The Black Caucus of the American Library Association released a statement last week denouncing the ALA for not moving the 2016 Annual Conference out of Orlando, Florida in protest of the existing version of the “stand your ground” law and the resulting homicides that have raised that (ahem) defense. You can read their statement in full at their website as well as an update from the BCALA President regarding their press release. It’s the background material for the rest of this blog post.
One particular passage of the BCALA press release jumped out at me:
BCALA believes that ALA, which claims various commitments to diversity and tolerance, should have begun plans to find a new venue for ALA 2016 following the July 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman. BCALA must question ALA’s true commitment to diversity and racial tolerance when ALA, North America’s largest and strongest library association, still plans to hold its largest and most financially lucrative function in a state that has become Ground Zero in initiating weapons laws, as well as voting policies, that potentially put the rights and safety of African-Americans at risk. ALA annual conferences are generally well-documented and publicized, and BCALA fears that librarians, 20,000 strong, conducting business and spending money in Orlando will negate any claim that librarians have to being advocates of equality and social justice.
But the strength of this passage seems weakened by the subsequent update by BCALA President Jerome Offord, Jr.:
To be blatantly clear, BCALA did not and has not called for a boycott of the 2016 conference. I want to remind each of you to understand that your leaders were sensitive to the matter, while understanding the stance. Please do not allow others to use our concern as a way to divide and/or isolate BCALA, Inc., its members, and/or its leaders. Again, we did NOT call for a boycott.
Your leaders are aware that ALA, an organization that we all pay dues to, has a financial obligation and contract. We are aware that the possibility of moving the conference is near impossible. However, the impossibilities and challenges regarding the Orlando conference does not mean that we should or shall remain silent about an issue that impacts our communities and people we serve.
As an outside observer (read: not an ALA member), I don’t have any skin in the game. But what I find so compelling within this issue is an larger looming question, how committed is the ALA to the politics of its principles and ideals? At first glance, the answer is when they have to get out their wallet.
To be fair, there are financial consequences for pulling out of a conference contract. I don’t know what they are but I would presume in the tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. But in reading some of the financial based points, it’s as if no one has ever broken a lease or ended a cell phone contract or withdrew from an agreement ever. Has no one ever paid a monetary penalty for making a change in their lives?
Contrary to what Mr. Offord has written, moving the conference is not “near[ly] impossible”. Contracts can be breached, other arrangements can be made, and the conference can go forward in a more suitable location. For all the talk I’ve heard from fellow librarians of “We are the ALA, we can be the change”, that spirit has evaporated in the face of “it would be a lot of work to do and would require some sacrifice on your part”. I would presume part of that sacrifice would be in the form of potential one time member fee to offset the breach expenses. Given the vocal opposition to membership increases, that would an interesting conversation to listen as to why people would not want to chip in to support a core value.
ALA is not a stranger to the race issue in its history. The 1936 ALA conference in the segregated city of Richmond made it an experience that was roundly limited to white participants. Inferior accommodations, separate seating areas, and exclusion from social events limited or denied participation from African American librarians.
“Even the most passive will confess that the conference got off to an unfortunate start. The interjection of face antagonism, however it may be ‘defended’ as being necessary or expedient, could have been avoided by the proper action, and was most certainly not calculated to win the admiration of those who desire to look upon the American library movement as a great force for the service of all mankind.” 
This is in sharp relief to how attitudes had changed by 1954 when segregated chapters were banned from participation within the organization. ALA has the capacity to take a stance here, so doesn’t it?
Part of the argument against moving the conference is the observation that some of the future venues are in states where gay marriage is illegal. While I can appreciate the point, I don’t find it compelling here. Growing public support as well as the key court cases have shifted the gay marriage issue to an inevitable conclusion of acceptance. It is true that this does not help couples right now who are denied the benefits of marriage even if they are legally wed in other states. But for me it falls short as a rebuttal since improving conditions for people of color doesn’t have the same cultural force behind it. There is no growing public support, legislative action, or court cases seeking to bring opportunities (social, economic, educational, or otherwise) to people of color, in particular to African American men. In any event, the presence of another injustice should not act as a pass for the venue; two negatives do not make a positive. Under such scrutiny, the gay marriage parallel doesn’t hold up.
The apparent fallback position from there is a shoulder shrug of “well, you can find something wrong with every state which means we couldn’t meet anywhere”. I will concede that there isn’t a “perfect” venue and that each state has its own prevailing brand of social injustice. But in this case and context, there are better options that can be taken in this timely manner. Orlando could still be a good conference venue in the future but there is importance of sending a message now. Granted, some of the concerning elements could change in the next two years (the law could be revised or repealed) but the timing here is everything.
For myself, this feels like the well tread territory of the profession doing things for the sake of convenience over principle and ideals. We enter into ridiculous contractual arrangements where we sign away control just so we can provide eBooks, journals, and other services rather than building our own infrastructure. The oft repeated library science graduate philosophical question revolves around the pros and cons of buying controversial material for our collection. While we give the pitch perfect answers of material inclusion over outside objections, the actual application of this question too often ends with avoiding material because we don’t want to be inconvenienced by the time and energy it would take to defend it. In putting our communities first, we cast aside ownership and development in favor of throwing money at what we can get right here and right now based on the fear of losing people’s attention. In our journey to make our mark in this modern digital age, we are selling our souls in little bits and pieces.
That’s how we erode our moral high ground when it comes to questions of information access and material availability. It’s the pragmatism of conflict avoidance gone amuck, good people acting in fear of the negative comment, letter, or editorial that will put the library in a “bad light”. We have an approval rating of over 90% and yet we hide from ourselves and our values. Not because we will be arrested, oppressed within our community, denied our freedom of expression, or suffer some other calamity, but because it’s too damn hard and too much damn work. The term “slacktivism” leaps to mind as it is just easier to pass a resolution in support of an issue but I don’t want to wrinkle my shirt by rolling up my sleeves.
It’s disappointing to watch well meaning people sit on their hands and run out the clock on taking action that lines up with their professional ideals and values. It’s sad to me that the Mr. Offord felt the need to clarify the statement to provide assurances that their members would still be encouraged to attend. The library is an institution that supports diversity through its service to all people; the ALA can and should do better on this situation.
 Jesse H. Shera, “Richmond and Beyond!” Wilson Bulletin for Librarians 10, no.10 (1936)