November 16, 2017

The Gadfly Alerts: They warn us of corrupted information | Blatant Berry

John Berry IIIThe first time I encountered the Progressive Librarians Guild (PLG) was nearly 30 years ago. Almost miraculously, PLG has survived from just after the Reagan era through the Clinton and Bush years until Obama. It is still small but manages to publish Progressive Librarian (PL), a journal that combines rigorous scholarship with a strong ideological sentiment.

The founders of PLG included Alfred Kagan, Sanford Berman, and others. Many are still protesting, writing, and reminding librarians that the members of a profession, an institution such as a library, and especially a professional organization like the American Library Association (ALA) not only can but must have an ideological and political point of view.

Too many librarians seem to disagree with that idea, as demonstrated by the debates pitting activists like Kagan, Elaine Harger, and many others against the neutrality of the intellectual freedom purists or generations of ALA lawyers and their supporters who always warn that political activism by ALA may put its tax-exempt status at risk. As Harger puts it in a review of PLG history in PL, “Essential to an understanding of PLG’s opposition to professional ‘neutrality’ is the fact that the notion that a relationship exists between knowledge (information) and power is nothing new.”

Kagan, in his book Progressive Library Organizations: A Worldwide History (McFarland, 2015), summarizes the founding concepts of PLG this way:

The founders of PLG…wanted to create a library organization that would go beyond the concept of social responsibility. Rather, they wanted to create or recreate a progressive librarianship, or a critical librarianship, that examined the very premises of the profession and that would connect with critical education, communication and work on the political economy of information.

Those founders are still after more than mere recognition of the invalidity of the concept that librarians must remain “neutral” in the social and political debates of our society. They urge instead that librarians must actively work to make library organizations respond to the issues and that libraries carefully ensure that accurate information is easily available and uncorrupted by commercial and political stakeholders or other forces and powerful interests.

These debates are only occasionally won by PLG activists and their allies in ALA’s Social Responsibilities Round Table, but pressure from that end of the spectrum slowly moves ALA leftward and has even brought about some victories.

Connecting librarianship to key social issues, politics, and ideology is far more complex now than those earlier debates demonstrated. As the technology of information makes it easier for anyone to hack and change output and inundates us with so much that we can hardly tell what is corrupt and what is not, more than ever we need warnings from gadflies such as PLG. That is why PLG is so vital to the profession and to individual librarians. It constantly reminds us at least to consider the relationship between information and politics and to take a stand on the concerns of the day.

The current U.S. presidential election campaign has heightened consciousness throughout America and raised again the question of whether librarians should be civically active or sacrifice their freedom of political expression in order to remain “neutral’ to the public. The rights of public employees even to provide information about issues in the election have been challenged by a new Michigan law. As Election Day draws near, it is obvious how easy it has been to corrupt the flow and content of sources and how infrequently those corruptions are corrected.

We urgently need gadflies and thinkers like those in PLG to keep us alert to the dangers lurking in our information channels and the neglect inherent in our unwillingness to take sides to correct them.

John Berry

This article was published in Library Journal's February 1, 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III (jberry@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.

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  1. C Manning says:

    I disagree- librarians and the library profession should be neutral in regards to social or political issues- while at work. Not all librarians use the term progressive to define themselves. We all believe that libraries should offer a wide variety of items in our collection that promote all points of view. I also think this is how librarians should think, as well. Not everyone who walks in our library doors thinks the same way on social issues or political issues. Why then, should we be expected to have the “progressive” point of view just because we are librarians? We need to respect that there are two sides to every issue- not one. I cringe that there is an actual organization called The Progressive Librarians Guild!

    • bob roberts says:

      two sides to every issue means giving space to flawed and erroneous beliefs like climate change deniers. anti-vaccine people, and moon landing conspiracies. judgment in evaluating information is what we bring to the table. this idea of ‘let everyone have a say’ is not universal. sometimes the facts are clear no matter how strongly people feel.

    • anonymous coward says:

      bob, those aren’t political issues. There is a difference between offering information about progressive tax rates and from the library profession telling people a progressive tax rate is the best tax rate.

      For example, even in your examples, anti-vax and moon landing conspiracies are not even close to climate change denial- which in and of itself can include those who range from discounting the dangers of climate change in relation to the cost of the fixes to those who deny it’s man made to those who deny it’s happening at all.

      Members of the progressive librarian’s guild would have us think that libraries should be out marching with demands for increased minimum wages, take a stance (as a profession) against international conflict, and oppose fracking. All of which might be fine as personal stances- but not for the profession as a whole. Some of those stances are as opposed to the science as a climate change denier would be; others are merely philosophical value statements.

      The profession should be a big tent, welcoming librarians of all political stripes and persuasions. One needn’t believe in a $15 minimum wage to be a good librarian and a valued member of the librarian community. (hyperbole employed for effect.)

    • bob roberts says:

      ac, that is surrendering. if we sit back and watch people merrily go down the wrong path, then what purpose do we have? people are welcome to their own opinions but not their own facts and the fact is that things would be better if there was a progressive tax and a higher minimum wage. the hollowing out of the middle class is due cutting higher tax brackets and wage stagnation. sitting on our hands will not help anyone.

    • anonymous coward says:

      BOB,

      your OPINIONS about progressive taxation and higher minimum wage do not jive with the facts. This is a perfect example of the areas where librarians might THINK they are right- but they are not. Did you know, for instance, that economists simply don’t have any data to help them predict what will happen with such wage increases? In addition, job growth has slowed (after a short increase) in cities with increased minimum wages. Also, teenagers are unprecedentedly unemployable in these areas.

      It is not sitting on our hands to recognize what we don’t actually KNOW. What facts are and what opinions based on facts are should be recognized. How exactly would things be better? Better for whom? Better according to what criteria? These are judgement calls that are not based in fact. For example, someone who values independence over security might not agree things were better after universal health coverage. I just disagree that it’s a librarian’s job to tell him his values are wrong headed. That is dogmatism.

    • bob roberts says:

      ac, it’s not an opinion when there is evidence to support it. economists will never have a complete picture and are not infalliable. you have choosing the perfect over the good as a means of defending the status quo. you sound like you need to be 100% certain before you accept something but life doesnt work that way you know.

      i think you need to reevaluate your patron priorities if you feel that librarians cant intervene. would you say that it isnt your business when someone is taking false and erroneous information and acting on it? thats not doing your job at all.

    • anonymous coward says:

      I’m saying you are, obviously in this scenario, substituting your judgement of what you think is right for what is true. We are not here to tell people WHAT diet to follow or WHAT policies to vote for (and by extension, WHO to vote for.)

      I’m not choosing the perfect over the good- I’m choosing the knowledge that there is no perfect over the scenario I think might be better. It’s a pretty clear line in the sand, actually. We should NOT allow our personal feelings and preferences blind us to the fact that they are just that, personal feelings and preferences. WE should understand that what we know in our hearts to be true is not necessarily an objective truth at all. When we recognize this, it is obvious what roads we should not travel down.

    • bob roberts says:

      ac, we do tell people what to do. we tell them what books to read next, what websites to use to search, how they should spend their tax money on us. the first is the most egregious because we pick OUR favorites for them. librarian fawn over authors and titles to the detriment of other authors. is that fair either?

      you say we should not allow our personal feelings in but we are hard wired monkeys of social habit. true neutrality is an illusion because everything we do, say, think, act, etc is rooted in our learned behaviors. librarians are not robots or superhuman or gifted individuals that can lock off their brains to learned behaviors. what you are suggesting is biologically impossible.

      that said, you would let people run off the cliff like lemmings rather than change their behavior. that’s immoral and irresponsible.

    • @bob roberts: You wrote, “…you would let people run off the cliff like lemmings rather than change their behavior. that’s immoral and irresponsible.”

      How is position not the height of intellectual arrogance? You are setting librarians up as some sort of arbiters of true and correct information, as if they are the “gatekeepers of knowledge,” which is a phrase I’ve actually head some librarians use in reference to themselves and their profession.

      It is not up to librarians or the library profession to change anybody’s behavior. It is our job to provide access to that information that our patrons request or require. If they believe, for example, that “climate change isn’t real,” well, that could mean any number of things, couldn’t it? So, by providing information and access to articles in reputable sources, without regard to the positions taken by those sources, we give the patrons the tools to draw their own conclusions, don’t we?

      Are you not familiar with the “Opposing Viewpoints” series, bob? Or, do you think that libraries shouldn’t buy these books, because they provide more than one point of view?

      As anonymous coward said, climate change positions can range from it’s real, to it’s real but not man-caused, to it’s man-caused, to it’s not real. Or, others might believe it’s real and man-caused, but there’s nothing one country can do about it, so long as China, India, and Pakistan continue to spew so much pollution into the air that you can literally cut their air with a knife.

      You position is monolithic, bob. Librarians aren’t arbiters of people’s beliefs; we are conduits of information. How people use that information is up to them.

      And, there’s nothing immoral about letting people make up their own minds (even if it means making their own mistakes). The foundation of our free society is freedom of thought. Or, do you disagree that people should be allowed to think freely?

      As I said in my comment below, why does it always seem to be the left that wants to shut down debate and tell people how to think? It seems like the left should be more open to new ideas. But, that, sadly, is not the case. Just like speech codes on college campuses, the left almost universally wants people to goose step in line and think proper, left-approved thoughts.

      What is the left afraid of? That someone who thinks freely will see the folly of the left’s positions?

      Yeah, I guess that is a real danger, isn’t it?

      That said, believe what you want to believe, bob — It’s a free country! (Well, for now, anyway!)

    • bob roberts says:

      rob, your arguments work in library school, not the real world. your ‘i’m just the messenger’ attitude is neglectful of your patrons because it implies that you dont have a role in helping people vet and process the information they want. we can dance til dawn about information and neutrality and other faerie tales, but reality makes things right and wrong and there are some issues in which there are clear demarcations. if you want to sit and pretend that everything gets equal treatment, you are just going to talk yourself into circles. meanwhile librarians like myself will be doing something circles can’t: move forward.

    • bob, I’ve been a working professional librarian for over 20 years, a former library director, the current assistant director of a large public library, and… Need I go on?

      This isn’t about hypothetical discussions. This is about real-world experience. It isn’t our job to tell people what to think or vet information for them. If we did that, we’d never get anything done. It’s up to us to give people what they want and let them make up their own minds. Period.

      It you really think it’s you’re job to tell people what to think, well, that just makes you one of millions of librarians who think exactly the way you do. But, it’s no boon to the profession. It’s simple intellectual arrogance.

      Librarianship is the art and science of putting things away and being able to find them again. We’re stock clerks, whether we want to admit or not.

      In short, as a profession, we REALLY need to get over ourselves!

    • And, yes, I saw the incorrect use of “you’re” after I posted and it was too late. As there’s no option to edit, I just wanted to point that out.

    • bob roberts says:

      i find the indifference in your assessment of your role disturbing and the fact that you are leading and influencing other librarians with that attitude to be alarming. give them what they want and walk away is not good stewardship, but giving up our fiduciary duty to our community for laziness.if you can’t be bothered to teach people to critically evaluate the information they are getting, then we are as useless as google for helping people perform better research. if you really think we are stock clerks is your library paying its professional staff like it is?

    • anonymous coward says:

      Bob,

      Giving up our fiduciary duty? Is it a fiduciary duty to tell people to agree with what you think is right (when the majority of issues are extremely nuanced)? OF course NOT. That is abuse of your role and the trust that comes with it. It is a horrible and immoral stance to take. It is hubris, at best, and potentially intentional manipulation.

      Reasonable, intelligent, and rational adults can, when faced with the same evidence, draw different conclusions based on a myriad of reasons. To claim there is 1 right and it’s the librarians’ duty to promote that one true right is absurd.

      It is, in fact, such thinking that has led to people NOT using the library as much. No one wants to go to a library for research to get preached at. Such thinking makes no room for those who set out to find truth in the face of accepted fact. By your logic, librarians in the past would have been honor bound to promote a wide selection of ridiculous propositions as fact- since they were accepted and scientific fact at the time. Eugenics? Dinosaurs were reptiles? It’s easy to spot how wrong certain things were from our vantage point- but libraries and librarians should remember the errors of the past and that the best thing we can do for our communities is to provide access to the information and data- not preach and convince people of one thing more than another.

    • “[G]ive them what they want and walk away” isn’t what I said at all.

      There is a difference between assisting people in learning how to effectively analyze and judge the quality of information, and providing curated information that skews one way and leads to a given conclusion. As librarians, we should be helping people evaluate the quality/trustworthiness of the information they encounter, NOT telling them what “the truth” is.

      That’s a big freakin’ difference, right there.

      Only giving people half the story does them and us a disservice. Propagandizing isn’t what we do. We aren’t activists. Except for those of us who are and do exactly that, of course. And, that doesn’t do anybody any good, now does it?

    • Y’know, bob, I’m curious…

      Does your library buy, own, and circulate books written by people whose positions/beliefs/opinions you disagree with?

      Are your shelves ideologically balanced, or do you only own and circulate materials that you believe represent the “truth”?

      Do you have books by Ann Coutler on the shelf? Are they near the books by Al Franken?

      Do you have books about the Kennedy assassination? Do you also have books “debunking” it, or claiming Oswald didn’t act alone, or about UFO’s or other conspiracy theories?

      Does your library have books about astrology, tarot cards, the Chupacabra, and Edgar Cayce? Do you think these books contain “good” information?

      The idea that we can present only one side of the argument is a non-starter, no matter how you look at it. As librarians, we need to understand that. Anyone who doesn’t or doesn’t want to “get” that is in the wrong line of work or violating their ethics by limiting access to information that they don’t personally agree with.

      I really don’t understand the activist mentality that some librarians have. This is our job. And, that job is to provide access, not to pass judgement.

      If you disagree, well, that’s your choice, now, isn’t it?

    • bob roberts says:

      rob, scroll back up the thread and re-read all of the previous posts. this is about acting to protect patrons from bad information for topics that are not in dispute like vaccinations and climate change. you want to put ‘both sides’ on the shelf and that is actively harmful behavior. people will get hurt from endorsing that information by having it on the shelf. you can make all the straw man arguments you want but im not wrong. and it is up to librarians to take steps to help and protect people, not hurt them through neglect.

    • bob, you most certainly are wrong. Vaccinations and climate change may be settled for you, but there a lot of people who disagree and it’s not up to us to block them from obtaining the information they want. It’s up to us to facilitate their access to it.

      Do I think Jenny McCarthy is a moron for arguing that vaccines cause autism? Yes. Does that mean I should actively try to stop someone from getting or reading her book? Absolutely not.

      Our library needs to have Jenny McCarthy’s book on the shelf, because there are people on both sides of the issue who want to read what she has to say. What would have us do? Restrict circ of that book to people who think she’s wrong? How exactly would we determine that? Ask their opinions while their hooked up to a polygraph? (Oh, and do polygraphs really work? Or, are they pseudoscience, too? A lot people think they are, y’know….)

      Did the world end in 2015, the way Al Gore said it would, if we didn’t do everything he outlined in An Inconvenient Truth? Does that mean we shouldn’t have his book on the shelf, because he’s clearly a charlatan?

      Would you literally have us rip out the chapters that you don’t agree with in the Opposing Viewpoints books? Because, that’s literally what you seem to be advocating for.

      “Protecting patrons from bad information” assumes a number of things: 1) That information is or can be inherently, obviously, and without context either good or bad; 2) that there is such a thing as “topics that are not in dispute”; 3) that we, as librarians, have the right to restrict information from our patrons (a gross violation of ethics and various ALA codes and statements, by the way); 4) that we, as librarians, are somehow inherently smarter than the people we serve, which is clearly and demonstrably a ridiculous thing to assert; 5) that we have a paternalistic duty of some sort to treat our patrons as children, which… I mean… Your freakin’ kidding me, right?

      I could go on and on, but I think I’ve made the point.

      Putting both sides on the shelf is our duty, bob. Period.

      If you really think “putting both sides on the shelf … is actively harmful behavior,” then maybe you should look into Scientology. At least they know that, if LRH said it, it is absolutely, unquestioningly true.

      Oh, wait do you have Dianetics in your library? Maybe on a shelf right next to A Piece of Blue Sky?

      Are you even a librarian, bob?

    • Yeah, I know, I used the wrong “their” in the previous post. Internet grammar police stand down!

    • bob roberts says:

      since you like straw arguments i guess i have to use them too. do you have holocaust deniers? pro-rape mra guys? flat earth people? the town that has those on the shelf is poorer for it and much much much dumber too. i guess thats why you are their perfect librarian.

    • Well, bob, I guess that means – assuming you are a librarian, as you didn’t answer the question – that in your library, you have filters on the public Internet computers, so that people can’t see the Holocaust denial and flat Earth Web sites?

      I had to look up “pro-rape mra” — Is that really a thing? And, just how exactly did you know about it, bob? It seems that having such information contributed positively to your being able to make your argument in this conversation. What if someone had protected you from that information and you had never come across it? You would not have been able to use it to make your point.

      Oh, and did someone tell you what to think about that information, or did you make up your own mind after encountering it? Are you a lemming? Because, you strike me as a person who thinks, even if I disagree with your conclusions.

      Now, because we’ve had a discussion and freely exchanged ideas, I know what “pro-rape mra” means. Am I the better for it? I now know something that I didn’t know before and about which I can make up my own mind. How can that even possibly be a bad thing?

      You give me the titles of pro-Holocaust denial books that are influential and that my patrons might benefit from knowing about and I’ll buy them and put them on the shelf. Absolutely.

      Do you know St. Thomas, bob? The Summa Theologica is structured as a series of questions, answers, and refutations. That’s how argument works. You need both sides. It’s fundamental to any dialectic.

      How do you support your side if there’s no opposing side to disprove? In a world where there is no argument, there is no need for intellect. All is truth and everybody would simply everything the same way. There would be no need for free will or independent thought.

      All information brings light, even if it’s only by providing the opportunity to disagree with it. If you don’t see that, it must be a very dark world that you live in.

    • bob roberts says:

      then in your viewpoint im not actually wrong, just another side to the argument. and one worth considering in being fair to all side of the argument right?. if you are going to get collection development happy and add YAY HITLER stuff to your shelves i guess that sums up your side pretty well.

    • Wow, you really don’t get it, do you? But, I’m pretty sure anyone else who’s read this thread understands completely. So, I feel this was a useful exercise.

      The sad part is that your refusal to change your mind perfectly illustrates my entire point, but you won’t and refuse to see it. It’s called irony…

      Delicious irony!

    • bob roberts says:

      your refusal to see my point of view after saying every viewpoint should be represented is breathtaking.

    • I have seen your point of view, because it was freely represented in this discussion. Further, as it was contrasted with mine and anonymous coward’s points of view, I am also able to see that your point of view is wrong.

      That’s how dialectic works. Look it up!

    • bob roberts says:

      it’s not wrong just different remember? thats your logic at work

    • bob, now I think you’re just trolling. So, if you want the last word, go for it — This will be my last comment on the matter…

      Schroedinger’s cat. Think about it.

    • bob roberts says:

      good luck being wrong, rob.

  2. I think Librarians are required by the ALA core values to ensure the public has the correct information on issues impacting world peace, environmental hazards and rights to employees – this is also in accordance with ethics of intellectual freedom. Please consider the Idle No More Movement. I know when there is an Idle No More March blocking a road someone must cross to go to work people get mad- however they (we) must realize that the inconvienance that Indigenous People had to endure when the oil companies encroached upon their land was far greater than us being late for work- so I think it is important to talk to Idle No More Marchers and listen to what they have to say– Librarians have a duty to ensure that the public has access to this information and has a duty to be informed about it- to give accurate information to patrons to facilitate community agency in bridging understandings between opposing factions so that we the people are: IDLE NO MORE!

  3. Information is, in and of itself, ideologically neutral. There is information that supports every argument of every ideology. Whether or not such information is true or correct depends wholly on whether or not one ascribes to the particular ideology in question.

    Of course, there is information that we consider factual and uncontested. But, to those of differing ideologies, that might not be the case. The fact that we do not perceive such information to be true doesn’t mean that it’s not true for those who believe it to be so. To quote the X-Files, “I want to believe.”

    As a politically conservative person, who believes that correct decisions depend upon ideologically neutral information, I strongly disagree with the idea that librarians should be pushing any ideological agenda. We are here to provide access to the information necessary for people to draw their own conclusions, NOT to lead people to any given conclusion that we deem “correct.”

    Although I self-identify as conservative, I believe that people should make up their own minds. Why does it seem that those on the left do not wish to extend the same freedom to those with whom they disagree?

    No single ideology is absolutely correct and honest disagreements are always useful and instructive. I fail to see why, as a profession, we should kowtow to a single, monolithic left-wing ideology. This is exactly why I stopped renewing my membership in ALA.

    It certainly seems that it’s always the folks on the left pushing to shut down debate. Why is that, exactly?

  4. Jason Villani says:

    I would like to recommend an article by Jack Anderson called Information Criticism: Where is it? that speaks to the issue of neutrality and the field of librarianship. Check it out here:

    http://progressivelibrariansguild.org/PL_Jnl/pdf/PL25_summer2005.pdf