“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that, you might be surprised at the content of a resolution that was going to be put before ALA Council before it was withdrawn.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?