Over the weekend, I was hanging out with Pete Bromberg who was gracious enough to help me fine tune (read: completely untangle) my forthcoming presentation for CIL 2012. In chitchatting on various things, one of the topics that came up was the lack of unity in libraries and librarians in dealing with some of the challenges of the profession (with eBooks being the latest of these issues). Pete asked a very cogent question that has stuck with me: how much unity can there be in the librarian profession when the issues, communities, politics, and challenges are generally hyperlocal?
As much as I’d like to imagine that there are universal challenges to libraries, this conversation has got me rethinking the prevalence of such a position. The funding matters around my library system are not the same as the local colleges nor the school libraries or even some of the libraries within the county who are not part of the system. The same could be argued for the communities served by each of these respective entities and the governmental and social politics surrounding them. While the terms “budgets” and “funding” played out on the headlines within New Jersey during the state cuts of 2010, I would say that you could plot out a map where fiscally devastated libraries bordered counties or municipalities with ones that were not touched. It’s easy to rally around stopping state budget cuts as a common platform, but an unequal impact is going to skew participation when some people are fighting for their livelihoods and others are not.
Pulling back to the state level, the vicious budget fights in states like Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, Michigan, and now California are simply not universal in their aspects. Yes, it is about state funding to libraries, but it is also what that state funding actually does. The absolute dependence of rural libraries in Ohio for funding is not the same fight as saving literacy programs in California. I’m sure that given enough time (and alcohol) that certain similarities could be determined, but even then the political reality and demographics of Ohio do not match that of California.
So when it comes to a national level, how much of a unified voice can a national organization like the ALA be? This is not to say that it is completely ineffective; the Washington office provides the lobbying support that is necessary to get legislation tweaked in order to serve broad library interests. However, when it comes to dealing with the Big Six or Elsevier, the effectiveness levels becomes extraordinarily wonky. While the reaction to the HarperCollins eBook limit was overwhelming, it was also extremely nuanced across thousands of public. Some libraries boycotted, some restricted their purchasing, others stayed the course with the idea of monitoring usage, and still others didn’t care because they weren’t buying eBooks anyway. While I was in a chorus of people calling for decisive action against this abomination, the boots-on-the-ground reality is that it was still a individual institutional decision happening at the local level in direct relation to the community, politics, and finances. I know that there were people who agreed with such action philosophically; however, their responsibility was still to their constituency. I would say that the same sort of calculation comes into play whether you are talking about academic access to serials (and possibly why the ‘serials crisis’ lumbers on like a drunk on a pub crawl), funding for school libraries, or any number of issues that entail a widespread librarian consensus. The hyperlocal nature of decision making will always trump the national level, try as we may. It’s just the way it is.
To be clear, I’m not walking back what I said in my Big Tent Librarianship piece. I can still see the similarities in principles and values that I feel are a common thread in the profession. I have experienced it through my participation in groups like the Library Society of the World, the ALA Think Tank, and other cross type groups. There is certainly a sense of community that exists, but I believe it rapidly loses cohesion as it scales up. All politics is local, as the saying goes, and so are the decisions and stances of the library.
If anything, this re-thinking would bring me some sort of peace to where I felt frustration at the apparent inability to effectively organize and take action on anything but the most dire of threats to the profession. There’s just too many variables in play for each library location, too many cogs in the machine to create a consistent front against the less-than-lethal challenges. In coming to a conclusion as such, I find peace in trying not to constantly move the mountains. Perhaps this just means that my writing as well as others who are of a similar mindset is more urgent and important in terms of our tone and content. In reaching out to you the reader, we seek to make the changes on the local level that we cannot on the grand scale.
Unity in principles? We have. Unity in practice? Well, that’s another story.