#sweatervestsunday at ALA Midwinter 2013

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From the Office of Intellectual Freedom press release in American Libraries:

ALA Midwinter 2013 attendees – and all fans of intellectual freedom – can take a stand for the freedom to read (and for fashion!) by participating in Sweater Vest Sunday!  All day on Sunday, January 27, 2013, help spread the word about the importance of reporting challenges to library materials by wearing a sweater vest to your meetings, lunches, programs, and special events.  On site in Seattle, ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) staff and volunteers will be passing out stickers and postcards to Midwinter attendees. And at 2:45 p.m. at the ALA Member Pavilion in booth 1650 on the exhibit floor, everyone is invited to a group photo of librarians showing off their sweater vests! 

I’m delighted and flattered that the campaign I devised over a year ago is making a comeback to emphasize the importance of reporting material challenges to the ALA. The statistics are still bleak and reflect how underreported these incidents are in the library world. Collecting data is of vital importance as it shows challenge patterns as well as frequency and underlying rationales. By holding a Sweater Vest Sunday, I hope it encourages people to spread the word about reporting challenges to their colleagues both at the Midwinter Meeting and back home.

I’m sorry I will not be attending, but I’ll be wearing one in solidarity. You can also join the Facebook event for it. Again, reporting challenges is important. Be sure to share it with your friends and colleagues.

For more information, please visit www.ala.org/challengereporting.

Censorship in Greenville

I’ve spent part of the afternoon and evening trying to unpack this story about a book removal at a library in Greenville, South Carolina. Neonomicon, a graphic novel written by Alan Moore, was challenged by a parent back in June after letting her 14 year old daughter check it out from the adult section. By the mother’s own account, she had leafed through the book before allowing her to check it out (I guess people don’t read the backs anymore). When her daughter asked what a particular word meant, the mother did a proper investigation and found the content to be (for lack of a better term) unsavory.

Fast forward to December when the decision was made by the Executive Director Beverly James to remove the book from the system. This decision overruled an internal review committee that had voted to keep the book. (Note: the articles are hazy here because one says they voted to keep it and the other says they provide recommendations for the director to make the final decision. I can’t tell which is the actual procedure.) Otherwise, the challenge process had been carried out as per whatever policies they have in place.

Normally, I’m disappointed in the result but respectful of a challenge process. Such policies are there for a pretty obvious reason and should carry out an objective review (I am hopeful enough that something like that happens). Greenville apparently gets an average of three challenges a year. Over the course of the last twelve years, they have removed a total of five items. You can see the other four items that have been removed in this time period in the side bar of the article. They are as follows:

  • Southern Dreams & Trojan Women (adult novel): challenged author’s character and his use of the book to gain a teaching position at a private school. Withdrawn from the collection for lack of literary merit or patron interest.
  • Memoirs of a Survivor (unrated foreign film): challenged on the basis of sexual content involving teenagers. Removed on the rationale of being not appropriate for the library system’s collection.
  • Film Geek (unrated film): challenged on the basis of sexual content. Removed on the grounds of not enough artistic merit to keep it in the library’s collection. (Here’s the IMDB content entry for the movie.)
  • Secret of Loch Ness (foreign film for children): challenged for strong language better suited for an adult audience. Withdrawn because of the poor technical quality of the dubbed-in English and lack of the content’s appeal to adults.

I can’t say I’m really upset by any of the reasons given, but I’m not thrilled about them either. Something still doesn’t sit well for me in this case. Here are my problems with this story.

First, if you watch the short video in the latest article, Ms. James talks about how material is removed all the time and then goes on to give standard weeding examples. Not how the material has been removed under similar circumstances drawing on examples of the previous twelve years, but the very mundane practice of regular collection removal. This is not a parallel situation. It is one thing to remove a book because it doesn’t circulate anymore, it has fallen into disrepair, or that it is making way for other material; it is quite another to remove it on the basis of a challenge for its content. I don’t know if Ms. James answer was simply dodging the question or conflating weeding with book challenge removals, but her answer stinks.

Second, as reported in the article, Ms. James read the book and stated that, “it was disgusting”. While she didn’t call it pornographic or obscene, this simple statement raises a giant red flag for me. It feels like that was the moment where librarians principles and practices around intellectual freedom fell apart. Whereas the Greenville collection policy states, “The library recognizes that many materials are controversial and that any given item may offend some. Only individuals can determine what is most appropriate for their needs,” and that the library has other titles that contain sex and violence, one cannot take back their own visceral reaction to the material. The title was doomed from that moment forward, regardless of what the committee determined. The objectivity captured in the collection policy went out the window for a book in which “the pictures gave her pause”. The ideals of the policy lost out to the shocked reactions to the content by the person who had the authority to make a final decision.

In one sense, I don’t think the outcome is unusual. Librarians are not robots, but the same human beings carrying around their own biases and beliefs. It’s a lot to ask someone to suspend these innate characteristics and become detached and objective in evaluating a piece of material. Sometimes it happens, other times it won’t. I wish I could say that we could draw a lesson from this story, for I don’t really see any aside from “don’t be an Alan Moore graphic novel in the Greenville Public Library”. It’s just a shame, a real shame.

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.

The Relationship of Librarians and Intellectual Freedom

its-complicated

Intellectual freedom is lauded as one of the core principles of the librarian profession. It is a noble ideal, a solid foundation for an information based field and partner to the underlying altruism that seeks to provide for any who ask. Yet, over time when I’ve read about it or see peers invoke it in print or online disagreements (especially when it comes to opinion pieces), I am perplexed by the conceit that intellectual freedom is a simple, binary supposition. I find intellectual freedom to be anything but simple; it is a nuanced, contextual, and complex ideal that could be (and should be) a constant inner struggle for every librarian. In grappling with it myself, I began reflecting how the ideal and the practice actually work.

From the ALA’s Intellectual Freedom and Censorship Q&A, this is the definition offered of intellectual freedom:

Intellectual freedom is the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored.

On paper, I certainly have no qualms with this definition. It is a wonderful articulation of the ideal principle. But when it comes to implementation, the perfection portrayed above is harder than it appears.

By our very own biological makeup, human beings both censor and filter information. Consider our nervous systems, a series of neural pathways designed to conduct the signals of our senses (including the largest one, touch) to the brain. Our brains are hardwired to ignore a vast majority of input signals that are being reported all over our body. It’s why we aren’t constantly distracted by the way our clothing feels on our body, the sound or pace of our own breathing, or any number of mundane body sensations. We can bring to our conscious thoughts (if my writing about those kinds of operations didn’t do that already), but otherwise it doesn’t get past the brain stem unless it brings something urgent or new to the situation (such as a pinched finger or a cold breeze).

There’s some very good (and biologically necessary) reasoning for stopping the majority of signals and it is one that librarians should be able understand: information overload. Our brains simply can’t handle all of that information and run a body with any degree of success. We would be bombarded by a cacophony of sensations that could prove distracting to the point of being fatal; how my jeans feel on my knees is not information I need to know when changing lanes on the expressway.

Even within our conscious mind, there are censoring or filtering factors in our thoughts that manifest in ideological irrationality (the ability to rationalize or set aside facts in favor of beliefs). Under this concept, humans edit the information they receive from the world around them to match their perspective. There have been multiple studies over the year about how people can rationalize or ignore their way out of cognitive dissonance. These are not ideologues of the extreme nor fanatics blind in their devotion, but ordinary people from all walks of life. While we have the capability of changing our opinions or knowledge on the basis of new information, we have the same capability to explain it away or simply ignore it. It’s illogical, it’s irrational, but it is also perfectly normal and par for the course when it comes to being human.

On top of this selective information mess, our days are full of making selections and judgments based on our biases, experiences, and a whole host of internal and external influences contained within our lives. It is embedded in our choices of what to wear, what to buy, what to cook, who to talk to, what emails to respond to, and any number of decisions that we make on a constant basis. It drives us to buy that particular brand of peanut butter, to chose a particular color to paint our bedroom, and tells us what we are looking for in an ideal mate. At this point, human beings have a whole host of conscious and subconscious inclinations that move us to and fro in our existence.

It’s not that I am saying that people cannot be objective, logical, or rational. It’s that I believe it is a lot harder than it appears to be when it comes to supporting and defending the principle of intellectual freedom. It involves setting aside a great deal of biology as well as our own psychology to reach an objective state. Nor am I suggesting that every collection decision be open to second guessing as to what the true motivations for making those choices; that would lead to a lockdown of the decision making process. No, judgments about the collection have to be made; the library must continue to grow and move with the times. It’s just a matter of examining and being mindful of the context in which those decisions are made.

Will Manley recently made a statement in a blog entry which conceals a question in the middle, In leading up to the passage I am quoting, he makes a list of books he would never want to see in the library, such Holocaust denial or bomb making. “I am sure that you can think of other types of books that contain ideas that are destructive to human beings.  I am also sure that you would not want these types of books in your library.  I know I do not want the books described above in my library.  Does that make me a censor or a selector?  It’s a fascinating debate. Basically it comes down to this:  If you’re a librarian, you’re a selector; if you’re a patron, you’re a censor.”

If there is one thing I learned from my year stint in law school, it’s that the best answer to any question like this is contained thoughtfully within the two word statement, “It depends”. I believe it has less to do with the position you are in (whether you are a librarian or not) and more as to the underlying motivations as to why a book was chosen (or not chosen) and why a book was challenged.

It’s one thing to say that a book was added to the collection because it is written by a popular author, a well followed series, or an established expert in their respective field; it’s clearly another to exclude material on the belief that the person is an blithering idiot, a partisan hack, or a certifiable quack. And if you are asking yourself how you can tell the difference (as I have asked myself while writing this), then you can see part of the conundrum that the principles of intellectual freedom present in practice. I don’t have a clue as to how it can be unraveled unless someone is quite opaque and forthcoming in their inclusion/exclusion reasoning. Unless it is stone cold obvious, such exclusions can be rationalized away or otherwise dismissed. It just becomes part of the fodder for never-ending debates on the how or why we choose collection materials.

It’s also one thing to say that a book is being challenged on the ground of maturity (in that the subject matter is advanced for the age group); it’s another to say that the book is morally corruptive, racist/homophobic, or otherwise a bad influence. These subjective charges of the latter embody the most obvious foe to intellectual freedom as they directly clash with its working definition as listed above. In their most basic form, these challenges seek to limit or squash another expression or viewpoint because it runs afoul of another moral or social sense. Only by examining the context and the underlying rationale of the challenge can selectors (or in the case of the first example in this paragraph, deselectors) be separated from the censors. This is not without its own related discussions that revolve around what is right or wrong for a library to possess and the influences (both good and bad) it may engender.

In considering current librarianship when it comes to making collection selections, I think there is a fine balance that every librarian should consider as it relates to intellectual freedom. Within the last few years, there has a notion suggesting that librarians position themselves as knowledge scholars who impart bibliographic instruction and educate people as to the best tools for information evaluation. As a profession, we can provide people with the best tools to make their own decisions about the data and information in their lives and research.

At the other end of this balancing act is the explosion of the digital content and communication that has created the greatest mass of data in the history of mankind. As members of a greater society, we demonstrate and justify our value by sifting through this information space and pulling out the best materials for our users. In applying our knowledge of popular culture, science, art, or any number of subjects, librarians can ensure that leading theories and thoughts as well as their competition or leading dissents are accessible. While not all viewpoints are included (a clear violation of intellectual freedom), librarians can make the best case for those expressions that are part of the collection.

This balancing act is the constant struggle I contend with when I think of intellectual freedom. I want to provide as many viewpoints as I can, but I don’t believe that all viewpoints hold equal weight (or in some cases, any). I want my users to be able to consider sources objectively, but I know they also want me to narrow down the choices to the best materials. In essence, I want to provide for my users in the greatest number of ways possible, but I know of all the limitations of the collection, the budget, the building, and myself. I wouldn’t have it any other way, but I think it’s foolish not to acknowledge the deeper struggle contained within intellectual freedom.

I think it’s the right relationship for librarians and intellectual freedom to have: “It’s complicated.”