This article has been edited to add mention of Lisa Rabey’s blog post.
The American Library Association (ALA) recently announced a statement of appropriate conduct for ALA conferences.
This statement is a mechanism for addressing disputes, but it is also a declaration of values: it signals to everyone who we are. Furthermore, it’s part of an ongoing dialog about inclusion in library-related conference communities.
History and context
Statements of this type—also called antiharassment policies or codes of conduct—have been prominent in the worlds of technology and science fiction for several years now. While these communities can be engaging and egalitarian, they also have a troubling history of sexism; expressed, for example, in verbal and physical harassment, pornographic conference slides, and sexual assault. In recent years, brave individuals speaking out about their experiences, and advocacy organizations like Geek Feminism and the Ada Initiative, have pushed people to engage with these problems and provided tools to help to do so.
In response, many organizations, from those holding professional meetings to those gathering genre enthusiasts, have adopted antiharassment policies for their events. These aren’t a panacea; they don’t stop determined bad actors, and they can be controversial.
However, such policies provide several benefits:
- Clarifying expectations, hence reducing bad behavior by well-intentioned people who simply don’t know the local norms.
- Encouraging targets of harassment to report incidents and seek help.
- Empowering bystanders to step in if problems develop.
- Assisting conference staff in resolving incidents.
- Advertising to the world that this organization values safe spaces for, and participation from, diverse attendees at its conferences.
Many technology conference speakers and attendees have begun to expect such policies. The Python Software Foundation, which sponsored a preconference at ALA annual 2013 in Chicago, now only sponsors events that have a code of conduct. Three-time Hugo Award winner John Scalzi—mere days after speaking at ALA last summer—announced that he would no longer attend or speak at conferences that lack these policies. Over 700 of his readers cosigned this pledge, including leading sf/fiction authors and editors NK Jemisin, Mary Robinette Kowal, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Justine Larbalestier, Steven Gould, and Diane Duane.
Because librarianship, technology, and sf overlap, some librarians have been deeply involved in these issues, and our organizations have responded. The Digital Library Federation and Code4Lib have antiharassment policies. The Stanford University Libraries have endorsed such policies as “consistent with our values” and encouraged staff “to participate only in conferences [with] anti-harassment policies.”
The statement at ALA
But several people have asked me, why do we need this here? Are things like this really a problem at ALA conferences? Doesn’t a code of conduct pose problems for intellectual freedom?
In fact, even if our conferences were spotless, we would still need this type of statement to maintain our standard of quality. Without one, attendees, speakers, and sponsors that we have previously attracted will not participate.
And our history is not spotless. Though we haven’t had a high-profile incident like those detailed in the GeekFeminism time line, library conferences have not been safe spaces for everyone. Sarah Houghton has blogged about graphic verbal and physical harassment from other librarians; Lisa Rabey has also blogged about being harassed at a conference. Nicholas Schiller wrote that, at a recent Internet Librarian panel on gender issues, “[his colleagues] related a series of harrowing personal experiences where men (and women, but mostly men) were directly harassing, intentionally abusive, and strategically cruel in ways that are having a very large impact on [their] daily work, career paths, and the quality of life.” (Roy Tennant blogged about the same panel on LJ’s the Digital Shift.)
In addition, several people have privately shared with me the problems they’ve had at library conferences and not just because of sexism; discrimination because of gender identity and race happens, too.
“This harassment is not visible to those not targeted by it,” Schiller wrote. The statement of acceptable conduct—mirroring ALA’s existing language on antidiscrimination—makes harassment more visible by naming it. It articulates that our conferences encompass diverse perspectives and our cultural norms support everyone’s safety and participation.
This, in turn, answers the question about intellectual freedom. The ALA councilors, staffers, and members-at-large who drafted the statement argued at length, and without complete agreement, on how to protect people from egregious conduct while accommodating genuine misunderstandings and celebrating the free exchange of ideas. We strongly value our tradition of intellectual freedom; we believe wide-ranging, messy, even outré discussion matters—and that requires diversity. You can’t have wide-ranging debate with only one perspective. People from a variety of backgrounds must feel confident that ALA values their engagement and personal safety, so that they will choose to attend ALA events and to share their opinions and experiences there.
In the best case, we will never need to put this statement to direct use. But even if we do not, it will be worth having, because it’s better to have and not to need than to need and not to have. Because anyone—anyone—who feels threatened at ALA should have a place to turn. No one should ever be harassed and feel alone. No one should ever wonder whether ALA will help.
In the statement’s words:
ALA seeks to provide a conference environment in which diverse participants may learn, network, and enjoy the company of colleagues in an environment of mutual human respect. We recognize a shared responsibility to create and hold that environment for the benefit of all.
I will be leading a panel that will discuss these and related issues at Midwinter in Philadelphia. Come join us at Challenges of Gender Issues in Technology Librarianship (Saturday, 4:30, Convention Center 201c).
Let’s talk about what it means to act on that responsibility. Better yet: let’s go do it.