We’ve all probably heard by now that Chesley Sullenberger, the USAir pilot who mistook the Hudson River for a runway (just kidding!), had a book checked out from his local library that had been borrowed from Fresno State. He asked for the fines to be waived because the book was lost in the plane. Instead of saying, "No way, buddy. We need every dime we can get to buy furniture for our library," the Fresno State library not only waived the fines, but decided to replace the book and put a dedicatory bookplate in the new copy. Most of you probably read the story and said, "awww, that’s sweet." I read the story and thought, "well, not much to get annoyed about there. Better move on." Turns out I was wrong, and damn the Wall Street Journal for beating me to the punch. In the Wall Street Journal "Best of the Web" last week, James Taranto takes on the ALA. I don’t normally read the Best of the Web portion of the Journal, so I don’t know if this is a typical thing or not. The relevant quote from WSJ:
"Well, speaking of professional ethics [the subject of the borrowed book], the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association provides:
We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.
So, who leaked Sullenberger’s library information to KPCC? Unless it was Sullenberger himself–and that would be uncharacteristically immodest of him–it presumably was a librarian, which would make this a blatant violation of the ALA’s ethics."
To be fair, it didn’t necessarily have to be a librarian. I’m sure that Fresno State has all sorts of people with access to private ILL information, including some students and staff without the highly prestigious MLS. Thus, these people, no matter the work they do, are not entitled to the exalted title of librarian and are not bound by the ALA Code of Ethics, if anyone is in fact bound by that august code (see some of last week’s comments apropos that topic). Someone in the Fresno State library leaked the information, though, and it was undoubtedly a violation of the ALA Code of Ethics as well as all the privacy gobbledygook spouted by the the ALA Office of "Intellectual" "Freedom." For some reason the OIF hasn’t jumped at this bone the way they normally jump on any bone they think will get them publicity. It could be because the dean of library services at Fresno State, quoted in the NY Daily News article linked above, has already acknowledged that this was a violation of privacy and that Sullenberger’s name should have been kept confidential. However, the WSJ speculates that the ALA silence on the issue is a dangerous exception.
"Now, we know what you’re thinking: Surely in this case an exception is in order. Revealing the story didn’t do Sullenberger any harm, and it was an inspiration to us all. But this is a slippery slope. Today it’s Sullenberger, tomorrow no one’s privacy will be safe. Maybe the next victim will be some innocent terrorist checking out books on how to make bombs, or a poor pervert who just wants to look at porn. Once you start cutting ethical corners, you’re on the way to total moral breakdown."
Something tells me Taranto is being facetious here. I wish people would just stop it already with the sarcasm and the mockery and be serious for once. However, if you know how the ALA operates, you might see the problem in this analysis. A slippery slope is a logical fallacy. To suspect someone of using a logical fallacy, one often assumes the the person capable of using logic in the first place. There’s not much fun in criticizing someone’s fallacies when there’s never any attempt at logic or cohesion. Unfortunately for this analysis, logic isn’t exactly in the ALA’s bailiwick. This is the same organization that cries censorship (!) if some rube in south Georgia wants Touched by an Uncle removed from her son’s 6th grade required reading list. Although I did once analyze the ALA-APA Talking Points according to logical fallacy, that was back in my more naive days when I thought the ALA had a goal of providing more than just illogical talking points. Now I know that’s not the case.
The ALA, especially the ALA OIF, doesn’t have logic, they just have ideology. Little thought goes into this, as must be obvious. Some ALA folks have a knee-jerk reaction to parents trying to protect their children from smut. I don’t know why. Maybe they just like smut over there at the ALA. I don’t blame them. I like a little smut now and again, especially if it’s printed in a nice font on a thick creamy bond between discreet covers; it’s just that I think smut has its place, and that place is not the public library. They see a rube reacting to Polly Wants a Cracker and to be Taken Roughly From Behind on public library shelves, and they go bananas. They see the attorney general of a presidential administration they don’t like defending the confiscation of suspected terrorists’ library records, and they go bananas. But until they know that Sullenberger is a registered Republican or something like that, of course they’re not going to say anything about a violation of his privacy, just like they haven’t denounced that Obama nominee because he would enforce the Patriot Act and seize library records in terrorist investigations. Privacy doesn’t have anything to do with it.
Here’s where I have to disagree with Safe Library Guy, who commented upon this story and sent it on to me. He dislikes the inconsistency of the ALA, especially the OIF, and opines that "maybe the ALA’s leadership had no ethics in the first place." This is much too harsh, Safe Library Guy! Of course the ALA has ethics, they just aren’t the ethics they claim to have. For example, they claim to uphold intellectual freedom and patron privacy. Personally, I think these are worthy ideals. They’re just not the ideals the ALA OIF actually upholds. For example, there’s nothing remotely intellectual about Internet porn, but they defend its presence in public libraries. Thus, they like porn in public libraries. Point established. It may not be a morally palatable position to some of us, but their consistency in applying it does show some sort of ethical gesture, no matter how crude. Oh, and they don’t like Republicans, thus they don’t like things Republicans do. This isn’t anything unusual. Most people tend to judge actions by who did them rather than by their results. If our Democrat friend steps on our toe, we assume it’s an accident. If a Republican steps on our toe, we assume he meant to step on our throat and missed. This gives us the comforting illusion that our enemies are both evil and incompetent. There’s nothing particularly sinister or hidden about it. It’s always been right there out in the open, so there’s not much point in getting upset about it. We should just accept it for what it is, whatever that is.