This morning, while I was reading through the latest issue of Library Journal online, I had the distinct displeasure of reading John Berry III’s article entitled “Don’t Muzzle Librarians”. While watching David Rothman’s reaction vlog provided some levity for my irritation (a must watch for the purposes of this post), there are some outstanding points that Mr. Rothman did not touch upon that I feel should be addressed.
First and foremost, freedom of expression does not equate to freedom from accountability. While my various forms of expression are generally protected from civil and criminal liabilities, it does not render me immune to social ones. Those seeing, hearing, or listening can hold me to account for my words and choose to continue, engage, or withdraw. While Mr. Berry wields the freedom of expression concept as if it were a hammer (in the most ironic way as noted by Mr. Rothman), it does not render null and void the accountability that the magazine has for the words of one of its blogger employees. While traditionally publications have stood with their contributors (and rightfully so), there are business and social consequences that can occur. For example, the affronted party can discontinue reading the offending publication and tell others not to buy such a magazine. This is the subtle difference between what Mr. Berry is implying and what Mr. Rothman actually said in his previous video regarding the Annoyed Librarian and Library 101. I defend the right to free expression, but I am not compelled to read or listen to such acts nor prevented from enacting my own set of social consequences.
Second, as noted in Mr. Rothman’s response, there is no one calling for the end of anonymous writing. Pseudonyms and unsigned letters have served society well in various capacities over the course of history. However, in terms of the internet, anonymous writing and commentary have presented an additional set of results. Observe this chart that precisely documents this phenomena:
Thus, the fine anonymous art of “trolling” has come to exist. While the Annoyed Librarian certainly makes fine points that I can agree with (like here), the amount of vitriol displayed at times towards other professionals is pure emotional spectacle. The nature of those postings does not rise to the great anonymous writers (as touted by Mr. Berry) but becomes synonymous with the legions of unknown insensitive boorish commentators whose affection for naked cruelty is disturbing on a multitude of levels. While I certainly support anyone’s right to write anonymously for whatever personal reason, it would be folly to think that such practices (especially on the internet) do not come with its own particular set of perceptions and disadvantages when it comes to evaluating the content.
Third, after proclaiming the merits of freedom of expression in the previous paragraphs, Mr. Berry then derides the findings of the ALA New Members Round Table regarding a survey conducted which shows that “its members feel ALA should avoid expressing itself on what they call ‘nonlibrary issues.’” Again, in a bout of unnecessary quotation marks, he raises the specter that most issues can be argued as being library issues, calling thoughts to the otherwise “[a] disease of deciding what is ‘appropriate’”. (I presume this disease must be some sort of brain cloud.) I have written about this before (so I won’t rehash it here), but I’d like to add another thought.
While political activism has waxed and waned through the history of the United States, the political climate at present0 is extremely emotionally charged and divisive. In my reckoning, there is no reason to introduce resolutions that do not advance the mission of the library but work towards creating divisions within the membership. Especially in this budget climate, I would hope that the ALA Councilors would be working on measures to save and expand funding and provide morale support for librarians across the country rather than broad proclamations outside the organizational scope and purpose. A focus on unity would be prudent in this time of financial infirmity and politically charged rhetoric.
In closing, I’m reminded of a famous quote by the journalist Edward R. Murrow.
We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.
One cannot announce a great history of the defense of free expression while attacking another for exercising it. Nor can the democracy of the ALA Council be praised in one post and be labeled with the derision of implied infirmity when the majority does not favor one’s outlook. It does no favors to question the good faith intent of those who are in opposition to one’s position simply because they contradict. The only thing being muzzled here is the legitimacy of dissent in a profession that thrives on the inclusiveness of differing viewpoints. This principle cannot be heralded at each and every library when it fails within professional circles and discussions. It must be upheld, embraced, and loved for what it is: a uniting dogma of this profession.
Mr. Berry would do well to remember that the freedom of expression he cherishes for himself and his employee also applies to Mr. Rothman and this blogger. As the saying goes, “dissent is the highest form of patriotism”. We will not all agree on the issues facing the library community, but we are all patriots of the library.