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Make ALA Elections Count for Something

ALA elections are coming up, and I’ve been thoroughly entertained by all the campaign commercials appearing on television. At least you don’t get so many negative ads from librarians as you do from real politicians.

LJ has an interview with the two candidates for ALA President. They both seem like they would be fine. They gave slightly different answers to the questions, but all of them were okay. I’m sure the also have websites laying out their strengths and explaining why they should be ALA President.

Reading the interviews, I was struck by one thing. It won’t make an iota of difference which candidate gets elected. There’s nothing one of them could do that the other couldn’t, and there’s not much either of them can do anyway.

For example, they both talked about the hot button library issue of the day: ebook publishers and their arm’s-length relationship to libraries. We need leadership, etc., to solve this problem, etc. etc.

Except no amount of leadership from the ALA is going to solve this problem. It’s all well and good to speak as if the ALA had any power whatsoever, but it doesn’t. Legislators don’t listen to the ALA, and neither do publishers.

What better evidence for this exists than the ebook summit ALA representatives had with ebook publishers a could of months ago. The ALA was trying to get more publishers to license ebooks to libraries.

Since then, one has stopped licensing new titles at all and the other has another has tripled prices for ebooks. I’m not sure how much ALA leadership the library world can tolerate on this issue.

Regardless of who gets elected, or if anyone gets elected, nothing will change.

In addition, the ALA mindset is so ingrained in any candidates for President that there’s not really much to choose from. All the candidates agree that the same things are good, which makes the election even more boring.

That got me wondering. What would an ALA Presidential election look like that actually mattered, and that something was actually at stake?

In order for that to happen, there would have to be some equivalent of an Annoyed Librarian candidate, someone who wouldn’t just mouth the same platitudes, or who might but who would give them a different interpretation.

What if a candidate came out and said that Band Books Week was pointless, and that most librarian talk of censorship was baseless? Or who urged the ALA to stop obsessing about the alleged right to access Internet porn in public libraries?

There are various other issues that librarians disagree about, but librarians who disagree with the standard ALA-approved responses to all questions never get a hearing. We don’t even know how many such librarians there are, because there’s no way truly alternative candidates would make it on the ballot except as write-ins.

So here’s my challenge to next year’s nominating committee. Try to find candidates who seriously disagree with each other on some important issues and put them on the ballot. Don’t just go with the same insiders. Be bold and provocative.

Then maybe more ALA members would vote in the elections instead of deleting that election email because they know that their vote won’t really help decide the future of anything important.

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Comments

  1. Hear hear! I belong to ALA but have never been interested in who gets elected to what – they are all involved, and pretty articulate, and I’ve never noticed much difference among any of those folks. Nominating candidates with wildly differing positions would at least make for an interesting ballot and I would probably even read their position papers or whatever they call them.

  2. SIIS says:

    I LOVE this!! Maybe we need an “Americans Elect” for ALA elections…?

  3. will manley says:

    AL, it would be wonderful to have a candidate who strays from the tightly guarded professional norms. One problem: that person would endure incredible invective and would ultimately be ostracized. It’s why you write under a pen name. You don’t want to risk professional alienation, and neither would an ALA Presidential candidate. On the other hand who would want the thankless job of being ALA President? I feel for Molly Raphael and the untenable position the ALA membership has put her into re. ebooks. Magic is not a core competency for most librarians. We’re lucky to have two good candidates who are willing to serve. Gina and Barbara deserve our appreciation for putting themselves out there in a very challenging time for librarians.

  4. “There are various other issues that librarians disagree about, but librarians who disagree with the standard ALA-approved responses to all questions never get a hearing.”

    There is the truth right there, which illustrates well why ALA elections matter little, if at all. Librarianship, as a collective, is notorious for shaming, isolating, and overall just squashing any dissension.

  5. Annoyed Librarian says:

    You’re right, Will. It wouldn’t be worth it for anyone to stand outside the mainstream. Probably the only way an annoyed librarian candidate would win would be if I promised to expose myself, so to speak, if the Annoyed Librarian won the ALA Presidency as a write-in candidate. Even my enemies might vote for me then!

    • will manley says:

      AL…interesting plan. Problem is you would probably win and then what? What would you do when thousands of angry ALA members demanded that you whip the publishing industry into shape? The person who should run for ALA President is Harry Potter.

  6. Well, AL, they are not completely the same, I hope.

    One candidate had promoted Playboy magazine for children in her Topeka library, gave a talk last week on how to promote Playboy to children or the like in libraries over the heads of the patrons and even the library board of trustees, and now she wants to be ALA president. http://safelibraries.blogspot.com/2009/02/playboy-for-children-says-gina-millsap.html If the new ALA President essentially becomes the alter ego of the Office for Intellectual Freedom, the ALA generally will be headed for a train wreck, in my opinion, and I really don’t want that to happen.

    Already the Children’s Internet Protection Act author Ernest Istook just revealed the ALA has effective control of a third of American libraries in a manner that harms children. http://safelibraries.blogspot.com/2012/02/cipa-author-exposes-ala-deception.html And, by the way, no library media at all has covered that story, including the Library Journal for whom you work. But imagine if the Playboy for Children Policy in Topeka becomes the Playboy for Children Policy of the ALA.

    So I sure hope the two candidates are not the same.

    • Andrew says:

      The logical gymnastics that it takes for you to reach the conclusion that Gina Millsap supports handing out smut mags to children are truly mind boggling.

    • Dan – I read Ms. Millsap’s letter of 2/13/2009 referenced in your first blog post. It’s a classic piece of bureaucrativia: lengthy and unfocused; peppered with internal references to attorneys, policies and tangential issues that elide the main issue rather than bring clarity to it. I do not fault Ms. Millsap here – like all contemporary library managers she is captain of a ship in a vast ocean, without a compass or an anchor. She therefore grasps at every piece of driftwood or clump of seaweed that floats by to help navigate the day’s journey.

      In my view, defending objectionable material is not the issue. It is merely a subset of a larger issue that must be engaged, else these types of skirmishes will go on and on. The larger issue is: what do we want our public libraries to be and do. We haven’t engaged this question as a society in over a century. Instead, each year we spend billions (2009 public library operating revenue was $11.59 billion, per the IMLS Public Library Survey) to perpetuate an Institution with an ill-defined mission.

      This inattention has allowed bureaucrats tasked with organizational self-preservation to hide behind statements like the one Ms. Millsap used in her concluding remarks: “Ultimately, access to information is the purpose of the public library in our society.”
      This has become a library mantra, and I heartily reject it as much too vague and unmanageable. It provides no guidance or accountability. It leads to the inconclusive go-rounds we see about objectionable materials, infotainment driving circulation and a range of other matters that could be productively adjudicated if a clearer public library mission and transparent adjudication norms were in place.

      The books in question here were The Joy of Sex, The Joy of Gay Sex, The Lesbian Kama Sutra and Sex for Busy People. Bookstores can justify distributing these titles with the simple statement “people want them and they drive revenue”. For a public institution, such straightforward justifaction “people want them and they drive circulation” is unacceptable. The reason is that we established public libraries and invest so heavily in them to help us lead healthy, productive public lives. This is complex and hard work. It requires continual engagement, evaluation, dialogue. A bookstore simply needs to give people what they want and make enough money to keep the doors open. The bar for a public library is much higher.

      The library mission I advocate goes something like this: the role of our public libraries is to curate and make discoverable the best knowledge available to support the public good. This mission can be a catalyst for rich discussion: What does curation mean – what are the quality standards for evaluating content? What is the best way to make materials discoverable in the age of info abundance? What topics/materials serve the public good and what topics/materials serve a private good? To meaningfully engage these questions is to chart a course for 21st century librarians that curriculum and professional standards can be built around. It can also help adjudicate issues like the book challenges in question.

      Here’s how this mission would help me address the issue Ms. Millsap responded to in 2009. I do not support including the aforementioned books in a public library collection – not because they deal with sex, per se, but because they would not foster public engagement (at least in most places I know). Can I imagine two people in a public space (like a public library) conversing about the latest John Grisholm novel, a local government ordinance, DIY home repair, or the latest book by Thomas Friedman That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back? Would these conversations be inviting to other people in the public space and foster increased participation? I think they would. On the other hand, can I imagine two people openly discussing whether it’s possible for men to have multiple orgasms or sex position #69 in the lesbian karma sutra — and would these conversations be inviting to other members of the community? I doubt it.

      I did a quick Amazon search and The New Joy of Sex is available used, in hardcover, with free shipping for $3.98. The New Joy of Gay Sex is available used, in hardcover for $1.06 + $3.99 shipping. As we all know, Amazon is only one of many options for obtaining this material easily and inexpensively. I have absolutely no problem with people accessing this material — I simply don’t think it’s the role of a public library to make it available. There are far more things to spend public funds on that would better serve the public.

    • BTW – I’m open to an argument that the titles in question might serve a public good. What I’d like to see done differently is instead of the “anything goes” approach to library mission and collection development that seems prevalent today, I’d like to see the more focused approach I advocate. It’s more transparent and would, I think, promote more productive challenges.

      Wouldn’t it be something to see someone coming forward to argue that the aforementioned titles promote a public good and merit public expenditure? Then, as local communities (and hopefully beyond) – wouldn’t it be great to see libraries be a nexus of dialogue about it? What is the public good and what promotes it? Where are the boundaries between public interests and private interests? And/or why do we say some material about sex is cultural and artistic and some is merely informative or practical? These are the meaningful discussions our society needs to have and that strong libraries could help foster.

    • Anonymous says:

      Jean — Couldn’t agree more with the library mission statement that you advocate.

      Regarding the books in question, I certainly think these books are appropriate for the library. Yes, you and I can easily purchase off of Amazon. Let’s not ignore the digital divide: there are citizens who do not have home computers nor credit cards and therefore cannot make these purchases. They may come from a home where they would not be allowed to have these books (not necessarily youth, plenty of 20 and 30 somethings are living at home)and their only chance to consult them would be in a neutral space (the library). There is a need for accurate and knowledgeable information on sex in our communities. If there wasn’t, wouldn’t STDs, unwanted pregnancy, and date rape (to name a few) be eliminated?

      Dan, you aren’t going to win any fans by oversimplifying the debate and offering overheated rhetoric.

    • Great reply, Anonymous – you’ve opened up my thinking on this. How I wish we were having the dialogue “for real” rather than simply as a “for instance” on an anonymous blog. I’d have follow-on questions for you. You’d have some for me. Hopefully (and probably) we’d do something a bit better as a result.

      Interesting that Ms. Millsap didn’t make any of the points you did. Instead she went on for 4 pages and at the end I was still unclear about the points she was trying to make. Her response required much more investment than yours and didn’t open up my thinking one bit. Pretty typical of the stuff I read originating from the library community.

      As challenging as it can be, I’ll keep agitating for more focus and discrimation wrt to our public libraries. We’ve got great needs in this country and I believe our libraries are among our most potent resources for meeting them. Dialogue with folks like you and Will, and many others convince me of it.

    • Jean, Thanks. Excellent answer.

      Anonymous, “Dan, you aren’t going to win any fans by oversimplifying the debate and offering overheated rhetoric.” I don’t care about fans. I just report what no one else will report. Oversimplifying? Perhaps–we are talking about comments on blogs. Overheated rhetoric? That’s ad hominem. You are saying I lack sincerity or meaningful content. I have been saying for years that the ALA’s OIF is misleading communities into ignoring CIPA and thereby keeping their children exposed to the dangers CIPA was designed to stop. About two weeks ago the author of CIPA just said essentially the exact same thing. And absolutely no library media has covered that. So I neither lack sincerity nor meaningful content. Actually, I’m vaguely the Matt Drudge of the library world. I have the CIPA author backing up what I have been saying all this time. No library media has covered the CIPA author’s latest comments story. And you say I lack sincerity or meaningful content. Ad hominem arguments are a sure sign that someone is losing and has no legitimate argument to make. Happily, people like Will, AL, Jean, and many more have lost or are starting to lose their fear of the ALA’s OIF. People like myself are reporting library news no one else reports, and my reports are backed up by people like the CIPA author. Me? CIPA author backs me up. ALA? LJ? Silence on what the CIPA author exposed about the ALA that I’ve been exposing for years. Silence is an effective propaganda weapon in and of itself. Here is just the latest story pointing out the effect of silence–dated today: http://www.weeklystandard.com/blogs/danish-tv-host-mocks-obama-his-rhetoric_634403.html And the ALA is all silence in spades. In contrast, I’m supposedly using “overheated rhetoric.” Sure. Nice try. It’s losing its luster. People, follow my blog for posts having information backed up with reliable sources like the CIPA author, or stick with the the ALA silence. Your choice.

      Andrew, it’s no “logical gymnastics.” It’s simply reading what she said, and I quoted her accurately. And Jean points out it’s even a bigger story than just that. Andrew, your going after the messenger and avoiding the issues lets me know I’m pushing the right buttons.

  7. gatoloco says:

    What really can the ALA do with publishers on the matter of e-books? Not a lot I’m afraid, we ceded much of the development of the format and technology to others, and now we are paying the price. If libraries were truly leaders in technology I think we would have more clout at this point. We need an ALA president willing to admit that many mistakes were made, and that radical change is needed. I miss the time when those in library science were pioneers in the development of the internet, and creators of cool protocols like Z39.50.

    • gatoloco – how delighted I was to read your comment! As you say, librarianship was once viewed as a professional leader in information identification, categorization and retrieval. The systems the profession created became the organizing principles for the info architecture of today. For various reasons libraries have been eclipsed and are now struggling and flapping about to simply avoid extinction.

      Digital technology has created the need for new organizing principles around information and knowledge. In my view, this creates an opportunity for a renaissance within librarianship. I have a vision for how this can happen and am working on a monograph that lays it out for review.

  8. Will and Dancing – Kudos to you for speaking so directly about institutionalized intolerance. It is extended to patrons and potential partners as well and really mitigates libraries’ growth.

    IMO, this is a greater threat to libraries than funding, the Internet or eBooks. Do you have ideas about what might open things up?

    • will manley says:

      Jean, I have often said that the library profession is the first to defend intellectual freedom and the last to exercise it. It is a profession that is founded on a tight set of norms and woe to the librarian who freely questions those norms. But the good news is that things are changing because of blogs such as AL’s. There is a lot more questioning going on now than ever before in the library profession. Of course some of that may be due to desperation. Desperate times call for desperate measures.