It’s Pretty Dark in a Closed Mind

There is an article in the Wall Street Journal that is making its way around the Young Adult (YA) and librarian Twittersphere right now, even invoking its own hashtag #YAsaves. The gist of the article is that current YA literature is too dark, too violent, too graphic, and address topics far too dark for teen literature. It starts off with an anecdote about a mother who went to a bookstore and found nothing in the YA area that she felt was appropriate for her daughter; it was the equivalent of turning on the TV, flipping through a dozen channels out of the hundreds offered, and then declaring that there was nothing on worth watching. It certainly falls into the “isn’t the first time, won’t be the last time” critique of young adult literature (or any literature, for that matter).

For all the emphasis on the books and the subjects that they cover, there is little mention as to what is driving authors to write books that cover topics such as rape, self-mutilation, incest, homosexuality, drug abuse, and sex. From the article, it would sound as if the YA authors, publishers, and librarians of the world had formed a triad in order to promote these topics, parents and moralists be damned. The blame is placed on these groups for writing, publishing, and promoting it, even though it is the teens themselves or their parents who are purchasing or borrowing the content. If readers did not care for books like “Shine”, “Rage”, or “Speak”, then those books would live out their lives on the shelves in bookstores and libraries untouched and unnoticed. The almighty dollar dictates what kinds of books are going to be produced; even the Wall Street Journal should understand that the demand drives the market, not the supply, especially when it comes to literature.

I have to say that I’m a bit disappointed at the feeling of a need to rush to the defense of this literature by my fellow librarians. Too often I think it provides unnecessary validation to the opposing argument and frames the issue as a matter of what librarians consider appropriate or important. It should not be about us; it should be about the (mythical) standards that objectors wish to impose. To me, this is a time for some argument jujitsu and it starts with a question: so, what do you think is inappropriate and why? From there, just start objectively breaking down their answers. Is there a book they would consider to be appropriate? How much is too much sex, violence, drug use, etc.? Because if they want book selection to follow a criterion, let them attempt to define it. It’s really a trick question; there is no way they can define it in a meaningful and objective way. Let their words destroy their own arguments; they don’t need our help.

As it appears in others articles regarding objections to literature, there is the standard lament about how those objections are not readily sympathetic. As if it wasn’t enough in their own minds to be right, but they want their viewpoint to be popular as well. It’s a strange brew of arrogance and ignorance that goes into that sentiment. The arrogance of attempting to define standards based on personal subjective viewpoints, an “I know best for everyone else” idea that is neither original nor surprising in the long scope of history. But to never ask oneself why such objections are not popular, why they don’t receive wide support, and why people react to them negatively is just breathtaking. There is no examination or analysis of the counterpoint, a willful continuation of ignorance that just further perpetuates the vilification of the opposing party. (Don’t worry, I’m not excluding my fellow librarians from this either. It annoys the hell out of me when it happens.) Perhaps, upon some reflection, those who object to books or art might realize why there is strenuous opposition to their objections; for a society that values freedom of expression, it might be unpopular when it is felt to be curtailed.

The topics that these YA books address may be dark, but not as dark as adopting a worldview that doesn’t extend beyond oneself.

 

[Another good take is this post by Liz Burns, “There’s Dark Things In Them There Books!”]

Public Libraries & Copyright Enforcement

There has been an ongoing discussion on the PUBLIB listserv for the last week or so. It started off with a short question:

A patron checks out 20 music CDs. Proceeds to rip them to his laptop while in the library. Then returns them.
What should I have done? Is that copyright violation? Should I have told him? Stopped him?

What the thread has evolved into is a strange journey through the psyche of the public librarians around the country. What I thought was pretty simply slam dunk of an answer (“It’s a copyright violation happening right in front of you. You should have stopped it and informed the patron what they were doing was illegal”) has stirred what I can only imagine (and hope) are fringe perspectives. It ranges from the absurd idea that patron privacy is ABSOLUTE even in the face of overt illegal activities to screeds against corporations and their profit making with some excuse making arguments between regarding the value of staff confrontation with patrons (a non-starter) and the milquetoast “We don’t actually KNOW what they are going to do with the CDs after they rip them” shrug-of-the-shoulders (extraordinarily weak looking the other way mentality).

While I’m relieved that there were other librarians on the list who rebutted these suppositions, there was a very dismayed “WTF” moment to the whole thread. The casual manner in which peers were willing to set aside the law in the face of an overt copyright violation is rather disheartening as society moves towards another intellectual property turning point. I’m not suggesting that librarians kick in doors or engage in surveillance of patrons at their homes, but the profession can do its part in educating the public as to the current copyright law and what it means for them.

Lest we forget that these patrons are also voters, represented by their elected officials on both the state and national level. If they really have a problem with the current copyright laws, then they are well positioned to take actions on changing those laws. It would be rightfully cynical to think that one person doesn’t have a shot at changing the overall status quo, especially not in the face the deep pockets of the entertainment industry. But librarians can foster those people at the personal level with a greater eye towards a longer term cultural attitude change. It will not be an instant gratification moment that we have become inclined towards, but something on a longer term over generations.

The people who cast aside the profit motive forget that they benefit from it in indirect ways. It can be through sales tax collected locally on purchased works; the companies that employ people in their area to develop, make, manufacture, and sell those items; and let’s not forget those corporate sponsorships for library programs and conferences that the profession likes to have every year. It is the profit motive that facilitates the sale of content to libraries in the first place. If those companies feel that libraries are hurting their bottom line by not defending their intellectual content (and they exist), then they are going to be less motivated to sell content to us or attach an increasing amount of strings (such as DRM) to the product. 

The fact of the matter is that being lax on copyright does not get a chair at the table the next time it becomes a priority to change. It weakens our standing within that conversation to be turning a blind eye or offering up weak rationales for not educating the public or taking action when warranted. It is true that we cannot control what patrons do beyond our front door, but librarians can act on what they see and hear on the inside. The smug arrogance of a ‘sticking it to the man’ now costs the institution in the form of reputation and credibility in the future.

How would you answer this question? What are your thoughts on it?

The End of the Public Library (No, really, I mean it!)

Tuesday will be my birthday. Saturday will be Judgment Day.

Since The Rapture will take place on a Saturday, I’m a bit concerned for staffing on Sunday (although from my own experiences at conferences I believe it is safe to say that the reference desk will still be fully manned). And, unless I’m picked up in that Rapture as well, it looks like I’ll still be presenting at the Northeastern Pennsylvania Library Association Spring Workshop on May 27th since the world won’t actually end till later that year. This wouldn’t be the first time around for such absolute certainty about the end of the word. October 22, 1844 is called The Great Disappointment since it did not actually mark the Second Coming of Jesus. Heck, you can’t swing a Google cat without hitting results about other end-of-the-world predictions that date back hundreds of years. And let’s not forget what awaits us in 2012 (note: the website features a countdown clock!)

I would guess that the majority of my readership would think that these kinds of events are completely unfounded and/or silly speculation, but I’m wondering why some of those same people get all riled up by people who write the same sort of dire pieces about the demise of the public library. I have yet to read a strong argument for closing public libraries; most revolve around “everyone” having Kindles, Google, and the internet. That sort of reasoning doesn’t even make me get up from my seat anymore. It’s usually a cover for the real argument of “I don’t want my tax money being spent on things that I don’t personally benefit from” which is a whole different ballgame.

So, why do librarians give such credence to any person who writes about the end of the public library? Is the profession really that insecure? Or do librarians have our own irrational fear of an impending public library apocalypse?

Four in Five Librarians Do Not Rock the Vote

One in five.

That’s how many ALA members voted in this year’s annual elections for positions ranging from President to Council. One in five is also the ratio of voters to non-voters for the previous year’s election. For a profession that likes to reach back and quote individuals going back to the Founders about the importance of information in a democracy, it falls a bit short for its own professional organization.

To get some insight into this phenomena, Oleg Kagan has created a ALA Non-Voter’s Survey for the four in five members to fill out. It offers a range of explanations to choose from as well as providing space for people to type in their own. Participation in the survey is anonymous, so please take a moment to add your explanation if you did not vote.

In looking at the excuses, my own personal guess would be between “forgot” and “I don’t know enough about the candidates to vote for one”. I’d also be curious as to how the number of voters compared to the number of people committees, roundtables, task forces, Council, etc. (aka people who are actively involved in the organization at present.) 

If you voted, how did you make your decision as to who to vote for? If you didn’t vote (and you want to share), why didn’t you vote? And how can the organization get more people to vote?

(h/t: Patrick Sweeney)

The Wonderful Awful World Online

yes-we-have-porn

There isn’t a subtle way of putting this: pornography in the public library is an awful quagmire issue. I’m not talking about the illegal variety since that is actually rather easy to resolve. (Step 1: Call police.) It is the rest of it, the legal variety, that is rather loathsome in its ability to shape and skew conversations about internet access at the library.

On the one hand (no pun intended), it is a legally protected speech. As repugnant as it is to some people, it is permissible for an adult to be viewing the non-obscene sexual content. Non-obscene is a key word that sentence since obscenity is something that the government is empowered to curtail or prohibit and obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment. How is something determined to be obscene? This is done by the Miller test, a three part criteria established by the Supreme Court to determine whether an expression can be labeled obscene. It reads:

  • Whether "the average person, applying contemporary community standards", would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest,
  • Whether the work depicts/describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable state law,
  • Whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

While the first two parts are apply at the local level, the third is tested at a national level. The idea is that the third criteria acts as a balance to the first two; in other words, one local community cannot make something obscene for the rest of the country except for the most egregious of content that would reach a national consensus. It should be noted that the Miller test was established in 1973, long before the rise of the internet as a common social ground. However, current Supreme Court rulings have supported the test as it currently appears.

On the other hand, despite falling into the minority of computer use at the library, it can create an awkward social environment at the library. Even under the most permissible of computer use policies, there are going to be other adults who are bothered by this kind of computer use. Whether they are angered at their tax dollars being used that way, upset by the sexual acts being depicted on the screen, or offended that such expression is protected by the First Amendment, it creates an conflicting issue at the library. Although correct in certain ways, the reply akin to “just don’t look” or a recitation of the internet usage policy does not assuage what that offended patron is feeling or experiencing. Granted, an explanation of the First Amendment and the Miller test might not also go over well either, but this can be a chance to find a better solution that allows people to view protected expression while also minimizing exposure to those who are offended by it.

For myself, there are questions that this kind of conversation always brings up in mind when it comes to permissible content. For the people who oppose this kind of content being viewed in public, is that the sum total of the limits? Is it just sexual content?

What about violence? Should violence be considered obscene? Could I watch raw war footage? Videos of IEDs blowing up American soldiers or the execution of Daniel Pearl? Depictions of being committing suicide (either people jumping off the World Trade towers during 9/11, the Golden Gate bridge, or the Bud Dwyer shooting himself during a press conference)? Video captures of domestic violence or organized street fights?

What about hate expressions? Could I watch a Ku Klux Klan rally?  Or Neo Nazi meetings? Could I watch that same rally or meeting with my child sitting on my lap? (And, for the sake of argument, none of these rallies are calling for violence towards minorities, just the superiority of their belief systems.) I do realize that hate speech has a longer history of being protected, but I have simply included it as another form of speech that creates conflict.

For the people who support this kind of content being viewed in public, I have my own questions. What can be done to accommodate the viewer while offering some shielding to outside observers? Can we as librarians make changes in order to limit conflict? When and where are privacy screens or blinders appropriate? (And for those who say that those don’t work, it’s not a silver bullet solution. None of these are.) How can we better explain and work with people on both sides of this equation?

The Greatest Library Funding Idea Ever Written

There’s no subtle way of delving into it, so I’ll just lay it out there: this evening, I went to see the new Morgan Spurlock documentary, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. It’s a film about brand sponsorships in movies… and the movie itself is paid for by brand sponsorships. It’s a vastly entertaining movie on the process (from start to finish) of how advertising and entertainment are joined at the hip, the former funding and influencing the latter. And I really, really enjoyed it.

On the drive home, I thought about sponsorships as a means of funding the library. This is not a new idea by any means, so there is a certain amount of moving old bones into new graves on this blog post. But in the last two years, the sources of funding for public and school libraries have failed like nothing else. The budget cuts are well documented and well known (for non-librarians reading this, try this Google search covering the last three years) but the government funding forecast continues to look bleak. There have been victories in terms of raising tax levies and finding other public funding, but in most cases it is not a sustainable funding model for the future.

The ideal of the public institution for the common benefit is no longer good enough to win the budget day anymore; the common anti-public library refrain is that “I don’t want my tax dollars paying for other people’s entertainment/literature/ computer use”. Compared to the relative status of police, fire, ambulance, and even sanitation, the library is perceived as a luxury community expenditure. In taking money from interested corporations, public librarians can tell those anti-library people that their money is no longer being used for that. School librarians have been proven to be effective in raising achievement in schools; if taxpayers can’t or won’t foot the bill, why not pay for it through advertising and marketing money? Schools, once thought off limits, are now using advertising to meet their budgets. (There is a disconnect between wanting the best education for our nation’s children and paying that bill, but I digress.) So, why not libraries?

We have markets that companies want to reach through advertising. Whether it is book readers, movie watchers, internet users, or story time attendees, these are all representatives of desirable demographics. The library is uniquely positioned in the community since there is no other institution or entity (public or private) that does we do. There are aspects to the library that could hold unique appeal to both library vendors and non-library companies on that basis. And, to put it in some additional perspective, it’s a relatively unexplored market.

As much as people might find this idea reprehensible, here’s a incontrovertible fact: a closed library helps exactly zero people. You can explain your adherence to the “the ends don’t justify the means” principle while you stand on the front step of your closed library to the job hunters and students being turned away. I believe that the tough economic times call for consideration of other avenues of funding and revenue, especially from sources that libraries may have shied away from in the past. Where public funding has failed I think corporate funding can fill in some of the gaps to keep the doors open for both the public and students alike.

The fair rebuttal question to ask of this idea is “where does it stop once you introduce advertising to a library setting?” To be honest, I don’t know but I’d like to imagine I would know it when I saw it. Is the “Gale Cengage Computer Center” too far? No, I don’t think so. Is the “Playaway Presents Time for Twos: Story Time Program for Toddlers” too far? No, I don’t think so either. Would taking time at the start of a crafting program to announce and thank sponsor Jo Anne Fabrics while making promotional material be too far? Perhaps to some, but not to me. Considering how the Friends and Trustees of the library fund and support programs (hell, we even have a sign in our library to display when they do), how is that any different than offering a corporate advertisement? There are extreme cases we should avoid (like a 3-6 year old story time where the children sing commercial jingles or recommending books based on sponsorship and not patron desire), but I think it can be handled in a manner which is in line with our core mission while benefiting a corporate sponsor.

I feel there is a certain hypocrisy to the rejection of sponsorships and product placement in the library world. The major state and national conferences that we attend are not exclusively funded by registration fees. They have sponsorships where library vendors pay money to get their name on the front of the program book, on the websites, and on every advertising piece that goes out. It ranges from the free ice cream that is handed out at the New Jersey Library Association conference, the open bar exhibitor reception at Computer in Libraries, and funding some of the major speakers at the American Library Association Annual conference. Some might revolt at the idea of the “Harlequin Romance Section” at their library, but have no issue picking up advance reader copies or other swag from the publisher’s booth. You cannot curse it at one end while seeking to exploit it at another.

For the libraries that are well supported, this kind of funding should not be a consideration. For the libraries that are facing budget gaps, it should be a viable option put on the table. There is only so much materials, so many hours, and so many staff members you can cut before the operation becomes wholly inefficient to its mission. Like the movie poster for Morgan’s movie says, “We’re not selling out. We’re buying in.” And what we get for buying in is staying the business of helping our patron communities. At the end of the day, that is what matters.

***

Like I said at the top, there is no subtle way of approaching this as a blog topic. In putting links to the filmmaker, the movie, and providing my own personal endorsement, I’ve inserted a variation of product placement in my blog post (sans compensation but staying faithful to the unwritten blogging credo of citing and referencing the subjects being addressed). I’ve just sent this blog entry with a product placement/endorsement to over 1,000 blog subscribers, over 200 Facebook fans, and since I’ll tweet this post several times, over 2,300 Twitter followers. This will be in addition to whatever incoming links I might get from other bloggers (both from this post or from previous links) or if/when my posts get picked up by American Libraries Direct which goes out to the tens of thousands of American Library Association members. Between all those tweets, Facebook shares, and emails, those who actually read the post will see that I went to a movie, liked it, and then wrote about it. (To steal a line from Morgan in the movie, “dozens and dozens” of people will end up actually reading this.)

In looking back, I can see everything that I have, in essence, advertised: from “People for a Library Themed Ben & Jerry’s Flavor” Facebook group to the Edublog and Salem Press Awards to a permanent link to my Mover & Shaker profile on Library Journal and even talking about how I advertised myself to boost my Facebook author page. And that’s just the stuff off the top of my head.

So long as we are talking about self marketing and self promotion, if I really wanted to utilize the blog space to pay some bills I could sell the banner spot, buttons on the side of the sidebar of the blog, even put a banner and link at the base of all of my posts. Of course, it is a matter of proving value (or in other words, my brand); while I get thousands of views a month (a small number compared to some of the other librarian bloggers out there), I would say that I’m widely read by all the right librarian people. “Do you want your library products to reach library thought leaders and futurists? Then I’m your guy. Send me an email and let’s talk!”

And Morgan, if you’re reading this: first, thanks for an enjoyable and informative movie. You do excellent work that makes people think. I laughed as I drove home and looked at all the advertising I saw on the way. Second, I’m biased but I would hope that you’d be interested in doing a documentary of libraries (or at least an important information issue like the inadequacy of current copyright or the digital divide). I’d be happy to answer any curiosities you might have even if it’s just for yourself. Third, if you have any thoughts about the idea of advertising libraries, please feel free to leave a comment. It would be most welcome, especially as someone coming from outside the library world.

Thank you.

(By the way, the only potential result I fear from this blog post is being haunted by the ghost of Bill Hicks.)