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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.
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.