers, Scientologists, Flat Earth believers, Creationists, Humanists, organized crime, the Tamil Tigers, the Taliban, and members of Team Edward or Team Jacob. In this way, the bar for becoming a library issue is set so low that it is completely laughable and virtually non-existent.

The question missing in this resolution process is not which side to take, but whether it is is important to the purpose of the ALA to take a position. Otherwise, it’s an exercise in needless politicization of an organization that, considering the track record of the last year, surely has better things to do. For an association seeking to speak on behalf of the library community, there really is no need to take positions on third rail issues that are not library related. It’s a disservice to members of all philosophical and political stripes who are bound together by the stated unifying mission of information access, intellectual freedom, and service to all people and community.

To be frank, I’m a supporter of health care reform, same sex marriage, and the ending of the wars abroad. (I did a little cheer on Christmas Eve when it passed the Senate.) But I also know that you don’t ask Sal the produce guy what the catch of the day is down at the docks. In other words, for my support of these issues, I turned to organizations that are better suited for rallying for them. I look to groups that have reputation and expertise in the subject matter of the legislation being debated to work for the ideals that I believe in. No one gives a crap what the National Rifle Association thinks about childhood education or what the American Medical Association thinks about deployment of missiles in Turkey. Why? Because they are talking outside their immediate and apparent sphere of influence. This same thing applies to the ALA.  

By having the ALA presenting and passing these politically charged issue resolutions, people are putting all of their social agenda eggs into one proverbial basket. That does not bode well for the issues that they are trying to bolster, nor for the organization stepping outside its bounds. The matter does not get the proper attention or support it deserves. To make matters worse, it is a waste of time, money, and energy that could be applied more readily to current library related matters. If I was a member, I would be mad as hell that my money was going towards such polarizing non sequiturs. As I am not, I will simply have to content myself with outrage for an association that does not properly represent the profession I have grown to love. I hope that it will, one day soon.

13 thoughts on “ALA also rhymes with “astray”

  1. “The question missing in this resolution process is not which side to take, but whether it is is important to the purpose of the ALA to take a position.”

    Thank you for your thought provoking post. This is the first year I have been a member of ALA and must confess that I was unaware as to the extent of their political resolutions. This is disturbing to me – enough so that I may not renew my membership.

    I am proud to be a librarian and when students ask me my opinion on topics they are researching, I decline answering (with a polite explanation) because I believe that they should explore all sides of an issue and come to their own conclusion. Isn’t that what intellectual freedom is about?

    • I agree. As a public librarian, it is common for people to ask me my opinion about public issues. It’s a venerable land mine field of topics that get brought up so I have to do my best tip-toeing. On rare occasion, I have been pressed to offer an opinion, and the simplest way out of that conversation is to give it. =D

      As an aside, I find that reading blogs that hold positions or ideaologies that I don’t agree with (whether political or librarian) really helps me avoid sliding into a one sided reasoning and rationales. Even though reading through these blogs can put my teeth on edge, it gives me perspective as to what the other approach is thinking. This allows me to improve my defenses of my stances, sometimes even leading me to revise them.

  2. Don’t you think it is possible to voice opinion and still be objective in relation to acquisitions? I would be insulted if someone suggested I could not teach certain subjects or certain students passionately and appropriately regardless of how I feel about them.

    I do not think that the ALA is talking outside of its ‘immediate and apparent sphere of influence’ if its members decide to voice opinion on and take a stance regarding serious issues. Libraries are sites of literacy, of learning, of lore.

    I can see how one might like them to be neutral sites, in order to respect all stories, but neutrality is a fiction. We regard everything through a subjective lens and those who insist on objectivity are denying us our stories. Indeed, being able to accept and respect diverse stories regardless of one’s worldview is a sign of open, healthy dialogue.

    People who read, who seek out stories will have strong thoughts about the stories they read, it makes sense to me that an association that champions libraries and their issues does the same.

    • If you want to convince me, you have to come up with a better case for why it is appropriate for the ALA to take stances on serious non-library issues. “Libraries are sites of literacy, of learning, of lore” is not sufficient rationale. Under the logic presented, I could say that gym is a site of exercise, physical fitness, and athleticism. That doesn’t mean that the YMCA should be issuing press releases about abortion or sexual slavery.

      People who read, who seek out stories will have strong thoughts about stories they read, it makes sense to ME that they seek out a better suited organization that is specifically dedicated to that issue.

      “Don’t you think it is possible to voice opinion and still be objective in relation to acquisitions?”

      Yes. And I said as much.

      “While I sincerely hope that no one in an acquisitions position would be swayed to exclude materials due to a resolution, [...]”

      I’m not denying anyone an opinion; I am concerned as to how they are expressing their non-library issues through a library organization. This notion that everything can be related back to the library is faulty and dangerous.

  3. I’ve always thought that ALA should stay away from these hot-button issues. It’s polarizing and marginalizes our ability to really comment on library things (can we really be taken seriously on USA PATRIOT if we’re also commenting on gluten-free albinos?)

    • I think it muddles the vision of the organization overall, which may be why there are people (like myself) who look at it and go, “What exactly does the ALA stand for?”

  4. And who, exactly, make these wild pronouncements: the duly elected representatives of the Association.

    It really isn’t particularly difficult to get involved with ALA and make a real difference.

    ALA is not controlled by staff, but by its own members. Councilors seldom hear from members; it’s easy enough to email them and let them know what you think.

    I’ve been a member of ALA for 28 years (and I’m only 48 years old). I’ve been hearing that ALA takes too many political stands for that whole time. And some people do what they can to change that. That’s what I’d encourage anyone interested in ALA to do.

    Don’t drop your membership and then be surprised that the Association doesn’t represent you. How could it? You’re not there.

    Those who wanted ALA to be *more* political spent a lot of energy to find out how ALA works and how to work together to get people elected to Council. Anyone can do that. (It’s just this simple, find a good candidate or small slate and encourage everyone you know to vote for ONLY that candidate or the small slate–don’t use all the votes you have).

    I did enjoy the post, by the way!

    • You are correct: the organization is ruled by the people who show up. (And such is true in a many things in life.) The counterpoint to this is that one doesn’t have to join or continue to belong to an organization to make the case for the politicization of the ALA (a la the concept of ‘voting with your feet’ by showing your unhappiness with an organization by leaving it.) People are welcome to show their disdain by taking their ball and going to another playground. I’m sure that issue would come up under investigations of questions such as “Why are people leaving the organization?” and “Why are we having trouble retaining members?”

      (Although the 2006 annual report spoke of record membership, so I’m not sure what sort of dramatic drop lead people to proclaim that the organization is having membership troubles. Unless you look at the makeup of the membership which (if I recall correctly) is close to 50% baby boomer (aka the generation currently retiring).

      But, I take your post as to read “Join ALA, start a platform of shooting down political resolutions, get elected, and then do it”. Which, while appealing, seems silly since there is only so long I could stand in place and tap on the giant graphic which states the purpose, mission, and key action areas of the ALA. Why would I have to join an organization to remind them what they should be doing?

  5. I’m certainly not saying that, as I think you know.

    What I’m saying is that ALA is a large complex organization. Its resolutions are the resolutions of ALA Council. If people are already members of ALA or have some reason they wish to join, then it makes more sense, to me, to work within the process to effect change. If you (or any other librarian or library supporter) has no reason to join ALA, then you don’t have a reason to join.

    ALA is, and probably will be for a long time, the largest association of librarians in the United States. This gives the organization a voice. I personally find it more rewarding to be a part of the organization then to object to it from outside. But both roles have their benefits to ALA–it’s healthy for people to be talking about ALA, whether from inside or outside.

    • Then we are at an impasse. I’m not interested in joining an organization that engages in active political campaigning in non-library issues; and the organization, ruled by the politically active voting minority, does not want to limit itself to addressing library issues.

      I do take your ‘change from within’ points into consideration; perhaps when I can afford to do so, I might.

  6. Loved this post! As an individual, I share my opinion and join political organizations and “amplify” my voice. Librarians need not surrender personal agendas, but I think library associations should be apolitcal. It’s wrong for me to unfairly use the advantages of my professional public sector profession to advance my goals. ALA, and libraries, are for a sprectrum of ideologies and political views. We champion liberty of thought, at least…I thought. Let me lobby for my political causes on my own time, and on my own dime, please.

  7. Thanks for expressing many of the things I’ve always felt in regards to the organization. When I joined for the first time a few years ago and received an issue of American Libraries, I actually turned back to the cover to see if I was reading the right one. I encountered articles about the death penalty, political prisoners, and other issues that were all non-library related. I joined ALA because I was a beginning librarian wanting to learn all I could about my new profession.

    I can’t afford the time and money it takes to attend the big conferences (although a free pass let me wing through the exhibits for a day in Chicago, which was great). I get a lot more value from my state organization, although I did rejoin ALA last year.

  8. Pingback: Blatantly Berry Bumbling « Agnostic, Maybe

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