Annoyed Librarian
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Another Annoyed Librarian

Apparently I’m not the only one annoyed when the ALA Council decides to randomly crusade for social justice rather than crusade for library justice, or library issues, or whatever it is the ALA is supposed to be about.

The November issue of Against the Grain (which I won’t link to because it’s one of those quaint publications almost no open access) published "The American Library Association and Professional Limits: The Case for Saying Less," by Steve McKinzie. McKinzie argues that:

"By passing numerous political resolutions on non-library related questions, by heading the recommendations of the ALA’s Social Responsibilities Roundtable, and by indulging its desire for political relevance — by saying, in short, so many things about so many topics — the association squanders precious political capital. That’s right. Such actions inevitably undermine theALA’s unique and valuable role — its voice for librarianship and its advocacy of libraries."

He was prompted for action by the latest Council resolutions about health care legislation, which apparently library associations have some special expertise on that it’s important to share with everyone else.

My argument is that such ALA political posturing just makes the ALA in particular and librarians in general look silly. The ALA Councilors should speak to some non-librarians sometime to judge the response. When I tell non-librarians about some of the more irrelevant resolutions, the response is always the same. Why would anyone care what the librarians have to say? When we speak about library-related issues, we speak with authority. When we speak on issues of no direct concern to libraries, we’re just blowhards.

McKinzie makes a similar point, asserting that "Everyone has had the experience of witnessing the phenomena of someone whose boldly brazen posturing does more harm than good," and contrasting this with the "voices you heed — not because you necessarily agree (often you don’t) — but because you respect their understanding and their advocacy."

When library associations speak about non-library issues, why would anyone respect what they have to say? For McKinzie, it’s the divergence from the ALA mission and purpose that makes these pronouncements irrelevant and endangers our credibility on relevant issues.

There’s also the loss of political capital. By speaking so often on any possible topic, the ALA makes it less likely anyone will take them more seriously when they speak on library related topics. He concludes that "ALA must, in a sense, regain its focus, remember why we are here and what we are about. Most importantly, the association should employ its precious political capital for the promotion and advocacy of libraries and librarianship — that and nothing more."

I saw this because it was posted to the ALA Council listserv by a councilor who disagrees with the message (what a surprise!). McKinzie quoted from the ALA mission statement, so the Councilor does likewise.:

 “To provide leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.” (ALA Mission Statement, http://www.ala.org/ala/aboutala/missionhistory/mission/index.cfm)  The political positions which you advocate against affect our library employees and these employees are looking for their professional association to speak up for them and to do so in a concentrated effort that might get heard, especially as it is coming from one of the largest professional associations."

I can’t make sense of this. How exactly does passing a resolution on health care, the war in Iraq, or any of the other issues the SRRT is so passionate about promote or improve library or information services to enhance learning and ensure access to information at all? Supposedly, such issues "affect our library employees," but as many are fond of pointing out, and as the mission statement makes clear, promoting the issues of library employees isn’t the mission of the ALA, It’s not the American Librarian Association.

Even if it did affect library employees, so what? So does everything else. But these issues don’t affect them as librarians, and thus they have nothing of especial interest to say.

And who exactly are these library employees "looking for their professional association to speak up for them" about the war in Iraq, or the treatment of terror suspects, or genocide inDarfur ? I defy the ALA to hold an association-wide plebiscite on any of the non-library issues the passionate councilors get so passionate about and ask ALA members to vote on whether it should take stands on these issues. I confidently predict that these measures would be defeated by large majorities were they ever put to the vote of "our library employees."

Even within Council, there’s a limited interest in this, and some votes happen because the saner councilors just give up in defeat at the browbeating of their ideological colleagues.

McKinzie’s argument won’t win the day against the ideologues, though, because they don’t care about promoting the ALA’s mission. They care about using the ALA as a tool to promote their mission.

At least it’s nice to know I’m not the only annoyed librarian out there. Sometimes it’s lonely at the top.

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annoyedlibrarian@gmail.com

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Comments

  1. RadicalPatron says:

    Hi AL – seems we’ve both been thinking about how the ALA can use its resources to promote libraries.

    Today I called on the ALA to fix its websites, which I argue “harm libraries’ image as facilitators of credible information and substantiate perceptions that they are unadaptable early 20th century institutions.”

    http://www.radicalpatron.com/awful-library-websites/

  2. Dr. Brooks says:

    Use the power of your votes each year to change ALA. Try READING the profiles of each person, and do not vote for the social justice radicals. I can spot them from a mile away…..and they NEVER get my vote.

  3. Romulus says:

    Hi AL. Just wanted to say that I really liked the column today. Nicely written and succinct.

    As far as ALA’s advocacy is concerned, I think this is a mode of thinking that has permeated all layers of the profession. Even where I am (way down at the bottom) people continually confuse the role of librarianship with advocacy of whatever foolish notion that strikes their fancy. Whatever happened to the image of the librarian as the stoic, impartial observer, keenly organizing information and keeping their opinions to themselves?

    When a person comes up and asks for Sarah Palin’s new book, should I tell them what I really think about her, or do I just give her the book? Why is it that the ALA doesn’t approach matters with the same mindset?

  4. Ed says:

    “lonely at the top” aren’t we special.

  5. Privateer6 says:

    THAT is the reason why I do not join ALA. Why join an organization that has lost site of its mission and has lost all respectability. As one friend has said, all ALA is good for is the

  6. Anonypotamous says:

    The ALA’s actions do little more than prove to me that librarianship is not, in fact, a profession. There is nothing in our jobs that really pushes the theoretical envelope of what we do. Lawyers have the possibility of affecting case law. Physicians can pursue a career in research. Engineers can build bridges where they’ve never been built before. I’m not saying that every lawyer, physician, or engineer necessarily works on the forefront of human knowledge, but they have the opportunity if they choose. And their professional associations support this effort (i.e., the American Medical Association actually provides a peer reviewed journal with membership.. we get a pamphlet full of trite nonsense). The AMA has an opinion on the health care debate, which makes sense. The American Bar Association does not, and that also makes sense. The ALA would do better to remove its opinions and start acting like an industry trade group. We could step away from this silly idea of being professionals.

  7. A Councilor says:

    Members can and should change the organization–when’s the last time you attended a membership meeting at conference? Many of these “radical” ideas bubble up from the membership. Speak up!! Or share your views with your State Chapter Councilor, or with any Councilor at Large. An organization can’t be responsive to its members if those members don’t get involved.

  8. TheIlliterateLibrarian says:

    @Privateer6–Agreed. One of the six billion reasons I won’t join ALA. They’re grasping for relevance in the world, when they really should be working on is relevance in the profession (if, indeed, it is a profession). Honestly, people only look our way and hear our voice once in a while, and we’re wasting that precious air time with non-library issues?? SERIOUSLY? I feel very passionately about the political and social issues that I feel passionately about. And believe me, I advocate for them in my spare time. But often my ideas don’t meet up with the ALA’s ideas, and I’m sure this goes with people who would support library-oriented advocacy. I can’t imagine that ANYONE would protest children reading or providing resources to libraries (within reason, of course), but the minute you start advocating for something that has nothing to do with libraries, but is politically charged, you’re going to lose at least half your potential allies, because they don’t believe the way the ALA does about Iraq or healthcare. And then they take a dim view of ME and MY library, and the good we’re doing, because they think I agree with the ALA (who’re apparently my overlords and masters). Ugh. ALA, making a bad name for librarians and librarianship, yet again.

  9. I need advice says:

    Dr. Brooks: does not voting mean voting another candidate or not voting at all? If the latter, nothing will change.
    Councilor: What does one do when all the candidates are all saying the same things? There is apparently a conviction out there that the standard agenda must be pursued to have any chance of winning. What do those members to who cannot afford to attend conferences? If they run themselves, they will almost certainly not get more than a handful of votes. There needs to be some kind of coherent strategy that the majority can consistently pursue to effect change. If the middle of the road people truly outnumber the people who think like the SRRT, how does one get their ear?

  10. Dan Kleinman of SafeLibraries.org says:

    Excellent. I have just blogged on this. See “ALA Blowhards” at safelibraries.blogspot.com/2009/12/ala-blowhards.html and thanks.

  11. tummytime says:

    Can the ALA please speak up about making sure there’s enough funding for facilities for the mentall ill? Do you know how many crazy people come into libraries and cause us undue stress and in some cases physical harm? Crazy people directly affect us by scaring the crap out of staff, urinating/defecating on our floors, and assaulting us randomly. Where is the ALA political advocacy for ensuring mental health facilities keep the mentally ill secured? Why don’t they stand up to mental health professionals who invariably tell their patients to go to the library because it’s a haven for them? I’ve had enough! Time to storm the steps of the capitol and demand anti-crazy legislation for libraries, ALA!

  12. NotMariantheLibrarian says:

    A Councilor – what makes you think the rank and file in libraries can get to any ALA function? There’s no money in most budgets for non-management types to attend and I am not about to use my money and vacation time to attend the January or June get-togethers. You’re forgetting that most of us are working for a pittance. Plus, life is short. I try to avoid mind-numbing boredom whenever I can.

  13. Dr. Brooks says:

    Tummytime is so right. There is a mistaken impression amongst the media and the public who do not come to the library that these homeless guys are poor. Most of these men are NOT poor, they are insane. The library should not be a haven for the mentally ill, we are supposed to be about READING!
    I NEED ADVICE: Yes, I vote in every ALA election, and I do read the profiles. I vote for the candidates who clearly are interested in Libraries and Librarians.

  14. TwoQatz says:

    Dr. Brooks – expect it to get worse. Many of the homeless men on our streets are Vietnam vets. I reckon our course over the past eight years might add lots more homeless veterans to the streets – unless we do something immediately to help them as they return to this country.

  15. Tired of verbal abuse says:

    Another problem with speaking up in meetings is that many ALA members are incredibly nasty to those who don’t have the “proper” opinions. It takes cast iron skin to even try to bring up differing points of view. Apparently we’re a group who support freedom of speech as long as it’s the correct speech.

  16. Whiner2 says:

    But we have books. And we look things up. And…and…a lot of us have degrees. You mean other people don’t want our opinions, too???

  17. Cindy Maxey says:

    The ALA could have made a useful statement on health care justice if it had addressed libraries (library managers and boards) rather than the world at large. It might have recommended that libraries, as employers, provide affordable family coverage to all of their employees, not just management. That would have been standing up for justice, for librarians and other library workers and would have been relevant to its mission.

  18. Hippieman says:

    ALA is as mainstream as it gets. Jeebus, people. The right wing owns everything anyway. The media, the pols, etc. ALA is nothing, man. Nothing. Jeebus.

  19. ElderLibrarian says:

    The only time I was really proud of the ALA was when they had a conference in New Orleans soon after Katrina. Now that’s the way to make a statement. Do something, not just talk about it and make an exceptional effort. Otherwise, keep out of stuff that is not helpful to our professon.

  20. TwoQatz says:

    Cindy Maxey – consider yourself lucky if you have family coverage period. If affordable you mean the rate I pay for one (myself), that’s just a tad unreasonable. I’ve heard that argument here and I see no reason why my premium should go up so someone with a family can see theirs go down. Their spouse and children don’t work for the university, I do.

  21. John Berry, LJ says:

    I joined ALA to amplify my voice, and to help SRRT and others make the case that librarians have a responsibiliity 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 progreessive 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 similalr 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.

  22. Dr. Brooks says:

    John Berry, Let’s start here: why do YOU get a free membership? I’ve been a member myself for over 30 years, and I don’t recall getting a letter stating I had free membership in this OH SO democratic association. Of course you will “continue as a member of ALA” as you don’t have to PAY for your dues! Seriously, I am stunned by this!
    The point AL is trying to make is that ALA will continue to lose PAYING members (like me) if they don’t rally around the cause of Libraries keeping their Librarians. The library I work at has lost more than half of the Librarians in the last 10 years, with no hope of ever getting those positions back. How many libraries do we now have with almost NO Librarians working in it? More than you would believe! Library School’s are now graduating students with no HOPE OF GETTING A JOB! If you want to support and cheer on a cause, make it that one.

  23. Kim says:

    First you pay the ALA dues, then the division dues because many of us who join are interested in our division, and then if you’re a public librarian you have to be in ALA if you want to be in PLA, which public librarians often want to belong to. Then there is America Libraries print publication that is sent whether we want it or not. I’d rather read articles online so why can’t I have a cheaper membership and drop the publication? Then the dues are raised from first year members to second year members while salaries are not raised at all. They raise the ante again once the new librarian has reached the third year (right now with no salary raise or cost of living increase for those of us who are lucky enough to have jobs).

    I understand that ALA is a political organization but as members we don’t get to vote on what causes the ALA supports. Some members might not support all postions held by ALA. Most members would prefer that ALA spend less time with politics and more time supporting librarians. The world will go on without ALA taking a political stance on political issues. ALA’s stance really won’t make a difference at all.

    A year or two ago, I received something in my email about what type of skills para pros need to be certified in, such as youth services, and how to get training to paraprofessionals so they can become basically librarians. Why hire a librarian when you can hire a para pro for less money. It makes me wonder if ALA supports the MLS or MLIS at all.

  24. Dan Kleinman of SafeLibraries.org says:

    John Berry, LJ, said, “I am proud that its meetings are open to every member, and that it is run democratically….”

    Not true.

    Remember how Greg McClay was intentionally dropped off an ALA ballot:

    “ALA Election Fraud,” by Greg McClay, SHUSH, 23 April 2007.

    http://www.shush.ws/wordpress/?p=245

    “Your name is not included because I could not in good conscience play any role in votes being cast for you by anyone who is unaware of your hostility toward everything that SRRT stands for. The other name left off the list was my own, because I also could not in good conscience accrue any possible votes myself while depriving someone else (even you) of the same.”

  25. John Berry, LJ says:

    A quick answer to Kleiman. Yeah, I know about that stupid mistake that dropped McClay off the SRRT ballot. McClay and his SHUSH want ALA to be a right wing political organization. He actually aggres with me that ALA is and should be political. And Mc Clay can still go to any meeting of any unit of ALA. So can all the other right wingers.

  26. Robert Wright says:

    I think the posts above point out the animosity of the profession to those who don’t agree with them. I am a little surprised that someone with John Berry’s background would say an intentional deleting of someone from the ballot is a mistake. So if someone wants the organization to be something different than I do then that is bad or wrong. Where is the democracy in that thought process? My personal pet peeve are the hypocrites on both extremes that say they believe in freedom of speech and democracy as long as the speech doesn’t conflict with their ideas, and as long as they win the election.

  27. Contrarian says:

    John Berry doesn’t pay dues?? Now that’s a library issue that Council should condemn in a resolution and send to Congress.