“Conscience Do Cost”

The Black Caucus of the American Library Association released a statement last week denouncing the ALA for not moving the 2016 Annual Conference out of Orlando, Florida in protest of the existing version of the “stand your ground” law and the resulting homicides that have raised that (ahem) defense. You can read their statement in full at their website as well as an update from the BCALA President regarding their press release. It’s the background material for the rest of this blog post.

One particular passage of the BCALA press release jumped out at me:

BCALA believes that ALA, which claims various commitments to diversity and tolerance, should have begun plans to find a new venue for ALA 2016 following the July 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman. BCALA must question ALA’s true commitment to diversity and racial tolerance when ALA, North America’s largest and strongest library association, still plans to hold its largest and most financially lucrative function in a state that has become Ground Zero in initiating weapons laws, as well as voting policies, that potentially put the rights and safety of African-Americans at risk. ALA annual conferences are generally well-documented and publicized, and BCALA fears that librarians, 20,000 strong, conducting business and spending money in Orlando will negate any claim that librarians have to being advocates of equality and social justice.

But the strength of this passage seems weakened by the subsequent update by BCALA President Jerome Offord, Jr.:

To be blatantly clear, BCALA did not and has not called for a boycott of the 2016 conference. I want to remind each of you to understand that your leaders were sensitive to the matter, while understanding the stance. Please do not allow others to use our concern as a way to divide and/or isolate BCALA, Inc., its members, and/or its leaders. Again, we did NOT call for a boycott.

[…]

Your leaders are aware that ALA, an organization that we all pay dues to, has a financial obligation and contract. We are aware that the possibility of moving the conference is near impossible. However, the impossibilities and challenges regarding the Orlando conference does not mean that we should or shall remain silent about an issue that impacts our communities and people we serve.

(Emphasis mine.)

As an outside observer (read: not an ALA member), I don’t have any skin in the game. But what I find so compelling within this issue is an larger looming question, how committed is the ALA to the politics of its principles and ideals? At first glance, the answer is when they have to get out their wallet.

To be fair, there are financial consequences for pulling out of a conference contract. I don’t know what they are but I would presume in the tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. But in reading some of the financial based points, it’s as if no one has ever broken a lease or ended a cell phone contract or withdrew from an agreement ever. Has no one ever paid a monetary penalty for making a change in their lives?

Contrary to what Mr. Offord has written, moving the conference is not “near[ly] impossible”. Contracts can be breached, other arrangements can be made, and the conference can go forward in a more suitable location. For all the talk I’ve heard from fellow librarians of “We are the ALA, we can be the change”, that spirit has evaporated in the face of “it would be a lot of work to do and would require some sacrifice on your part”. I would presume part of that sacrifice would be in the form of potential one time member fee to offset the breach expenses. Given the vocal opposition to membership increases, that would an interesting conversation to listen as to why people would not want to chip in to support a core value.

ALA is not a stranger to the race issue in its history. The 1936 ALA conference in the segregated city of Richmond made it an experience that was roundly limited to white participants. Inferior accommodations, separate seating areas, and exclusion from social events limited or denied participation from African American librarians.

“Even the most passive will confess that the conference got off to an unfortunate start. The interjection of face antagonism, however it may be ‘defended’ as being necessary or expedient, could have been avoided by the proper action, and was most certainly not calculated to win the admiration of those who desire to look upon the American library movement as a great force for the service of all mankind.” [1]

This is in sharp relief to how attitudes had changed by 1954 when segregated chapters were banned from participation within the organization. ALA has the capacity to take a stance here, so doesn’t it?

Part of the argument against moving the conference is the observation that some of the future venues are in states where gay marriage is illegal. While I can appreciate the point, I don’t find it compelling here. Growing public support as well as the key court cases have shifted the gay marriage issue to an inevitable conclusion of acceptance. It is true that this does not help couples right now who are denied the benefits of marriage even if they are legally wed in other states. But for me it falls short as a rebuttal since improving conditions for people of color doesn’t have the same cultural force behind it. There is no growing public support, legislative action, or court cases seeking to bring opportunities (social, economic, educational, or otherwise) to people of color, in particular to African American men. In any event, the presence of another injustice should not act as a pass for the venue; two negatives do not make a positive. Under such scrutiny, the gay marriage parallel doesn’t hold up.

The apparent fallback position from there is a shoulder shrug of “well, you can find something wrong with every state which means we couldn’t meet anywhere”. I will concede that there isn’t a “perfect” venue and that each state has its own prevailing brand of social injustice. But in this case and context, there are better options that can be taken in this timely manner. Orlando could still be a good conference venue in the future but there is importance of sending a message now. Granted, some of the concerning elements could change in the next two years (the law could be revised or repealed) but the timing here is everything.

For myself, this feels like the well tread territory of the profession doing things for the sake of convenience over principle and ideals. We enter into ridiculous contractual arrangements where we sign away control just so we can provide eBooks, journals, and other services rather than building our own infrastructure. The oft repeated library science graduate philosophical question revolves around the pros and cons of buying controversial material for our collection. While we give the pitch perfect answers of material inclusion over outside objections, the actual application of this question too often ends with avoiding material because we don’t want to be inconvenienced by the time and energy it would take to defend it. In putting our communities first, we cast aside ownership and development in favor of throwing money at what we can get right here and right now based on the fear of losing people’s attention. In our journey to make our mark in this modern digital age, we are selling our souls in little bits and pieces.

That’s how we erode our moral high ground when it comes to questions of information access and material availability. It’s the pragmatism of conflict avoidance gone amuck, good people acting in fear of the negative comment, letter, or editorial that will put the library in a “bad light”. We have an approval rating of over 90% and yet we hide from ourselves and our values. Not because we will be arrested, oppressed within our community, denied our freedom of expression, or suffer some other calamity, but because it’s too damn hard and too much damn work. The term “slacktivism” leaps to mind as it is just easier to pass a resolution in support of an issue but I don’t want to wrinkle my shirt by rolling up my sleeves.

It’s disappointing to watch well meaning people sit on their hands and run out the clock on taking action that lines up with their professional ideals and values. It’s sad to me that the Mr. Offord felt the need to clarify the statement to provide assurances that their members would still be encouraged to attend. The library is an institution that supports diversity through its service to all people; the ALA can and should do better on this situation.

 


[1] Jesse H. Shera, “Richmond and Beyond!” Wilson Bulletin for Librarians 10, no.10 (1936)

Note: The origin of the post title comes from an episode of The Wire.

ALA Midwinter 2014 After Action Report

I should start off with a confession: I have been bored with library issues for awhile.

It’s not that there isn’t anything interesting going on in the library world, just it’s not interesting to me. Or it involves the act of dragging old bones in new graves on topics that I feel have been talked to death (eBooks and libraries, for example). Or, most recently, if I can succinctly add my input to a conversation on something like Twitter or Tumblr, I do it there. When others have better insight or commentary on topics, it’s much more satisfying to share their posts or articles.

And, let’s face it: there are far fewer librarians writing these days online, most conspicuously in blogs. I remember the leading advice of 2006 being to start a blog to get noticed online; now, if I heard a professor say that to their students, I would tell the students to flee. Even the Annoyed Librarian has been relegated to writing about last week’s news that was sent (I guess they can’t be bothered to find it) to them or “interesting” comments in previous entries. For myself, it’s slim picking for content or commentary without sounding like I’m recycling previous entries.

In attending ALA Midwinter in Philadelphia, I was hoping for rebirth, rejuvenation, and other “re” words that signify the rekindling of interest.

I was not disappointed.

Granted, since I’m not a member of ALA and therefore not on any committees, roundtables, or interest groups, that makes my schedule completely free for lunches and dinner with drinks anytime. My only “official” obligation was attending the EveryLibrary board meeting which was in full compliance of the “drinks anytime” portion. (More on that later.) In spending time with friends, both old and new, and sharing a meal or a drink, I found (for lack of a better phrase) my mojo again.

You see, the aspect that brought me back from my ennui to put fingers to my keyboard was the people. The best conversations I had during my time came from conversations either one-on-one or in small groups that lasted longer than a half hour. These were the times when people (myself included) let loose, spoke frankly, shared ourselves, and had meaningful and thoughtful discussions. The online librarian world is rich in many ways, but it is but a simple façade for the living, breathing people behind the internet avatars and nom de plumes. 

My takeaway from ALA Midwinter was not a million ideas, but a handful of good ones. Really good ones. The reasonable, totally possible worthy of attention kind. (I can’t help it, I’m a bit of an idea snob.) Also, as an ongoing advisor to EveryLibrary on their social media strategy, it renewed my commitment to the organization in attending the annual board meeting. It gave me the insight into what I see as their big picture: that they are an organization that nimble enough to work at the local level for library ballot matters as well as on issues of national library importance. I won’t mince my words that as a political action committee (a dread PAC) they need our financial help to accomplish that. (You can donate here.) I hope I can count on your support for this worthy cause.

For the naysayers, the few words I have for you right now is that denying the reality of the impact of the ballot box on public and school library funding is ‘the earth is flat’ madness. The political reality demands a breed of librarians who are willing to step into the issue based forums and persuade others to vote in favor of library issues. To act otherwise is just plain folly.

But, as I fondly reflect on the events of the last few days, it came down to a matter time. There was never enough time. I didn’t even catch a glimpse of people I’ve grown to know over the years. Even at some of the social events I attended, for the most part I didn’t spend more than five minutes with anyone. It was “hello, how are you, what are you up to” before the flow of socializing carried us away from each other. Perhaps this is a sign of my shifting social priorities as I grow older, but what I really wanted was the chance to sit, visit, and have those longer and more in depth conversations.

Over the course of three days, I drove into Philadelphia in the hopes of finding my passion for the profession again. I am happily renewed in my faith, in the direction and the people who make up libraryland. I don’t know if this will translate into more posts on here, but there are certainly things afoot behind the scenes here.

It’s good to be back.

That ALA Code of Conduct

While ALA has many strengths as an institution, rolling out new organizational policy changes is not one of them. Since the announcement of the Statement of Appropriate Conduct at Conferences (hereafter Code of Conduct), there has been much in the way of hand wringing. How does this reflect on the organization’s commitment to freedom of ideas and expression? What kinds of speech are expressly allowed, contextually allowed, and outright prohibited? What is the procedural structure for people accused of violating the code? In the current framing of the debate, it’s as if people are seeing institutional regulation of speech and behavior for the first time when they are not.

I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts that every nearly library has a policy in place about patron/customer conduct that outlines what is acceptable and unacceptable. They set the boundaries for behavior and conduct within the library. Like the Code of Conduct, these policies contain instances and situations in which there will be several possible staff action outcomes: no action, intervention, ejection. We don’t always act on patron activities nor do we accept when people are being disruptive or harassing to other patrons or staff in our libraries, so why should our professional conferences any different? The presence of a policy and procedure provides a structure to address those issues, regardless of the outcome.

The discussion of the sticky wicket of freedom of expression and speech hinges on a few ideas. First, that this policy will act as a chilling effect on it. To me, there is always a chill on freedom of expression no matter whether a policy exists or not. People will be intimidated to speak up under either model for a number of reasons. It’s the lesser of two evils to accept some form of regulation in order to get more speech out of a greater number of people. Also, it’s not unheard of that a library would have a customer conduct policy in a library that aims to be inclusive by regulating behavior. We are a community resource, not the executive clubhouse for assholes.

Second, that presenters and speakers must adhere to (for lack of a better term) political correctness. Beyond the fact that the policy asks (not demands, not requires) presenters to be inclusive, speakers are given an additional degree of latitude since they act to provoke critical thinking and discussion. This section is more of a reflection of our professional collection development policies. The library may have something that will offend patron; we advise them to don’t read, listen, or watch it and move along.  Standards in modern construction are required to make exits highly visible and since no sessions prevent people from leaving, egress from a talk that offends someone is encouraged by the Code of Conduct (the law of two feet). You might not like what the speaker is saying, but you don’t have to subject yourself to it either.

My only remaining concern is how the definition of “conference social events” will be interpreted. Does this include unofficial events like tweetups? Parties at the ALA Think Tank house? How far does the Code of Conduct reach into the unofficial outlying social events around the conference? And before anyone jumps on it, I’m not talking about harassment behaviors which can arise to criminal offenses but to civil (and possibly uncivil) discourse. There are some grey areas here that need to be explored.

Overall, I think the Code of Conduct is a good policy, one that will be altered over time as issues and situations arise. Unfortunately, it needs some test cases in order to see how it would work in the field. I hope people can be patient while the policy matures. In the long run, it will change to reflect the needs of the attendees and the organization. It’s just a matter of getting there.

ALA Annual 2013 Newbies Twitter List

Just a quick post to announce that I’ve started my annual new conference attendee list on Twitter. I’ve been making a list each year since I went to my first ALA a couple years back during the “OH MY GOD WHY IS IT SO HOT” Washington DC conference. If this is your first conference, send me a message (@wawoodworth) on Twitter and I’ll add you on the list. If you’re a more experienced person attending the conference or want to live vicariously through the new folks, then be sure to follow the list. I won’t be in Chicago for the conference this year, but I look forward to reading, seeing, and hearing all about it from everyone headed to the Windy City.

Here’s all the lists so far:

The 2013 Twitter List

The 2012 Twitter List

The 2011 Twitter List

The 2010 Twitter List (the original!)

Scraping the Bottom of the Librarian eBook Patience Barrel

publisher-ebook-models

Librarian Patience Has Run out on E-Book Lending Issues, Library Association Says” was the title of the article that ran in Digital Book World last week covering a private meeting between the ALA and the American Association of Publishers. The title was hinting at a strongly worded open letter to publishers that ALA President Maureen Sullivan wrote last week about the current state of library eBook affairs (which is more complicated and surreal than a paternity suit in a Korean soap opera). Even after the AAP made its own reply, it was a chance for publishing executives to get their own digs on Maureen and the ALA position.

I suggest reading the original article since I’m going to pull out some of the “highlights”, a term I use very loosely and probably owe the creator an apology after this post. While the article is not an exhaustive recounting of the meeting, there are some things I wanted to point out.

An executive from Perseus Book Group who did not identify herself said, “our executives are confused as to what is a library?” She cited concerns that the free and wide availability of e-books to library patrons could undercut publisher business.

Perhaps these big time executives do have a point. If we line up five books in an empty postbox or phone booth or anything with a shelf and call it a ‘library’, what does it mean to be a library? This might be what the library eBook debate really needs: a final definition of what it means to be an eBook, to ‘lend’ a computer file, or to ‘own’ a copy. Afterward, we can work on questions like what it means to be an author (“does writing poetry on a napkin count?”) or a publisher (“can I sell that napkin?”). Maybe we can get some MLS students to work on this for us so long as this was a legitimate philosophical question and not the overheard utterance of a crazy person.

As to the second point, it’s the standard unproven eBook canard that allowing libraries to lend eBooks will hurt their bottom line, smother the nascent eBook market, or some other nurturing/parenting allusion that the Big Six publishers are the caretakers for this new market. It has never been proven because the moment it is proven all the future eBook library holdings in the country will be in jeopardy. Since that is not happening, it’s just some boogey man living under the big time publisher bed, waiting for an errant foot to dangle over the side so it can FEED ON THEIR BONES.

Tim McCall, vice president of online sales and marketing, digital sales at Penguin Group USA, criticized the ALA’s supposed stance, as written into its letter earlier in the week, that e-books should should be available to libraries under the same business models as print books.

Well, make up your damn mind. You want libraries to pretend its print when it comes to lending practices (one book, one person). Libraries played this stupid game because of the publisher’s belief that any other lending model other than a copy of the print model would be the end of the world. In order to be able to offer eBook lending, librarians had to ignore the obvious fact that it was a computer file and treat it like a book. The Stockholm syndrome finally took over and librarians suggested that it actually operate under the same business models as print.

But, no no, you can’t treat it the same because it’s not the same media, they say now. Really? It’s not the same? I’ve never had to spend fifteen minutes explaining how someone can hold and open a book the same way I’ve done it with trying to help people download books onto their eReader. Then why are you making us lend it like it is a print book?

“When will the ALA start proposing to us some best practices on what models you think will work from your digital solutions working group? You put a lot on us and it’s created a lot of chaos and clearly it’s [e-book library lending] broken. We have twelve different models,” he said. “You have to come back to us with more than just ‘equitable access at a fair price.’”

As the question was being posed, many heads in the publisher-heavy audience were nodding in ascent. […]

The business model suggestions have to “come from you and [have] to be a lot more specific than what I’ve heard here. I challenge you with that,” said Balis.

Um, no.

Why do libraries have to come up with business models for publishers? We’re the customer. We have reasonable demands: equitable access (being able to offer a library member a book in any format) for a fair price (a recognition that eBooks are computer files and that they should be priced accordingly). Make it work!

But, no. “You put a lot on us.” “It’s created a lot of chaos.” That’s the sound of publishers punting on the issue. Libraries only put “a lot” on publishers because publishers were insistent about holding all the cards when it comes to eBooks. The only thing unreasonable is the fact that libraries pointed out that we had to wait for them to make up their damn minds when it comes to eBook lending. How dare us!

The “chaos” that resulted is what happens when publishers want to create a market but give nothing up. Retention of file ownership and dictating lending policies broach on library territory. And guess what? Not all libraries are comfortable with that. The “chaos” that Balis likes to point out originated from his side of the equation.

Our lack of satisfaction in eBook lending availability and policies is not the fault of libraries, but of big publishers wanting to have their cake and eat it.

Balis again confronted the ALA delegation on the mission of libraries, questioning whether e-book access was for the “less fortunate” that libraries are, in part, there to serve or for “wealthy residents of Greenwich [Conn.] who just want to have a lot of nice, free access to a lot of books?”

My jaw dropped when I read this.

It is a blatant assault on the integrity of libraries to openly suggest that eBook lending access is sought simply so that rich people can have free eBooks. It is the implication that eBooks are and will always be a luxury item reserved exclusively for the Martha’s Vineyard crowd so that they can have something to talk about between polo rounds and yacht sailing competitions. It is, at its most basic, questioning our basic professional principle of ‘service to all who seek it’. I have but one response to this impertinent question:

Fuck you, strong statement to follow.

With the continued price reduction of a basic eReader (Amazon will soon be giving Kindles away for free) and personal computer and the expanding smartphone market, the opportunity for the average American to download eBooks onto their personal device (be it phone, computer, eReader) is continuing to expand. The cost barrier continues to come down allowing for more people to participate in the online market and conversation, including eBooks. Granted, until national broadband because a reality, there will be some people left out. But they will not be left out simply because of their financial situation or to use your phrase, “less fortunate”. (I dare you to ask the people who exist at the opposite end of the Greenwich crowd if they consider themselves to be “less fortunate”.)

Libraries serve their communities. Full stop. There is no income restriction or requirement. In duty, librarians strive to be egalitarians, providing service to all who seek it. That’s who we are and what we do. For the record, librarians know a few things about social equality as well.

Mr. Balis, you can question many things about the library when it comes to eBooks, but not our mission of service. It’s a distraction, a craven act of arrogance, and an insult to suggest that library eBook lending relates to income levels. You didn’t deserve the answer that Maureen graciously gave you for your boorish question. You should be ashamed of yourself.

Pivoting back to the purpose of the meeting, I can’t imagine any patience being replenished between ALA and the Big Six members of the AAP. The underlying feeling presented from the article is that those publishers are trying to blame shift to libraries for the state of library eBook affairs when they have been calling the tune the whole time. The challenge to libraries to create business models is just a stalling tactic to pull the heat off themselves and to further a status quo of limited checkouts or outrageous pricing. Beyond that, their beliefs are controlled by fear and conjecture about what libraries could possibly do to the publishing business.

I’m just glad that there are libraries with other projects in play with other (sane) publishers. It shows that this is a problem to which there are excellent solutions. It’s just a matter of finding those who want to work with us and not ones who want us to do the work for them. There is a road ahead, but it may not entirely be through New York.

Raiders of the Conference ARC

jones-and-the-idol

This librarian related story about conferences and ARCs (Advance Reading Copy, for those not familiar) blew up on the blogosphere and Twitter to the point where it got its own hashtag (#ARCgate). You can read the blog post that started it all on Kelly Jensen’s blog, Stacked. It’s good background material for this post so you may want to take a few minutes to go through it. For the lazy or those in a hurry, I’ll sum it up.

Kelly, a librarian and YA book blogger, attended the most recent ALA annual conference last week. She had multiple commitments to various committees that held meetings there in addition to giving a session presentation. After attempting to navigate the exhibit hall crowd on both Friday evening and Saturday, on Sunday she went back to meet with publicists as well as get some ARCs that publishers give away as part of their book promotion strategy. The majority of the books she was interested in were not there after being given away over the last day and a half. She was able to get the publicist to send her copies of the ones she was interested in. Otherwise, she did leave the conference with 23 books (according to her post conference blog entry detailing the books she got at the conference. I’m not sure how many books are being sent to her by publicists as she did not elaborate so I don’t know how many books in total).

We now fast forward one week. After posting said blog entry, Kelly did a Google search for “ala book haul” and found a 22 minute video in which a book blogger shows off approximately 150 ARCs she got from the same conference. (The blogger’s sister appears in the video as well and got the same books, bringing the total number of books procured to roughly 300.) Needless to say, Kelly is understandably not pleased with this discovery.

In writing her post, she is calling for a different system for ARC distribution at ALA. As she is a due paying member, Kelly feels a bit cheated to have given up time and money to do things that run the organization as well as educate her peers and missed multiple chances at talking with publishing industry folks and getting some advanced copies. As a solution, Kelly is calling for exhibits only passes to be allowed only one day admission at the end of the conference. That way, people like herself can get first shot at the books and face time without as much competition.

Ok, that sums it up.

On its face, I totally understand and get the outrage factor. That $25 pass that the book blogger purchased netted her around $2,250 in books. (I’m using a conservative average value of $15 a book; at $20 a book it goes up to $3,000.) Given what both sisters got, that puts their total score in the $4,500 to $6,000 range, a 9000%+ return on their initial investment. Compared to Kelly’s $345-$460 ARC value after spending money on conference registration ($220) and association memberships (my guess is about $290 in total on the basis of her blog post detailing her memberships), there is a dramatically smaller and even negative rate of return. In pure economic terms, it’s a slam dunk case.

Alas, this is not a simply case of economics. It has turned into apparently another row between book bloggers and librarian book bloggers, an ongoing epic struggle of book lovers fighting over their mutual object of affection. In looking at it from a step back, it’s a set of opposing forces competing for the same limited resource, the coveted ARC. Publishers can only bring so many a conference or trade show, therefore competition for them is inevitable.

I said it before and I’ll say it again: go read Kelly’s post. Some see her post as an excellent way to ensure that a professional conference serves its members first on a perk that matters most to them. Others see her post as an expression of whiny entitlement in the same vein that every government worker will eventually hear, “I pay your salary, therefore you must meet all my demands”. I invite you to draw your own conclusions. I’m not inclined to share mine since I’d rather move on and focus on the meat of the matter that interests me the most.

The first question: is this “book haul” behavior typical or a fringe case? This isn’t limited to book bloggers or librarians, but it means everyone who goes: how common is this sort of greedy behavior? If it is a minority whose actions are impacting the larger whole of interested individuals, then yes, there needs to be a corrective action taken. I can agree that 150 books is pretty excessive and an unreasonable amount for any one person to take away from a conference. If enough people did that, then it would take away from others.

But if it is a fringe set (the proverbial bad apples in the bunch), then why would an organization like ALA have to completely revamp a system on the basis of the actions of a statistically insignificant few? If one person out of ten thousand fell down a flight of stairs and died each year, it would not make sense to mandate that everyone has to live in a one story house. (For the sake of comparison, your chances of dying in an automobile accident are roughly 1 in 23,000, a risk people take everyday.) To create and implement a more complex system on the basis of a tiny minority element is simply not the best use of an organization’s time and resources. Even at 1 in 1,000 incidence rate with 20,000 people attending this year’s conference, that’s only 20 people. Somebody who is better at crunching numbers would have to figure out the point at which is becomes an issue on the basis of the number of available ARCs and the number of ‘greedy’ types.

The second question: how do you quantify or measure such behaviors? I’m guessing that registration statistics are out since they are not a true measurement of those who are interested in ARCs. What’s left is recorded observations of such behavior (like the YouTube video) or reported observations from attendees. While the former is excellent in being able to be easily shared and evaluated, the latter is subject to its own human observation bias. No one taking over 100 books is going to report themselves. Those who do not get all the books they wanted are more likely to report their dissatisfaction as well as the behavior of others. It would require door checkers observing who leaves with how many books and something to measure it over a couple of days. (Consider the fact that the book blogger got her 150+ books over 3 days, not one.)

It’s not impossible to measure, but currently there is no data set for this issue. There is always personal anecdotes that could attempt to gauge the prevalence of the behavior. Corroborating stories build on each other and create a better picture as to the incidence and prevalence of the “book haul” types. Larger number of reports are harder to ignore or otherwise dismiss when you are trying to convince colleagues to take action. I realize this might sound a bit crazy to ask for data (whether in the form of stories of numbers), but it might one of the few times that there is actual ‘science’ in ‘library science’.

The third question: in presuming that there is enough data to support action, what is reasonable and fair? I’d say that Kelly’s proposed solution is a reasonable one to consider in theory, but not in practice.

My solution — and note this is my solution and mine alone — is that bloggers/non-professionals who pay the minimum amount to attend the convention be limited to one day attendance at the end of the convention. That they be allowed to attend but that their attendance is after librarians and other professionals using this convention to develop as such have the opportunity to get what it is they need and what it is they want out of their own convention. If they choose to pay the full conference amount or are themselves members of the organization, then they can have full access just as anyone else does. I don’t think this is hard and I do not think it’s at all unfair on any side of the equation. Those who would find this disagreeable are part of the problem. (Emphasis mine.)

That’s quite the discussion squelching closer. “Here is my solution. You are either with us or against us.” Nevermind how one determines the difference between a blogger or non-professional and a librarian or professional; I presume Kelly’s solution includes checking that people are from the libraries that they say they are from. (It would be logical to presume that if it is restricted to only librarians/professionals for the first few days, people will give fake information so as to continue to grab books.) Or there is some sort of qualification checking mechanism that is developed, implemented, and run by the organization. If it turns out that fellow librarians are part of the problem, then there will be some other system put into place.

I’m not certain what other solutions are being offered given how recent this development is, but I’m guessing they will embody a “members first” mentality. That’s not a bad thing, per se; we grew up hearing the motto of a credit company that told us “membership has its privileges”. Given the time, energy, and efforts of the membership to keep the wheels turning, it can be an added and advertised perk of joining the organization. In game theory terms, solutions like Kelly’s are a move to not only get to cut the cookie in half but to get first pick of the pieces. This is not the conditions for creating a fair solution in terms of the societal concept of fairness but fairness as it relates to proportional contribution. Given the general mood of neutral egalitarianism in the ALA organization, it would be an interesting fit.

Regardless of what happens, my final question is this: what do publishers think of this entire issue? Slipping into their shoes for a moment, this is an issue about who gets access to things they are giving away for free. For free. As corporate members and conference sponsors to varying degrees, they have already paid for the chance to display their wares, flown in their sales and marketing people for face-to-face time, and utilize the books as marketing and public relations tools. How does implementing an ARC giveaway system of any sort benefit the publisher?

If I was in a publishing house, a question I might ask myself is whether or not it is worthwhile to give an ARC to a casually interested librarian (free is still free, right?) versus a very interested book blogger or other non-librarian professional. I can’t imagine anyone from the industry reading anything that has been put on blogs or Twitter and really feeling too terrible about this ‘issue’. Nor can I imagine other vendors who give away swag to bring you to their booth will be ready to shed a tear.

This whole #ARCgate affair just makes the librarian profession look bad when it boils down to an argument about who gets access to free things. Conference fees and membership pay for many things, but they don’t put a dime in a publisher’s pocket when they print out those ARCs. That point cannot be lost in this mess. One could argue that their reviews drive traffic and sales, but I would say that it is a risk that publishers take on. Changing that dynamic is changing that calculated risk for them, not for librarians. It deserves consideration.

For what it’s worth, the book blogger posted about her conference experience. And she had a great time. I was originally going to post a link to her blog post, but I’d rather not have someone go from this page and be shitty to her. It would not be the professional thing to do.

Update: I redacted the name of the book blogger. I debated

on including her name but since I went over and found a couple of unkind comments on her blog I dropped it.

I’m certainly glad at least two people took “professionalism” into their own hands and set her straight. I do hope some other more supportive people would send her a message and be a bit more constructive. For a profession that touts the value of education, it certainly doesn’t seem interested in providing one in this case.

The ALA/FCC/Digital Corps Debacle

In the FCC/ALA/Digital Corps debacle unfolds before my very eyes, allow me to sum up as quickly as I can before I make my points.

A couple of weeks ago the New York Times wrote an article called Wasting Time is New Divide in Digital Era. The quote that caused a thousand tweets to sail:

The new divide is such a cause of concern for the Federal Communications Commission that it is considering a proposal to spend $200 million to create a digital literacy corps. This group of hundreds, even thousands, of trainers would fan out to schools and libraries to teach productive uses of computers for parents, students and job seekers.

Separately, the commission will help send digital literacy trainers this fall to organizations like the Boys & Girls Clubs, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Some of the financial support for this program, part of a broader initiative called Connect2Compete, comes from private companies like Best Buy and Microsoft.

This was seen as an affront to Fran Bullington who wrote a blog post entitled, “Calling School Librarians to Action! Another Attempt to Undermine Our Jobs”. Pull quotes:

Chairman Julius Genachowski was quoted in the article.  He recognizes the importance of digital literacy, but he is ill-informed. He does not know that there are already trained professionals in many schools who work, against great odds at times, to train our students and who volunteer to teach parents these skills.

[…]

Although I applaud the intent of teaching digital literacy skills to our students, I question the expenditure of these funds.  Why not instead funnel these funds into school library programs to allow trained, certified professionals to teach the skills?

Joyce Valenza reposted Fran’s post to her blog on School Library Journal. The outrage expands and people are encouraged to contact the FCC about this issue. Fran updates her blog with these developments, noting that the ALA put out a short District Dispatch reacting to the article. The dispatch outlines the ALA’s involvement with the National Broadband Plan.

Yesterday, The Digital Shift covered the article and the fallout as well as a publishing a reaction from the FCC regarding the outrage. (“Proposed ‘Digital Literacy Corps’ will not Usurp School Librarians’ Role, Explains FCC”)

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has a message for school librarians angered over a recent New York Times story that mentions the creation of a “digital literacy corps”: no one is trying to usurp their jobs.

“It’s not targeted at teaching kids in schools,” says Josh Gottheimer, FCC’s senior counselor to the chairman, about the proposed $200 million federal plan for the creation of a digital literacy program. “It’s really about families and others in the community. We’re not trying to duplicate but to close the gap for others.”

Buffy Hamilton write a reaction piece to that article and posts it on her blog. (“Dear FCC and ALA: Do You Really Not Get It?”) Two of her points revolve around why the FCC is considering the creating digital literacy trainers when there is infrastructure in place right now that could benefit from additional funding.

    • The concerns raised by school librarians was never about thinking our jobs were being “usurped.” Instead, we questioned why the FCC would not utilize an existing corps (school librarians) and expand it at a time in which we are being hacked down left and right as public schools grapples with budget cuts.   Why should children be asked to stay after school to learn an essential literacy in isolation?
    • Our public librarians are also an existing [corps] of digital literacy experts. Again, why not provide funding to grow their staff and services to build upon their existing efforts to work with learners of ALL ages?  Or to help public and school libraries develop partnerships to do community outreach to parents?

A friend on Twitter pointed out this comment to Buffy’s post:

Ann Ewbank

June 12, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Hi Buffy,
I serve on Molly Raphael’s School Library Task Force. Last week, the task force had a discussion about this issue. Lynne Bradley, director of the Office of Government Relations at ALA Washington, assured the Task Force that the office has been working on this issue for several years. She also explained that the tactics that some bloggers seem to be advocating might be damaging and unravel years of ALA’s advocacy work. In this situation I think it is wise to trust the staff at ALA Washington. (This is my opinion and I am not speaking on behalf of ALA or the Task Force)

The plot, as they say, thickens. Bobbi Newman, a member of the ALA Digital Literacy Task Force, writes a response to Buffy as well as others in her blog post, “Don’t Write Off ALA’s Work on Digital Literacy and the FCC Before Reading This” She takes great pains to show how the ALA has been engaged with the FCC throughout the process, that the digital literacy corps is an currently unfunded program, and that advocacy doesn’t always equal victory in the realm of politics and policy.

Ok, I think that’s everything.

***

Before I offer my comments, that same Twitter friend also pointed me towards Chapter 9.3 “Adoption and Utilization” of the National Broadband Plan. This is the section that maps out the creation of a Digital Literacy Corps as well as where libraries fit into the equation. It makes five recommendations:

  • Congress should consider providing additional public funds to create a Digital Literacy Corps to conduct training and outreach in non-adopting communities.
  • Congress, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) should commit to increase the capacity of institutions that act as partners in building the digital literacy skills of people within local communities.
  • Congress should consider providing additional public funds to IMLS to improve connectivity, enhance hardware and train personnel of libraries and other community-based organizations (CBOs).
  • OMB consulting with IMLS should develop guidelines to ensure that librarians and CBOs have the training they need to help patrons use next-generation e-government applications.
  • Congress should consider funding an Online Digital Literacy Portal.

(Emphasis mine.)

You really should read through it, but for the lazy, I’ll get to a few key points. First, the Digital Literacy Corps has a very open and flexible mandate; they are Americorps for digital literacy. They want to reach the poorest of the poor, the most rural, and the most isolated with the possibility of using schools as bases of operation, not as a replacement for school librarians. Hell, even the model example at the end of their passage talks about a volunteer group that works with the Chicago Public Library. There is an imagined partnership in place and it involves supplementing current library computer instruction.

Second, there is an emphasis on utilizing libraries because of their outreach to underserved communities, computer availability, and trained staff. However, they make note about the inadequacies and shortages of computers in a significant number of libraries around the country. The report goes on to discuss providing funding to bolster these technology gaps.

What is seen as a single prong effort is actually two: the creation of a digital literacy corps to go into communities that lack computer instruction classes (because there are some libraries that do not offer it) and supporting digital literacy partners (read: public libraries) with additional funding to update/purchase computers as well as provide training for staff.

With this last bit of information in mind, I have a few comments.

I feel that the omission of this part of the National Broadband Plan in the New York Times article put this whole thing into motion. It focused on the creation of the volunteer corps and left out the part about supporting libraries as part of the digital literacy initiative. I don’t think this issue would have evolved the way it did without that important piece of information. However, it painted an image of sending volunteers to schools to teach digital literacy during a time when school librarians are being cut. It is hardly a wonder why school librarians wouldn’t be upset and looking to rattle some cages.

The next misstep in this debacle comes from the ALA in failing to point out this little tidbit (the whole 9.3 section references ALA submitted material throughout, you would have thought they might have noticed their works being cited) as well as failure to effectively communicate with its members. The District Dispatch tells a fabulous story about how the ALA is working with the FCC and all the things they’ve done, but doesn’t set out why school librarians are not having their jobs usurped. To be cruel but honest, they could have pointed out that the focus of the Digital Literacy Corps is not aimed at school aged children, but adults who lack computer skills. Schools are just mentioned in passing as a possible base of operations for these volunteers to use. School libraries, the ALA could have said, are part of another advocacy agenda. In any event, there is no statement about the continued importance of school libraries and what ALA is doing for those kinds of libraries in the broad view.

Instead, there are reports of ALA reaching out to bloggers as well as statements coming from within ALA that the efforts of outraged school libraries might hurt the FCC/ALA relationship. As to the former, I’m not sure what that means nor what they are telling those people to ‘quell concerns’. The silence from both the organization and the bloggers in question has me wondering what transpired. As to the latter, I can only speculate that there wouldn’t be an outrage like this if the ALA had done a better job of reassurance to the school librarian membership as to where they fit in the organization’s advocacy agenda. Surely this would have been a better move than the “stop talking to the FCC and trust us” line that school librarians felt like they were fed.

In the end, as the movie lines goes, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Within this cacophony of tweets and blog posts, there is a fundamental breakdown of communication between the ALA and its membership. In emphasizing their role with the FCC, the ALA did not address the basic worries of the school librarian membership and assure them of their place in the overall advocacy agenda. No one wants to hear how awesome the organization is when they aren’t sure where they stand in it. A statement of clarification is sorely needed here to bring things back into focus.

To be fair, I think some school librarians jumped the gun by emailing the head of the FCC over their comments. It’s a knee jerk reaction to an unfortunate article over an issue that is important enough to warrant some further research or inquiries to state associations and/or the ALA. It was the “’Get her!’ That was your whole plan, huh, ‘get her.’” play when you really need to line up something a bit more substantial when going after a federal regulatory body. This is not to say that school librarians should step aside and let the ALA handle it; they should be pressuring the association for results under the scrutiny level of “HURRY UP” and “NOW”.  It’s when you feel that the larger organization with the lobbyists and Washington presence didn’t do enough; that’s when you charge once more into the breech and take the campaign to the people.

I have a feeling this should make for an interesting annual conference coming up. I will be interested to see how the situation proceeds from here.

UPDATE: One other point I forgot to mention in writing this in the wee hours of last night is that the librarian unemployment glut could be eased or solved by hiring those unemployed librarians as part of the Digital Literacy Corps. If ALA wanted to push any angle with the FCC, it should be that one.