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Librarians Want to Restrict Access to Information

“All information resources that are provided directly or indirectly by the library, regardless of technology, format, or methods of delivery, should be readily, equally, and equitably accessible to all library users.” –ALA Core Values

A lot of librarians are very sensitive, as anyone who reads the sad. smug rantings of AL haters is no doubt aware, but it only becomes a problem for the profession when we take our sensitive little feelings and apply them to the library. Some librarians are fond of saying that a library that doesn’t have something to offend everyone isn’t doing it’s job, and the ALA OIF champions all sorts of provocative books that offend the delicate sensibilities of good country folk all over the country. For some other librarians, it seems to be one thing when you offend the community sensibilities of powerless fundamentalists and quite another when you offend the sensibilities of “indigenous peoples.”

Given all that, you might be surprised at the content of a resolution that was going to be put before ALA Council before it was withdrawn. I have a feeling it’ll be returning at Annual. It’s a resolution from the Washington Office to adopt the principles of a document entitled “Librarianship and Traditional Cultural Expressions: Nurturing Understanding and Respect.” “Traditional cultural expressions,” or TCEs, are the “cultural expressions” of indigenous peoples, who are defined as…oh, I’m sure you can figure out who we’re talking about here, just as I’m sure you can figure out which ALA Past President had a hand in writing this document.

On the surface, the document doesn’t seem that offensive to librarians, though it should be. There’s a lot of blather about how we should respect other cultures and work with them and such to preserve information and help them preserve their cultural heritages and all. Nothing wrong with that. But you might be interested in some of the finer points. Check out this quote:

“Libraries that preserve TCEs…should consult with traditional communities. Libraries may discover that in some instances providing secondary resources about the materials rather than providing direct access to the materials is the best course given the concerns of indigenous communities.”

That’s about the most un-librarian like quote I’ve ever seen emanating from librarians. One has to wonder where the loyalties of the writers lie. It’s certainly not with the traditional library commitment to open access to information. So libraries should consult with “traditional communities,” or more likely with the self-proclaimed representatives of traditional communities which may or may not exist any longer, and then let them decide whether libraries can allow people to access library materials.  So much for equal access for all library users.

Since when should the decision about library materials be outside the hands of librarians? Once libraries start bowing to community standards, then the doorway is open to all the things the ALA tries to fight in other communities, which may be just as traditional if not as indigenous as the ones this document is talking about. Council would be foolish to pass a resolution adopting this document if it ever shows up again. Start letting "traditional communities" tell people what to do, and there go all the gay penguin books!

This is a great quote as well: “Indigenous communities understand that some traditional cultural expressions are private or sacred knowledge and share this insight with libraries that may have these works in their collections. Libraries that hold private or sacred knowledge should consider returning those materials to the indigenous communities or to institutions in which such restrictions are appropriate.”

Yeah, that’s exactly what libraries shouldn’t consider doing. Contrary to what this document’s writers seem to think, for librarians there’s no such thing as private or sacred knowledge. Some religious group or “traditional community” might think some knowledge is private or sacred, and certainly some politicians want to make all sorts of information private, but librarians are dedicated to preserving and increasing access to information, and the ALA has long defined “information” in such a way that boils down all manner of cultural expression to the same bland lump. To start claiming that libraries recognize some information as “sacred” is akin to libraries establishing that some religions are superior to others, or that religions should have a voice over collection development. It would be hypocritical to allow this and not allow some rube in South Carolina to decide that "Heather has Two Very Excited Daddies" shouldn’t be in the library.

And this one floored me:  “Libraries should be sensitive to the possibility that digitizing traditional cultural expressions could expose the content to a world beyond the boundaries of the library, making it potentially more vulnerable to misuse.”

Wow! Let’s definitely not digitize the stuff. We wouldn’t want to make it more available. That would go against our core values!

And what exactly would “misuse” be, and how are librarians supposed to figure that out? Is it now our job not only to collect and provide access to information, but also to decide how someone is supposed to use it? Wouldn’t that violate the privacy rights of library users? “Yes, you may look at this document as long as you give me a detailed explanation of how you plan to use it.”  “Um…I just want to read the articles.” Librarians who support this clause should be ashamed of themselves.

We get the same offensive language here as well: “Libraries strive to provide the necessary social and cultural context in connection with use of indigenous materials in their collections, and make every effort to ensure appropriate use of materials. “ Appropriate use! Something tells me this means more than just making sure people don’t write on rare books or razor out rare images. What sort of library document would have librarians deciding what’s appropriate use? Do they have any actual librarians working in that Washington Office?

There’s a FAQ along with this document that at least acknowledges that the letter and spirit of this document goes against the librarian creed.

“How can we reconcile our commitment to open access and support a document that seems to endorse the access restrictions?”

That’s a good question, especially since the quotes above don’t just seem to endorse access restrictions. They do endorse them. There’s nothing like a good rationalization, though.

“ALA has a commitment to free and open access to materials held in our libraries. ALA also believes in respect for other ethical standards such as privacy, individual rights, diversity, and preservation. We believe that by bringing awareness to these concerns, better partnerships between native people and libraries will develop, and aid in the preservation of cultures and cultural materials. The Principles of the Networked World (ALA Policy 50.15.1) states that “library access policies are crafted in collaboration with communities to reflect local needs and conditions,” that libraries provide alternative approaches, methods, and access points that meet the unique needs and circumstances of all people,” and that “libraries should promote partnerships and collaborations among diverse communities to guide full participation in the networked world.”  In addition, the Principles for Digitized Content (ALA Policy 50.15.2) states that “to enhance and maximize access to our diverse heritage, libraries must coordinate digitization of historical and cultural documents while respecting the values of all groups.”

There’s nothing in here which would imply access to library materials should be restricted. And what about these principles for a networked world from the same document:

“1. Intellectual Freedom is the right of all to seek, receive, and impart  information  and  ideas  in  the  networked world regardless of age, origin, background, or views.

2. The networked world must provide room for all people’s voices.

3. The networked world must ensure effective access to information for all people from all sources, including public, government, commercial, and not-for-profit sectors.”

I’m pretty sure that TCEs would fall under the category of "all sources." It seems to me the Washington Office is selectively choosing their quotes to erase the library commitment to intellectual freedom and access to materials. Way to go, Washington Office!

And check this one out:

“To recognize that the balance between open access and access restrictions is best determined at the local level in a collaborative process involving members of that community and the indigenous groups, the principles emphasize that “Libraries endeavor to develop access guidelines and protocols that respect traditional cultures and fulfill the library’s role to serve as a community forum for ideas and information” and that “Libraries that hold private or sacred knowledge may prefer to return those materials to the indigenous communities rather than establish internal guidelines that restrict access based on cultural status, gender, age, and other factors.” “

What? I feel like I’m taking crazy pills here. How did considering circumstances and providing alternative access points and showing respect for community members become recognizing “the balance between open access and access restrictions is best determined at the local level in a collaborative process involving members of that community and the indigenous groups.” The logic getting to that statement from the ALA principles is a bit twisted. Libraries restrict access to materials that are rare or delicate, but they still allow access. This document implies that if some so-called traditional community objects, that libraries would have to restrict access altogether, because, you know, some library users might not use the materials “appropriately,” whatever that means.

Fortunately for the nonce saner heads prevailed and this didn’t make it up for a Council vote. It sounds just touchy-feely enough that some no doubt well intentioned if confused librarians might have voted for it. And it certainly makes no sense as an ALA resolution. If the OIF doesn’t think we should keep children away from Internet porn (because children are “users” and porn is “information”), then how could they in good faith support keeping all library users away from any “cultural expressions” that happen to be in a library?

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Comments

  1. Cecilia says:

    I am going to play the devil’s advocate here and say that although I support access to information, I do not think that western values should trump tribal sovereignty when it comes to providing access to the documents/artefacts of indigenous communities.

    Although I am originally from the US, I spent a number of years in New Zealand, where librarians (and archivists, curators, etc.) are making a concerted effort to provide access to Maori materials whilst acknowledging that some of these materials are culturally sensitive and cannot be treated in the same manner as other materials. For example, sacred knowledge is known as tapu and is not meant to be shared amongst tribes.

    Furthermore, libraries and indigenous groups have very different ideas about ownership and intellectual property. Just because a library may house a collection from an indigenous, it does not necessarily mean that they own the collection. Therefore, indigenous groups should certainly have a say in how their materials are stored and accessed.

    I am not sure how common this practice is in the US, but some New Zealand libraries employ Maori liaison staff who help people research and give advice on how collections are stored. Rather than drafting resolutions that be difficult to enfore, perhaps the ALA should strive to implement similat programs if they are not doing so already.

    Oh, and in case you can’t tell, I am hardly an expert on this topic, so I would encourage anyone who is interested to educate themselves. The National Library of NZ website is a good place to start. Likewise, if anyone knows of any good resources on the subject from a Native American perspective, I would be happy to learn more.

  2. Fig says:

    The resolution makes a clear distinction between primary and secondary materials. If your library has items that belong to (or were stolen) from indigenous people it’s incumbent upon you to make sure they’re being handled with respect. Museums don’t let you paw through their collections, and plenty of them are returning materials to indigenous groups and consulting about exhibitions.
    Archives routinely accept material with restrictions on use and academic libraries often don’t let non-affliates use subscribtion databases-in this context, how could this resolution be considered such a huge problem for open access?

  3. 49er says:

    I grew up in a mining town, and one of the more fun books to check out was the “Blaster’s Handbook”.

    I imagine today, if I checked it out, if it is still on the shelves, the FBI would come and check out my intellectual reasoning.

  4. Interesting says:

    If you replace all references to “indigenous” peoples or documents and replace them with “presidential records” you basically get the Bush administrations executive order limiting public access. You can even keep the “sacred” terminology – it matches the mood.

  5. PW says:

    Use this idea in terms of the LDS/Mormon church. Members are not generally indigenous, but do like to think they are traditional. They consider temple ceremonies to be sacred rites not to be shared outside of the temple. So would this mean that libraries should restrict access to materials containing descriptions of those rites? I’m not aware of any serious request for this, but surely can’t see it happening no matter how offensive the presentation is to members of this church.

  6. Bagman (formerly Saklad) says:

    Just look to the Boston Public Library and their restrictive policies about their operations.

    They have two classes of public records, the ones for the public and the ones for the shredder.

  7. Librarian near tribal lands says:

    I work in a library that serves a variety of tribal communities. We offer circulating copies of restricted material to ensure access. Digitization hasn’t even been considered yet because we don’t have the staff time or resources for such a large project. But more importantly: indigenous cultures cannot be placed into a one- size-fits-all scenario. Each one is unique, and not all of them share the same values. It seems evident from the wording of this resolution that it meets the needs of one particular native community only. Especially since I have never heard a complaint from a member of our community about how we provide access to rare tapes, books, and poetry. Makes me curious which vocal indigenous leader has this librarian pandering to his/her requests. And I wonder which other cultures are being ignored as a result.

  8. Pope Jean-Paul says:

    So, the tribal communities get to dictate what is and isn’t appropriate. I wish I could have that done so that icky things about the Catholic Church could be suppressed.

    Give me a call so that we can talk.

    Thanks.

  9. I Like Books says:

    Wow, AL, this is a good one!

    If traditional cultures are to determine how sacred or private materials are used, I wonder if that now means that traditional European-American cultures will be able to determine how sacred porn is used in libraries.

    I wonder if, say, the Mormons also have some private or sacred information that they would like to control. Or Philip Morris. Or Former President Bush.

    Well, it’s not like librarians don’t just ignore their professional organization with impunity when it pleases them.

    (I’m assuming, of course, that we’re not just talking about materials owned by or stolen from someone else. All intellectual and physical property laws should, of course, be carefully observed.)

  10. Alsatia says:

    The resolution sounds well-intentioned, kind of like the road to the proverbial hot place.

  11. Dan Kleinman of SafeLibraries.org says:

    Excellent post, AL (though they all are).

  12. Your biggest fan says:

    All your posts are excellent, AL.

    I don’t think that there is anything that comes out of your pretty head that isn’t the smartest thing that I ever heard.

    I wish you would post everyday (and not just as Dan Kleinman) and let us know what to think.

    Thank you thank you thank you!!!!!!!

  13. why says:

    I agree with Alsatia. I can see over time all kinds of groups wanting special protection under this category.
    Makes me wonder whether we are going through a shift from freedom of information to control. Hard copy is being phased out in favor of digitalized, where access is limited to those who have computers or special readers which must be upgraded regularly. And libraries seem to be just as crazy for this trend as everyone else.

  14. why not says:

    Also, why, with digitized info, even if someone has a computer and internet access, info can be blocked on the basis of IP addresses etc.

    Meaning that people will not even know that they are being denied info.

    Hello Big Brother! Glad to see you could make it here even if you are 25 years late.

  15. I Like Books says:

    Digitalized information in centralized databases also means that selected articles can be quietly removed, or even edited. Possibly even with good intentions, like addressing some embarrassing piece of the history of a traditional cultural group.

    Despite the advantages of digitalization, I worry about where it’s heading in regards to access, permanence, and citability. I know, for one thing, that it really bugs publishers that someone can buy a book and then lend it or resell it without kicking anything more back to them. That’s something they’re trying to address with digital access.

  16. sp5k8 says:

    Sounds very similar to the Kennewick Man issue about ten years ago.

  17. Vulture says:

    We have to be very culturally sensitive.

    When we hide what other cultures believe and practice and fear them, then we will be truly enlightened.

  18. why says:

    Does being culturally sensitive really make others more accomodating to us? I don’t see that happening. When we bend over backwards to be sensitive the reward is that they get even more sensitive and demand more and more concessions. There is no gratitude, only heightened expectations followed by anger when said heightened expectations are not met.
    Diversity is leading to fragmentation, not enlightenment.

  19. Fig says:

    @ why
    Who’s “us” and why would “making them more accomodating” be a goal?

    Guess what-people and groups of people get to keep spiritual secrets.

    I’m not interested in breaking into the Vatican to find out how they make the multi colored pope-selection smoke. Are you?

  20. TheIlliterateLibrarian says:

    While I do believe in theory that “everything” should be available in libraries, I’m also a realist. We cultivate our collections based on what’s of interest to people in our community, what information we think is important to be available, what abundance we feel it is important for it to be available in, etc. I thinkk having a dialogue of any kind with your community helps this–they should have SOME input into what goes into the collection, it is, after all, their money we are custodians of. However, there SHOULD be opposing view points, if only to be held up and mocked occationally. Also, lets face it.. I want to keep my job. If I work in a public library, and I continually cause outcry because of the things I’m purchasing, I may find the board no longer requires my sevices. We walk that fine line between information access and, um… losing our jobs. When I was in a public library setting, all I could do was walk that tightrope day in and day out… is this crossing that threshold of too …whatever? Is there another, slightly more vanilla version of this material I can purchase some place else? I would LOVE to be that super-crusader for access. But relly? I’m just someone with bills to pay.

  21. Pubic Librarian says:

    We only purchase what the public wants.

    That is why we have Hustler available to the kids. If we don’t give it to them in a controlled environment, they will just go download it off the Internets.

  22. No. 6 says:

    I read this document many times and I did not feel that it made a clear demarkation between primary and secondary sources. It was even fuzzier when it came to items such as oral histories and documnetary video.

    I am sure we will see this document again, with revisions.

  23. I Like Books says:

    I would say sensitive isn’t necessarily accommodating, although others try to equate them.

    But, believe it or not, the rest of the world does pay attention. Much of the world watches us more closely than we watch them, and they pick up on what we’re saying about them and how we treat our own people. And that influences them.

  24. Z-Dog says:

    Hey, AL! What do you think about these crazy youngsters? =

    google “brand yourself a librarian”

  25. texasmls says:

    Who is watching the watchers?

  26. unsurprised says:

    This is what happens when “progressives” take over librarianship. Fortunately, most of us know that ALA is a political organization, not a professional one. Those who advocate such resolutions only expose their need to be in control of *something* in their lives. Real librarians pass on information and encourage critical thinking, also known as “propoganda literacy.”

  27. Holy Cow says:

    Next thing ya know the Scientologists will be asking for a similar resolution.

    Anyone that thinks this kind of overt censorship is A-Okay really is off their rocker. Any Librarian that thinks this is a good idea should be de-Stacked or whatever the Librarian equivalent of being disbarred is…

  28. tummytime says:

    Let’s see what you think of restricting access to indigenous communities after some foolish librarian decides it’s ok to make public the sacred chant unleashing the dreaded curse of the mummy!!