Access in the Hands of an Aggressive Filtering Policy

In the November 1st issue of Library Journal, there is an LJ Backtalk article entitled “The Internet is Not All or Nothing”. It is written by Dean Marney, the Director of the North Central Regional Library in Wenatchee, Washington. This is probably not going to ignite any immediate recognition for some readers but this is the library at the heart of Bradburn v. North Central Regional Library District lawsuit. (If you are familiar with the lawsuit, you can skip on down to the break below and avoid all this legal background stuff.) It was the first case in the post-CIPA United State et al. v. American Library Association ruling which held that Children’s Internet Protection Act was not unconstitutional. In the concurring opinions for the case, Justices Kennedy and Breyer focused on the ability for adult patrons to request unblocking or disabling of the library filter.

Justice Kennedy wrote:

If, on the request of an adult user, a librarian will unblock filtered material or disable the Internet software filter without significant delay, there is little to this case. The Government represents this is indeed the fact.

Justice Breyer wrote:

The Act does impose upon the patron the burden of making this request. But it is difficult to see how that burden (or any delay associated with compliance) could prove more onerous than traditional library practices associated with segregating library materials in, say, closed stacks, or with interlibrary lending practices that require patrons to make requests that are not anonymous and to wait while the librarian obtains the desired materials from elsewhere.

As policy, the North Central Regional Library District adopted a procedure for adults to get websites unblocked. From the Washington State Supreme Court ruling:

Here, if a library patron wants to access a web site or page that has been blocked by FortiGuard, he or she may send an e-mail to NCRL administrators asking for a manual override of the block. The site or page is reviewed to ascertain whether allowing access would accord with NCRL’s mission, its policy, and CIPA requirements. If not, the request is denied. If the request is approved, access will be allowed on all of NCRL’s public access computers.

In the case brought against North Central Regional Library District, the plaintiffs were alleging that the library refused to unblock First Amendment protected speech sites when requested by an adult of legal age. From the Free Expression Policy Project:

[T]he plaintiffs include a woman seeking to do research on drugs and alcohol; a professional photographer blocked from researching art galleries and health issues; and the Second Amendment Foundation, which says that the library’s filters blocked access to Women & Guns, a magazine covering such topics as self-defense, recreational shooting, and new products.

In the end, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of the library system. The essence of their ruling was that libraries were within their discretion to exhibit this level of control over Internet content as part of providing the general public internet access. Specifically, the court held as follows:

Most importantly, just as a public library has discretion to make content-based decisions about which magazines and books to include in its collection, it has discretion to make decisions about Internet content. A public library can decide that it will not include pornography and other adult materials in its collection in accord with its mission and policies and, as explained, no unconstitutionality necessarily results. It can make the same choices about Internet access.

A public library has traditionally and historically enjoyed broad discretion to select materials to add to its collection of printed materials for its patrons’ use. We conclude that the same discretion must be afforded a public library to choose what materials from millions of Internet sites it will add to its collection and make available to its patrons.

The case is continuing to lurch through the federal courts now so another appeal to the Supreme Court is inevitable.

And now that you’re caught up, we can go back to the article in Library Journal.

***

In the conclusion of his article, Mr. Marney asks that librarians “exhibit graciousness, civility, and respect for one another” when it comes to this particular can-o-worms issue. I’ve read the article five to six times and I can see the points that he is making. I’m willing to extend him this courtesy so I will ask forgiveness if I come off as being too harsh or sharp at times. This issue is certainly something that gets the blood going, and I anticipate some good healthy (and perhaps not so healthy) debate on his article and my blog entry.

In the interests of dialogue, I’d like to address what he writes on a point by point basis.

We do not allow the filter to be turned off, as many libraries do, but allow individual websites to be unblocked after review consistent with our collection development policy. (Sometimes there’s a slight delay; rarely does one last more than a day.) As part of the case, we commissioned a study of our filter by Paul Resnick at the University of Michigan School of Information that revealed that fewer than 1/3000th of patron searches resulted in incorrect blocks.

I hate to start off with questions, but I need a better grasp of the policy. Who reviews these requests? When the internet policy states that “the mission of the North Central Regional Library is to promote reading and lifelong learning”, what exactly are the restrictions on latter part regarding ‘lifelong learning’? I ask this since I’m trying to get a better handle as to what made the plaintiff’s sites ineligible for being unblocked as part of their intellectual inquiry.

As to the 1 in 3,000 figure, I see that the National Center for Health Statistics has reported that your chances of dying from “natural forces” (such as heat, cold, acts of weather) is roughly 1 in 3,357. (I’m just mentioning this to give some additional perspective to the figure.)

The outdated tenets about using technology to manage the Internet, promoted by the Freedom To Read Foundation (FTRF) and American Library Association (ALA) Office of Intellectual Freedom, express dogma and fundamentalism and deserve challenge.

You bring up this point, but it never gets explained. How is it dogma? Why does it deserve challenge? I keep looking for some meat on this point, but there is none offered. I’m willing to hear your view on this point, but there is no payoff to these statements.

I believe that some form of filtering is a best practice in libraries. Everyone at least uses a firewall and a spam filter. Using technology to manage our collections on the Internet is economical and equitable. Filtering offers a technological solution for a technological problem. If your filter is inadequate, find a better one.

I’m going to presume that the filters you are referring to in the last sentence are the ones that control content. I do believe that firewalls and spam filters are a necessary defense against those who seek to invade and do harm to a computer network; it just makes sense in this day and age of technology. The last sentence struck me as odd, though.

The big issue about filtering internet content is that the software is imperfect. To me, it comes across like the Momma and Poppa beds in the Three Bears story: they tend to be too soft (allow too much undesirable content) or too hard (block too much desired content) and never in a state of being ‘just right’. By saying that you allow adults to request sites to be unblocked, one could draw the conclusion from having this procedure in place that the NCRL filter is inadequate and in need of a ‘better filter’. Now, I concede that I don’t know what the frequency of unblock requests that NCRL get, but I hope that I got my point across.

I believe that ALA failed in its attempt to invalidate the Children’s Internet Protection Act in the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices ruled that filtering does not violate the First Amendment. The case against us was an attempt to undo that ruling with an applied ­challenge.

I disagree on this point. The heart of the CIPA decision is that any adult could request that the filtering software be suspended or disabled at their request. The Justices took note that this request did not create an onerous burden on the adult and therefore was not a restraint on access to materials protected by the First Amendment. The issue here is whether or not a library should be able to make a determination as to which web content is accessible when an adult patron makes a request.

While the Washington State Supreme Court agreed that it was within the library’s rights to limit access to internet sites (under the premise that collection development policies on physical materials are just as viable on electronic materials on a site-by-site basis), I’m not so sure it will pass muster before the Supreme Court. In ruling on US v ALA, the Court outlined conditions under which the filtering was permissible. Namely, that it could be removed at the request of the individual. The two concurring opinions outline that as a specific reason for upholding CIPA. If you took that pertinent fact away, one could argue that the Court would have decided 5-4 against CIPA as the two concurring opinions jumped sides. Given their recent case of Schwarzenegger v. Entertainment Merchants Association and their treatment of First Amendment issues within that case (restrictions on selling minors video games with violent content), I would be curious as to how they would handle a publically funded government entity making decisions as to what internet content is accessible. They might embrace the reasoning under Chief Justice Rehnquist’s opinion as an extension of library collection policies or they might see it as an excessive burden on access to protected speech.

I believe that “all or nothing” would include everything on the Internet. Librarians daily deny patron access to valuable First Amendment–protected speech because it is subscription- and fee-based. These same librarians may feel morally superior for providing uncontrolled access to the free parts of the Internet that include, among other things, obscenity, pornography, child pornography, material harmful to minors, and illegal ­gambling.

I’m having a hard time following the point made in the first half of this passage. In denying the patron access to valuable content due to differing sorts of paywalls, are you saying that the library is preventing people from paying for that content? Or are you saying that the library should be obligated to pay for content behind these paywalls? Or are you saying (and I’m guessing this is what you actually mean) that librarians deny people the access to content because they are not taxpayers or fee based supporters/subscribers to the library? Because, under that logic, I should demand to pay the in-state tuition for public colleges in other states than where I legally reside on the basis that I would be physically standing in that other state when I am making my demand.

I think it is unreasonable to conflate the issue of “who pays to support the library” with “what kind of internet access people receive”. I don’t have numbers to back this up, but my understanding is that the majority of libraries provide a guest card or other free temporary access conditions to their collection. The basis of ‘denial’ of access is not a philosophic one, but a funding one. The library provides a benefit to the community that provides its budget, no different than paying for police or fire or trash collection coverage within a certain jurisdiction area.

As to the kind of internet access they receive for their tax or fee money, your statement leans towards a specific kind of harmful materials to minors. But I’m going to address that in a moment.

I believe that pornography can be harmful to children whether they access it or are exposed to it by others accessing it. It creates a hostile environment for our staff and other patrons and overshadows many of the benefits of the free Internet access we provide.

I have a question to this passage: what about violent content? Is that content also harmful to children? In terms of violent content, what kind of content are we talking about? Old Bugs Bunny or Tom & Jerry cartoons? Ultimate Fighting Championship or Bumfights? Depictions of real war and violent crime (either photographic or video)? Hollywood violence? Game violence? Does this create a hostile environment for the staff and other patrons?

I can see your point regarding pornography and children, but I’m now wondering why pornography is getting singled out for rebuke compared to other materials that have been previously labeled as “harmful to children”.

I believe that the “tap and tell” tactic some libraries use isn’t fair or equitable. Library personnel and security guards are universally untrained to make snap judgments about Internet content, and there are no standards for enforcement.

I find it odd that the qualities of fairness or equality are a consideration here as the NCRL internet policy does not provide transparency for the internet unblocking administration and decision making process, a summary of what sites in the past have been approved or denied (and why), nor outline a process for appealing a internet unblocking denial to either the Director or the Board of Trustees. I’d be interested as to hearing more about how this process is fair or equitable in comparison to the “tap and tell” method. To me, it reads as though the subjective judgments regarding internet content have moved from being reactive to proactive, hidden behind the walls of library administration.

Finally, as we migrate our collections and our entire libraries onto the Internet, we must be responsible to the communities we serve and make our mark as the profession that intelligently manages and makes usable the vast stores of information available online. Content matters.

I both like and dislike this closing statement. I like it because I agree that libraries should be a reflection of the communities that they serve and the collection should be a reflection of the taste and values of the population. It should be authentic to the local person, a place that resonates with the vibe of the community. I dislike it because I don’t think managing the entirety of the internet should be our job. One can find great fault with this idea, but I am in favor of rules and guidelines along with the necessary enforcement. I am well aware of the horror stories that accompany unfiltered access to the internet at the public library, but I think it ignores the lawful use of computers that make up a regular day in the life of the library.

Now, if access to illegal online content becomes an issue at a library, I’m open to taking steps in order to curb it. There is a flex point in which the enforcement passes other duties to the point of being disruptive to staff. How the library proceeds from there is something I’d be curious to hear about as it is a fine balance of staff time and patron need.

While I can appreciate the ideas behind the policy of evaluating requests for website access as opposed to blanket unfiltering, I cannot divorce myself from my information libertarian feelings. I really don’t feel it is the place of the library to place itself in such a position no more than it is the role of the government to tell me what to watch, read, and what I can do with my body. I can accept filtering as a necessary evil of the Federal e-rate and as something to curb the most egregious of internet actions, but I cannot accept the role as being an administrator on a site-by-site basis. It is the right of the individual to marshal their own decisions, to live with consequences, and this is one area where I think libraries can get the hell out of the way.

In closing, I will agree with Mr. Marney and say that I think this is a subject worthy of additional debate. I think there are common grounds that can satisfy this ideal. And I look forward to his replies to my points and the comments of others.

ALA Midwinter Meeting 2010 Recap

4289596648_e2ebdef4b5_b[1] 2010 ALA Midwinter Exhibit Hall panorama composite (click to see the original size)

As much as I have written about the ALA, I was still curious to see the organization up close and in action. I’ve talked with librarian friends and certainly read enough online (both positive and negative) about the organization. But there is something about going, seeing, and experiencing it for myself that requires satisfaction. So I set hotel reservations, rummaged through the social events calendar of various subgroups, and excitedly drove by way to Boston, sensing adventure in the air.

My objective was to put everything out of my head and just examine everything anew. It’s difficult to set aside the compliments and complaints I have heard for this organization, but I gave myself a simple strategy of objective questions. I’ll outline my approach (please consider answering them in the comments if I did not speak to you personally).

  1. “Are you a member of ALA?” (If no, why not? If yes, continue to 2.)
  2. “Do you serve on any committees, roundtables, and the like?” (If no, why not? If yes, continue to 3.)
  3. “What does that committee/roundtable/whatever do?”

In listening to the answers, I was also taking into account word choice and tone. While my polling size and choice was not very scientific, I found the answers that I heard to be most enlightening. With a few exceptions, most answered that they felt rewarded by their involvement with the organization. However, this group diverged between feeling effective and frustrated. Cheery explanations were tempered by acerbic rants, each providing clues to the bigger picture for me.  With an organization as large as the ALA, these many glimpses from the top on down gave me much to think about as I assessed the organization on the way home.

If I was to liken the organization to something, I would say it is a Rubix Cube. Some of solved how it works, its meaning, and purpose; others struggle with the apparent complexity and mechanics; and a minority simply don’t get it and/or won’t try to get it. (And, for the more cynical out there, some are arguing about appropriate colors on the cube. Or as one person put it when I mentioned this idea to them, “I’ve solved it and I don’t care for the answer.”) What I would say is true and apparent is that, despite how people feel about the organization itself, I did not meet one person who was not passionate about their career in librarianship. This speaks well for the true potential of the organization should it ever overcome its inefficiencies. From what I understand, talk of reformation has been going on for awhile and that it is a matter of action and resolve to see it through.

Even with this new knowledge in hand, I am still reserving judgment on the organization. Part of this is that I still disagree with the politicization of resolutions, but the other part cannot help but feel compelled by those who strive hard for the profession within the association. From my experience in organizations run by member volunteers, it is no light undertaking to produce results. Where others might make light of their efforts, they have my respect. There are additional discussions ahead, I feel, so I await more input and information.

Beyond my own inquiries into ALA, I really had a great time meeting and socializing with many of the people who I have been communicating with through Twitter, Facebook, and blog comments. It is extremely flattering to tell someone how much you love their blog and they reciprocate in kind. I even had a couple of people tell me my name and/or my posts came up in various meetings, though I’m not sure whether the context is favorable or not. It is heartening, for certain, to have the personal conversations reinforce your choices of inclusion in readers, followers, and Facebook friends. I left with a renewed sense of community and a strengthened feeling of professional bonding.

Photo by Peter Bromberg/Flickr My only actual obligation of the Midwinter Meeting was to co-present “Set Sail for Fail” with Karen in the Networking Uncommons area. For those who missed it, you can watch it the entire thing either through Buffy Hamilton’s raw footage or Jenny Levine’s Ustream clip. I was not certain how many (or if anyone) would attend, but I was pleased to see at least a dozen people interested. As time went on, this number easily doubled. It was a good natured lively discussion about what hasn’t worked out for people and the lessons in evaluation that could be applied in the future. It also provided Karen and myself with some feedback about the type of topics that could arise as we plan out a FAIL conference for the future. I’d like to thank everyone who attended, tweeted it, and shared their stories.

(You can also read about it on the American Libraries Inside Scoop blog or listen to Karen and I talk about it in the video interview linked below.)

(I’m not exactly sure what is going on with my face in this frozen moment, but I assure you it is not permanent.)

As I drove back to New Jersey, my reflections upon this experience have induced me to give the annual conference a try. For those with suggestions as it pertains to the annual conference, please do not hesitate to add your comments. This was a good time and I’m eager to see what waits for me in Washington.

Blatantly Berry Bumbling

This morning, while I was reading through the latest issue of Library Journal online, I had the distinct displeasure of reading John Berry III’s article entitled “Don’t Muzzle Librarians”. While watching David Rothman’s reaction vlog provided some levity for my irritation (a must watch for the purposes of this post), there are some outstanding points that Mr. Rothman did not touch upon that I feel should be addressed.

First and foremost, freedom of expression does not equate to freedom from accountability. While my various forms of expression are generally protected from civil and criminal liabilities, it does not render me immune to social ones. Those seeing, hearing, or listening can hold me to account for my words and choose to continue, engage, or withdraw. While Mr. Berry wields the freedom of expression concept as if it were a hammer (in the most ironic way as noted by Mr. Rothman), it does not render null and void the accountability that the magazine has for the words of one of its blogger employees. While traditionally publications have stood with their contributors (and rightfully so), there are business and social consequences that can occur. For example, the affronted party can discontinue reading the offending publication and tell others not to buy such a magazine. This is the subtle difference between what Mr. Berry is implying and what Mr. Rothman actually said in his previous video regarding the Annoyed Librarian and Library 101. I defend the right to free expression, but I am not compelled to read or listen to such acts nor prevented from enacting my own set of social consequences.

Second, as noted in Mr. Rothman’s response, there is no one calling for the end of anonymous writing. Pseudonyms and unsigned letters have served society well in various capacities over the course of history. However, in terms of the internet, anonymous writing and commentary have presented an additional set of results. Observe this chart that precisely documents this phenomena:

internet-dickwad[1]

(Original NSFW cartoon here.)

Thus, the fine anonymous art of “trolling” has come to exist. While the Annoyed Librarian certainly makes fine points that I can agree with (like here), the amount of vitriol displayed at times towards other professionals is pure emotional spectacle. The nature of those postings does not rise to the great anonymous writers (as touted by Mr. Berry) but becomes synonymous with the legions of unknown insensitive boorish commentators whose affection for naked cruelty is disturbing on a multitude of levels. While I certainly support anyone’s right to write anonymously for whatever personal reason, it would be folly to think that such practices (especially on the internet) do not come with its own particular set of perceptions and disadvantages when it comes to evaluating the content.

Third, after proclaiming the merits of freedom of expression in the previous paragraphs, Mr. Berry then derides the findings of the ALA New Members Round Table regarding a survey conducted which shows that “its members feel ALA should avoid expressing itself on what they call ‘nonlibrary issues.’” Again, in a bout of unnecessary quotation marks, he raises the specter that most issues can be argued as being library issues, calling thoughts to the otherwise “[a] disease of deciding what is ‘appropriate’”. (I presume this disease must be some sort of brain cloud.) I have written about this before (so I won’t rehash it here), but I’d like to add another thought.

While political activism has waxed and waned through the history of the United States, the political climate at present0 is extremely emotionally charged and divisive. In my reckoning, there is no reason to introduce resolutions that do not advance the mission of the library but work towards creating divisions within the membership. Especially in this budget climate, I would hope that the ALA Councilors would be working on measures to save and expand funding and provide morale support for librarians across the country rather than broad proclamations outside the organizational scope and purpose. A focus on unity would be prudent in this time of financial infirmity and politically charged rhetoric.

In closing, I’m reminded of a famous quote by the journalist Edward R. Murrow.

We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

One cannot announce a great history of the defense of free expression while attacking another for exercising it. Nor can the democracy of the ALA Council be praised in one post and be labeled with the derision of implied infirmity when the majority does not favor one’s outlook. It does no favors to question the good faith intent of those who are in opposition to one’s position simply because they contradict. The only thing being muzzled here is the legitimacy of dissent in a profession that thrives on the inclusiveness of differing viewpoints. This principle cannot be heralded at each and every library when it fails within professional circles and discussions. It must be upheld, embraced, and loved for what it is: a uniting dogma of this profession.

Mr. Berry would do well to remember that the freedom of expression he cherishes for himself and his employee also applies to Mr. Rothman and this blogger. As the saying goes, “dissent is the highest form of patriotism”. We will not all agree on the issues facing the library community, but we are all patriots of the library.

ALA also rhymes with “astray”

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

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

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

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

(Emphasis mine.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ALA rhymes with “Pay”

In the latest issue of Library Journal, there was an article by John Berry that caught my attention called “ALA MidWinter Preview 2010: The Price to Participate”. In particular, there were a couple of passages at the beginning and at the end of the article that stirred something in me.

From the beginning:

While the library economy continues its downward slide, the cost of attending the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter Meeting seems as high as ever. That is the price of professional participation. These days it seems a bit too high and tends to limit involvement in the old association to librarians in the higher echelons of the field. Many of them are subsidized by their employers, but the young from the lower ranks are not.

And from the end:

It does cost a lot to participate in and to attend conferences like ALA’s Midwinter Meeting. You must decide for yourself whether you can justify it as part of the price of being a library professional. While few resent that many in ALA’s higher echelons are subsidized for their participation, people in librarianship’s lower ranks need more help with the costs of conferences. If you find a job during Midwinter, or learn new skills and make important professional contacts, it will be worth the price. If you meet your spouse or lover, even better. But for the young in our field, the price of professionalism is too high. It is time to seek ways to make participation much more affordable. If you go to Midwinter and can afford it, take a young librarian to lunch or dinner and help a little with that process. We’ll be in Boston, and we plan to do that, too.

(Emphasis mine.)

Mr. Berry has struck upon something that has been lingering on my mind since the ALA annual convention back in the summer. I don’t understand how an organization which is actively seeking to recruit young librarians would create a (literal) paper barrier between themselves and the demographic they so desperately want. They even formed a group called the Young Librarians Working Group (formerly the much better named Young Turks Task Force, but cool fun names don’t seem to survive when there is a better bureaucratic sounding more politically correct name out there) to address the issue of attracting young librarians. And in one of their discussions, a commenter spells out that he is “super bummed” at the expense of the conferences. From both online and offline discussions, it’s the same theme from those I’ve talked to: it’s pretty damn expensive for a nebulous return. When you have people plead with you not to join because of this when you tweet about it in passing, then the organization has a real problem. But, like Mr. Berry’s article, the expense is like the weather: people complain about it all the time but no one does anything about it.

So, here’s a potential radical solution: give away new memberships.

Even drug dealers and web tool creators know that you can give the first dose of a product away for free if you know (1) your product is good and (2) they will come back for more. Sure, it won’t solve the aforementioned nebulous benefits, but it will bolster membership numbers, conference attendance, and organizational reach. The idea would be to bring in these new members and show them the benefits of ALA membership (though they may want to work on the list of personal membership benefits; first, it takes ten clicks to get to the page; and second, most of the benefits are being emphasized are monetary in nature.) I’d also waive the first year’s section fees as well. If you want people in and active, remove all the monetary barriers for participation.

And if the idea of free memberships still bugs anyone, consider this passage from a blog post on AL Inside Scoop:

ALA does important work. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be here. But ALA is its members, and we the staff and member leaders need your support, at whatever rate you can afford, in order to do that work. If you can afford zero dollars, your moral support matters too. I’m curious about what else ALA should be doing to strengthen its value to members who are going through a job crisis, and I welcome your comments.

Even though the post strangely answers the concern about ALA job hunting benefits by stating that there is cheaper rate for joining (an eye rolling attempt at consoling), it does show a willingness within ALA to consider a limited membership waiver. Anyone in retail marketing can tell you that, once you get the people into the store, you can pitch any or all of your products to them once they are there.

This is certainly not a silver bullet for the overall monetary issues that young or poor librarians face for ALA event costs, but I think it is a step in the right direction. A structured tier system for membership and section fees for the second year and beyond would also make inroads towards the retention of new members. I’m sure there will be some grumbling about this kind of solution, but unless there is a radical change of course, there will be very few people left to grumble to. Even now, as a non-member, the benefits of ALA presented to me do not exceed what I am able to do with Facebook, Twitter, and a bit of social aptitude. As such, for me these free tools are way ahead of an organization that I would have to pay $65 just to get through the proverbial front door.

I will confess that, even with free memberships, I’m not certain I would be interested in actually paying to join ALA. The complexity of the organization is staggering on a level that would make the Architect of The Matrix slightly confused. While members would argue with me that things are happening and moving, I just don’t see it as an outside observer. I can justify my membership with NJLA to myself because I can actually see the organizational machine in motion. If I don’t feel like something is moving, then I’m not going to hang around. Perhaps I am the product of my generation, but I don’t have time to hang around while people spending time discussing about the type, number, and colors of their ducks rather than getting them in a row. So long as my ideas have legs, I want to keep them moving.

I certainly hope that the monetary aspect of ALA participation gets serious consideration, actual discussion, and reaches a definitive decision. I fear that it will actually get bogged down and swallowed up in the cogs of a dysfunctional organization slowly marching its way towards the sunset. I’m not sure this will happen, but it is a distinct possibility based on what I have heard and observed for myself. If all else fails, hopefully, at this coming Midwinter, someone will recognize me from my Facebook or Twitter picture and take me out to lunch or dinner.

Now there’s a benefit that I can get behind.