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.