Enjoy the $ilence

I just read Francine Fialkoff’s editorial “NYPL Secrecy Must Go” which is a reaction piece to the New York Times article, “Former Employees Feel Silenced on Library Project”. The whole thing reads like a muddied mess for it seems like anyone it touches gets a little dirty. It originates from the NYPL including a nondisparagement clause in their separation agreements; the library offers additional money in return for the person agreeing not to criticize the library. Or, from the copy quoted in the New York Time piece,

The clause in question prohibits employees from commenting to the news media or other entities with which the library does business in a way that could “adversely affect in any manner the conduct of the business of any of the library entities (including, without limitation, any business plans or prospects)” or “the business reputation of the library entities,” according to a copy of the separation agreement obtained by The New York Times.

Even within that little blurb, there is enough language to suggest that it has been crafted as broadly as possible in lawyer talk to cover a multitude of situations, real or imagined. Not that I blame the NYPL for trying telling their lawyers to draw up something that could be wielded against dissenters at a moment’s notice; they certainly are working to protect their own interests, not the interests of the departing employee. The article goes on to contain a clarification from the library:

The library said in a statement: “The clause is in place to protect library employees and library management. It is not intended to stop a former employee from exercising his or her right to free speech by discussing matters of public interest, such as expressing an opinion on the advantages and/or disadvantages of the Central Library Plan.”

Several former employees and employment lawyers, though, said the nuance was lost on them.

Nor is the nuance lost on anyone else who read that aforementioned clause. Written as generously as it appears to be, it is the kind of legalese that the library lawyers can shape into breach of contract suits with those who displease the library management by “commenting”. The former employees would be at risk to lose more than their severance payments in legal fees and penalties, even with a successful defense. The implication of that outcome is enough to keep people sitting on the sidelines and I can’t blame them for doing so.

To be honest, I have a hard time feeling sympathy for those who chose to sign the agreements. They are, in effect, being paid for their silence. Their opinions have a defined monetary value and the library has chosen to purchase it. Now, at a juncture when the library is touting a controversial project, that purchase is paying off in limiting critical analysis from former employees who have insider perspectives. No one was compelled to sign it and take the money. As much as people can say that is “hush money” or used to squash dissent, there is a willing accomplice to this act in the employee who will sign the agreement. I’m curious as to why none of the scrutiny has been on the employees for taking the money rather than solely on the library for offering it. I’m also curious as to why the taxpayers of New York City seem to be alright with spending money on such things in the midst of the annual city budget fight. The expense of paying departing employees for their silence when that money could be used for, oh, a couple hundred other things that library members actually use seems wasteful and narcissistic.

The part that bothers me the most in this whole debacle is a comment from the ALA president-elect Maureen Sullivan.

Maureen Sullivan, the president-elect of the American Library Association, a national organization, said she had no problem with the New York library’s use of nondisparagement agreements. “It is a core value of librarianship and of most libraries to respect intellectual freedom,” Ms. Sullivan said, “but this is a different situation.” Such agreements, she said, typically do not seek to restrict a departing worker’s ability to comment generally about a former employer but are “an agreement about what will be said about the end of that employment.”

Ms. Sullivan said that organizations commonly use them, though at least two large library systems — those of Los Angeles County and Boston — said they did not.

First off, the clause as reported above does not limit itself to end-of-employment commentary. Perhaps typically they do not restrict speech so broadly, but in this specific case, they really do curb the departing worker’s ability to comment on their former employer. Granted, as I said before, the departing employees are getting money in exchange for agreeing to do so. But Maureen’s comment does not line up with the reality of the situation which makes me wonder why she agreed to comment at all without actual knowledge of the nondisparagement clause. It just really sounds bad.

Second, I can’t get past the underlying implications of the Maureen’s quote: “It is a core value of librarianship and of most libraries to respect intellectual freedom but this is a different situation.” Translation: intellectual freedom is important, but it is also a viable commodity for sale (even if Maureen mistakenly believes that is it just about the end-of-employment). No one’s intellectual freedom is being oppressed, it’s just being contractually exchanged for a severance payout. That’s totally different! So, in applying that logic, if the freedom to read is an important librarian value and I just happen to pay each man, woman, and child in a particular library service area to agree not to read a book that I don’t like, have I really abridged their freedom to read whatever they want since I have monetarily compensated them for it in regard to one book? When asked for comment by the media, I could simply say, “The freedom to read is a core value of librarianship and of most libraries respect the freedom to read, but this is a different situation.” I’m not oppressing anyone, I’m just purchasing a tiny bit of their freedom to read. Sure, I’m being hyperbolic here, but it really does beg the question as to what conditions (especially contractual ones) make it acceptable to give up our core values of librarianship. Does everything have a price?

The ALA adopted Universal Right to Free Expression says that freedom of opinion and expression “cannot be surrendered, nor can it be denied”, but bartered or bought seem to be alright. I don’t know how Maureen’s comment in this story matches up with other ALA adopted positions such as the Resolution on Workplace Speech or Questions and Answers on Speech in the Workplace from the Intellectual Freedom Manual which opens up with this little humdinger:

Since librarians have a special responsibility to protect intellectual freedom and freedom of expression, do librarians have a special responsibility to create a workplace that tolerates employee expression more than other professions?

Yes. Libraries play a special role in ensuring the free flow of information in a democratic society. Librarians are often called on to fight censorship and resist efforts to restrict individuals from receiving information and expressing ideas.

(Emphasis mine.)

Unless, of course, it is a different situation. Here, the efforts to restrict individuals from expressing ideas are alright because there is a quid pro quo. And now the president-elect of the ALA has come along and endorsed it. All we need now is a Council resolution that says that the Library Bill of Rights are not so much rules as they are guidelines (like the Pirate Code). Then, the undermining of core librarian values (which apply universally except at times when they don’t) will be complete. Did I miss anything?

I look forward to your comments. Don’t worry, there is no disparagement agreement in place for whatever you have to say.

That would be just plain wrong.

Booze for Books (and Pearlclutching for Pessimists)

If you’re a fan of a good cause (or a person who is drawn to librarian controversy like a moth to a flame), then check out the YALSA’s “Booze for Books” fundraiser on April 12th. It’s raising money in support of the Books for Teens cause which (in their words) seek to “empower the nation’s at-risk teens to achieve more by providing them with free high quality, new, age-appropriate books.” Aside from the use of the word “empower”, it seems like a decent enough concept to support and one worthy of the backing of YALSA.

The pearl clutching starts at the first word of this fundraiser with the term “booze”. Despite the passage clearly stating the nature of the fundraiser is up to the individual (thus actual booze in not a requirement for participation), the mere mention of the Liquid Devil is enough to rile up the people in the comments about how this name is in poor taste, tarnish the image of librarians, or the dangers of alcohol.

I’ll concede on the poor taste aspect since personal taste is subjective, but I have to wonder what sort of commitment that represents to the underlying cause being supported here. If you’re not going to donate or participate because of an objection to a name, then I’m guessing you really weren’t going to help out in the first place; I can’t imagine that the name represents the sum total of the tipping point of this equation. You can hate the name, but don’t let that stop you from helping out a good cause.

As to the tarnishing the image of librarians, I will rue the day when someone cites their librarian as the reason why they drank, smoked, did drugs, committed crimes, or punched a kitten in the face. That story will get linked, retweeted, and shared to the point where it will be the only thing I can find on my various social media outlets. I can understand the need for some librarians to be a role model to teens, but it should not come at the exclusion of carrying out perfectly legal and socially acceptable adult activities. As the profession expounds on the rights of adults to access all kinds of material, it seems odd that people should be slamming another legal activity to which the participants make their own decisions.

I’m not sure if there is anyone younger than forty who is unaware of the dangers of alcohol. The risks and dangers of consumption were part of health classes as far back as I can remember. I come from a family where alcoholism and addiction issues run on both sides. I’ve never had to battle with that demon, but I’ve had family members who have. I’ve seen what it does. But for that to be a reason to stop a fundraiser like this is foolish. We’d have to stop any at-risk activity simply because someone had a history with it. What would be left? For every activity I can think of, I’m sure there is someone out there who can think of a horrible accident or tragedy that could with it. (“Sorry, the fundraiser ‘Knitting for Novels’ has been cancelled. Someone’s relative was killed an attacker wielding a pair of knitting needles.”)

Whether this is your cup of tea or not, please do consider giving to Books for Teens. It’s a worthy cause that needs your support. And if you really, really hate the whole “Booze for Books” idea, here’s my suggestion: come up with your own fundraising idea and outraise the YALSA one. If you are going to demand alternatives, you should be willing to offer to do one. In any case, I’ll be looking to raise a pint on April 12th either by myself or in the company of my peers. So I hope you’ll join me, either in spirit or in person.

If Libraries are More than Just Books, Then Where are All the Damn Technology Awards?

The first draft title for this post was “If Libraries are More than Just Books, then Why Are There So Many Damn Book Awards?” but I figured that some humorless literal folks would see it as a challenge to giving out book awards. I don’t have any qualms about recognizing authors and illustrators for their fine efforts and I’d rather not get bogged down sidetracked with the elaborate interworkings of the book awards world. However, if the case is being made that libraries are more than just books and then the largest and most visible library association in the United States (the ALA) hands out awards mainly to people who create books, then there is some sort of dissonance afoot.

In looking through the Awards and Grants page on the ALA website, the first section entitled “Books, Print, & Media awards” has thirty eight awards of which only three are for non-book accomplishments (ABC-CLIO Online History Award, Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Children’s Video, and the Odyssey Award for Excellence in Audiobook Production). Two of these are duplicated “Youth Media Awards” which lists seventeen awards. None of these are for the creation, development, and/or use of technology in the library (although there could be a very muddled argument for the ABC-CLIO one).

To be fair, there are probably technology based awards in the Professional Recognition section; I only scanned the list for any that sounded promisingly and didn’t click on all of them. I will concede that there are probably some technology awards hidden in there that I just didn’t discover. But my counterargument would be that those professional awards don’t share the same stature as a Newbery or Caldecott or Printz accolades. They aren’t public facing nor further a idea that the library is collaborative learning space or internet and information access location.  

I will also concede that the awards I have mentioned specifically predate the digital age and are the product of years of reputation building. There is a lot to be said about the continued tradition of recognition in this aspect and I fully support the continuation of such awards. However, given the movement towards digital and technology integration into the modern library, shouldn’t there be national library association awards to reflect the innovations and efforts of individuals and industries that exemplify that?

Somebody call Bill Gates. He’s a fan of libraries and seems to know a thing or two about the digital age. He might just like the sound of the “Bill Gates Library Technology Award” complete with his face in a bronze medallion. Traditions start somewhere and this one should begin with recognizing the people who make library technology and information retrieval possible at a national level. If libraries are more than just books, then this would be a start to acknowledging it as part of our own professional culture.

[Unsolicited] Advice to the 2012 ALA Emerging Leaders

Look thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportion’d thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar:
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel; but being in,
Bear’t that th’ opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thine ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.

- Polonius, Hamlet, Act I Scene III

During my vacation last week, the participants of the ALA 2012 Emerging Leaders program were announced. I wanted to offer congratulations to those who were chosen for this year’s class as well as consolations to my friends who applied and were not picked. I’m looking forward to hearing about the projects that will be undertaken by this year’s class; I think those projects are a good general indication for the different schools of thought and direction as to what issues are priorities within the ALA organization. From the number of EL graduates that I’ve met over the years, I certainly hope that it is a program that I could try out for someday. (Although, upon mentioning this interest to a friend, she responded simply, “I think you’ve already emerged, babe.” Point taken.)

As those seventy-seven librarians ready themselves for the Midwinter Meeting in Dallas, I write this in the hope of bending one or more of their ears to some advice from someone in the blogosphere. (Interpret that last statement as you will.) I hope this advice is considered in the spirit in which it is meant; to offer a few additional thoughts and considerations for those involved in the program.

So, without further ado:

Listen. This is not simply limited to the words that people are saying, but to underlying body language and phrasing. If you are doing this to increase your involvement in the ALA organization, then figuring out the relationships between members and member committees is important. Every organization has dysfunction; this is the time to figure out what it is for the chapter, division, or roundtable that you are interested in. In identifying the dysfunction, it should be noted that not all types are fatal to further involvement. Personality conflicts, bureaucratic meandering, ineffective communication, or poor work organization; these are all potential obstacles with potential solutions. An assessment allows you to figure out if you can fix it, circumvent it, or ignore it; what it would take to fix (if anything) in terms of time and energy; and whether it is worth your effort at all. Listen, assess, and analyze what is presented to you.

Question. Or at least do not be afraid to. As you are seen as students of the organization, this is the opportunity to inquire and explore. If anything, question anyone who talks about ‘change’ or ‘leadership’ in libraries without offering some specifics. Those two terms are part of an ongoing meme in library thinking in which people like to use those terms without defining them or what their impact would be. Too often, they are actually code words used to express discontent while masking what the real problem that the speaker wants to get at. While I can’t say that I’m not guilty of doing this myself in the past, I hope you will join with me in working to make certain it does not carry on into the future.

Socialize. As noted elsewhere, there aren’t many times when librarians get together face-to-face. While our relationships through social media can further conversations and friendships, there is nothing that beats time spent physically together. It’s part of our undeniable nature as human beings; we thrive on our senses in order to better experience the world we live in. The networking opportunities presented from the Emerging Leader program have the capability of allowing you to make connections across specialties, library types and sizes. In my estimation, these are the relationships that will foster a greater understanding and perception of the entire library spectrum. It is my belief that these relationships will be valued and necessary as the institution of the library evolves in the different roles it plays within society.

Finally, I’d like to offer one last bit of advice: pace yourself. In reflecting on the last year of professional projects that I’ve been involved with, I realized that I wasn’t giving myself enough down time to recharge. It is not simply a matter of time or effort, but there is a (for lack of a better term) psychic energy cost to these projects. It’s a test of willpower, a use of personal bandwidth, and a trial of endurance to create, implement, and maintain some projects. Be certain to figure out what your projects cost you in these terms. And while I express caution at overloading yourself, I am curious as to what projects or efforts that the Emerging Leaders will undertake after they have completed their projects. What will you do with your Emerging Leader skills after graduation?

Once again, congratulations to the 2012 Emerging Leaders. Knock ‘em dead!

ALA Virtual Conference 2011

Just a quick plug for the presentation that the lovely and talented Nancy Dowd and I are going to do at the ALA Virtual Conference this coming Thursday at 11:30am. Here’s the teaser for our talk:

“Advocacy Awakening: The Revolution in Recognition”

Are you tired of reporters only asking for quotes when a library closes? Do you wish they would call you about issues like copyright laws, eBooks and book banning? Are you fed up with people telling you they didn’t know libraries do more than lend books and DVDs? Pulling your hair out when you hear the stereotypes of librarians portrayed over and over again? We think its time for a revolution! Somewhere between passive and aggressive methods are ways for librarians to awaken their communities to the value they and their libraries provide. Andy Woodworth and Nancy Dowd will discuss esoteric ideas and practical ways for librarians to become rock stars and deal makers of advocacy.

I’ll be making the case for rock stars and Nancy will be giving the lowdown on what it takes to be a deal maker. I’m excited to be presenting and especially on this concept!

Yes, I can hear the sounds of eyes being rolled at the mere mention of the term ‘rock star’. But I encourage you to hear me out on this one. I think you’ll appreciate what I have to say on this… or you’ll get plenty of blog/Twitter/Facebook/Google+ ammo to blast away at me for even broaching the subject.

Looking forward to (virtually) seeing you there!

Future of ALA?

A friend was nice enough to send me a copy of this interesting document from the ALA Council meeting on Sunday. It’s the report from the the ALA’s Future Perfect Presidential Task Force, a group that was charged with the following question:

If there were no governing body currently in place, what structure would you envision that reflects ALA’s goal of an engaged and collaborative membership, the effective use of new technologies, and the changes in outlook and expectations occurring with the new generation of people working in libraries?

They came up with these five proposed changes.

  1. Revising requirements and member options associated with conferences
  2. Merging council and the executive board
  3. Committing to diversity through resource allocation and structural change
  4. Integrating ALA with its state chapters
  5. Increasing transparency, accessibility, and open communication
  6. Legitimizing governance by increasing voting percentages and member engagement

It’s worth taking the time to read since it talks about a lot of different possibilities for future governance of the organization. I’m going to think about it for a couple of days, but I thought people who are away from the conference might like a look as well.

eBooks at Another Milestone

Between ALA Annual in New Orleans and TEDxLibrariansTO in Toronto, I feel I am missing out on two important librarian gatherings going on right now. In my perspective, the importance is in their timing in the scheme of things.

[Originally, this was one post talking about both ALA and TEDx. Upon review, I broke it out to two separate posts. You can read the other part here. -A]

For Annual, I think another eBook milepost has been reached. With the announcement of Baker & Taylor and Barnes & Noble joining forces, the offical emergence of 3M onto the eBook scene, and the announcement of a Freegal-like eBook lending service, there is a corner being turned here. Thus begins an era of different lending models and pricing schemes where librarians will be choosing which models they want and which they do not. This point cannot be stressed enough; this will be a time when librarians can pick which lending models they are comfortable with them.

My concern is that this power will be cast aside in favor of the blind “costs be damned” mantra of providing content to patrons because they demand it. Also, there is still a lack of ownership or collection control being offered from the major players. (If I recall correctly from Computers in Libraries 2011, there are companies that offer eBook ownership, but damned if I can remember which. I just know it’s not any of the major fiction groups.) There continues to be a movement towards licensing or leasing without an ownership alternative.

The idea that really concerns me is the movement towards a “buy it now” option offered next to the lending option. Would libraries see any of this money? Would we be purchasing the license for an eBook just to lose out when the patron opts to buy it when they see the length of the wait? Will libraries become another advertising platform for eBook vendors to reach customers? The idea of libraries purchasing eBook licenses on platforms that simultaneously encourage people not to use the library for borrowing but to purchase instead seems like a big loss for libraries.

While some may argue that libraries will be able to provide a means for patrons to purchase titles they like (something they can’t do with print), I would say that the current eBook lending and licensing model stacks the deck towards making a sale more so than with print books. The instant gratification of eBooks delivery lowers the bar compared to print books along with a (generally) lower price point. It provides the ingredients to easily create frustration while providing a quick and relatively cheap remedy. (“You don’t want to go through the hassle of borrowing when you can go through the ease of buying, do you?”)

My question for this kind of move is this: where does it leave libraries in their role in society? What kind of future does it offer? I’m not in complete opposition to it, but I don’t see how it furthers the core mission.