March 16, 2018

Why ALA Needs a Code of Conduct | Backtalk


This article has been edited to add mention of Lisa Rabey’s blog post.

The American Library Association (ALA) recently announced a statement of appropriate conduct for ALA conferences.

This statement is a mechanism for addressing disputes, but it is also a declaration of values: it signals to everyone who we are. Furthermore, it’s part of an ongoing dialog about inclusion in library-related conference communities.

History and context

Statements of this type—also called antiharassment policies or codes of conduct—have been prominent in the worlds of technology and science fiction for several years now. While these communities can be engaging and egalitarian, they also have a troubling history of sexism; expressed, for example, in verbal and physical harassment, pornographic conference slides, and sexual assault. In recent years, brave individuals speaking out about their experiences, and advocacy organizations like Geek Feminism and the Ada Initiative, have pushed people to engage with these problems and provided tools to help to do so.

In response, many organizations, from those holding professional meetings to those gathering genre enthusiasts, have adopted antiharassment policies for their events. These aren’t a panacea; they don’t stop determined bad actors, and they can be controversial.

However, such policies provide several benefits:

  • Clarifying expectations, hence reducing bad behavior by well-intentioned people who simply don’t know the local norms.
  • Encouraging targets of harassment to report incidents and seek help.
  • Empowering bystanders to step in if problems develop.
  • Assisting conference staff in resolving incidents.
  • Advertising to the world that this organization values safe spaces for, and participation from, diverse attendees at its conferences.

Many technology conference speakers and attendees have begun to expect such policies. The Python Software Foundation, which sponsored a preconference at ALA annual 2013 in Chicago, now only sponsors events that have a code of conduct. Three-time Hugo Award winner John Scalzi—mere days after speaking at ALA last summer—announced that he would no longer attend or speak at conferences that lack these policies. Over 700 of his readers cosigned this pledge, including leading sf/fiction authors and editors NK Jemisin, Mary Robinette Kowal, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Justine Larbalestier, Steven Gould, and Diane Duane.

Because librarianship, technology, and sf overlap, some librarians have been deeply involved in these issues, and our organizations have responded. The Digital Library Federation and Code4Lib have antiharassment policies. The Stanford University Libraries have endorsed such policies as “consistent with our values” and encouraged staff “to participate only in conferences [with] anti-harassment policies.”

The statement at ALA

But several people have asked me, why do we need this here? Are things like this really a problem at ALA conferences? Doesn’t a code of conduct pose problems for intellectual freedom?

In fact, even if our conferences were spotless, we would still need this type of statement to maintain our standard of quality. Without one, attendees, speakers, and sponsors that we have previously attracted will not participate.

And our history is not spotless. Though we haven’t had a high-profile incident like those detailed in the GeekFeminism time line, library conferences have not been safe spaces for everyone. Sarah Houghton has blogged about graphic verbal and physical harassment from other librarians; Lisa Rabey has also blogged about being harassed at a conference. Nicholas Schiller wrote that, at a recent Internet Librarian panel on gender issues, “[his colleagues] related a series of harrowing personal experiences where men (and women, but mostly men) were directly harassing, intentionally abusive, and strategically cruel in ways that are having a very large impact on [their] daily work, career paths, and the quality of life.” (Roy Tennant blogged about the same panel on LJ’s the Digital Shift.)

In addition, several people have privately shared with me the problems they’ve had at library conferences and not just because of sexism; discrimination because of gender identity and race happens, too.

“This harassment is not visible to those not targeted by it,” Schiller wrote. The statement of acceptable conduct—mirroring ALA’s existing language on antidiscrimination—makes harassment more visible by naming it. It articulates that our conferences encompass diverse perspectives and our cultural norms support everyone’s safety and participation.

This, in turn, answers the question about intellectual freedom. The ALA councilors, staffers, and members-at-large who drafted the statement argued at length, and without complete agreement, on how to protect people from egregious conduct while accommodating genuine misunderstandings and celebrating the free exchange of ideas. We strongly value our tradition of intellectual freedom; we believe wide-ranging, messy, even outré discussion matters—and that requires diversity. You can’t have wide-ranging debate with only one perspective. People from a variety of backgrounds must feel confident that ALA values their engagement and personal safety, so that they will choose to attend ALA events and to share their opinions and experiences there.

Moving forward

In the best case, we will never need to put this statement to direct use. But even if we do not, it will be worth having, because it’s better to have and not to need than to need and not to have. Because anyone—anyone—who feels threatened at ALA should have a place to turn. No one should ever be harassed and feel alone. No one should ever wonder whether ALA will help.

In the statement’s words:

ALA seeks to provide a conference environment in which diverse participants may learn, network, and enjoy the company of colleagues in an environment of mutual human respect. We recognize a shared responsibility to create and hold that environment for the benefit of all.

I will be leading a panel that will discuss these and related issues at Midwinter in Philadelphia. Come join us at Challenges of Gender Issues in Technology Librarianship (Saturday, 4:30, Convention Center 201c).

Let’s talk about what it means to act on that responsibility. Better yet: let’s go do it.

Andromeda Yelton is a librarian and freelance software developer. She is a LITA Director-at-Large, 2013–16


  1. Okay, let me see if I’ve got this right. Banning books is bad, but banning certain types of speech at ALA conferences is okay.

    Shame on ALA for becoming one of the most hypocritical organizations in the world.

    Speech codes are the moral equivalent of book banning.

    • Hi Jeffrey,

      While Andromeda does a great job outlining a Code of Conduct and why we needed one for ALA, you may also want to read Matthew Ciszek’s piece on the CoC. Matthew is a Councilor and attempts to also explain some other common misconceptions that others have had, very similar to yours:

      I also want to remind you that not all speech is truly free, as the Supreme Court has ruled on several occasions (even as they have broadened their tests for constitutionally protected free speech). You can read the results of some of my research at

      If you are attending the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia, I also encourage you to attend our panel on Gender and Tech Librarianship, where I am sure this will come up (I’m a speaker on the panel):

    • David Fiander says:

      You didn’t read the same article I read. Do you honestly believe that sexual harassment, assault, and stalking are appropriate behaviours for a professional setting? Because if you do, the please make sure to publicly post your travel plans, so that I can ensure that I and my friends are safe from your “professional conduct” and “free speech”.

    • I’m not sure WHY this so difficult for people, mainly men, to grasp but no one is banning you from saying or doing anything. What the CoC does is in put in place tools so if you choose to say inappropriate things to me, touch me, harass me, or anything else without my explicit consent, I can and will use the tools at hand to make sure the you are served the consequences from your actions.

      So yes, please feel free to throw disparaging comments my way, but freedom of speech does NOT protect you from freedom of consequence.

      And I also do not know why, again mainly men, feel it that a person’s right to safety in any context gets superseded by their demands for some incorrect notion of “freedom.” I don’t think your version of “freedom of speech” means what you think it means (or what it even means legally).

      And if you want to trot out the tired argument, as Will Manley did, that people like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Richard Pryor et al would not allowed at ALA conferences, let me remind you that purchasing a ticket to their shows, you the viewer are CONSENTING to the show itself. YOU have a choice or whether or not you want to hear what these comedians/entertainers/etc have to say. Comparing the works of these fine men to everyday harassment is NOT even remotely close or could even be parallel as there is no consent or implicit agreement or CHOICE in what is being thrown mine or anyones way.

      And please tell me what it is your so dying to say that is going to be “banned” under the CoC? Really, enlighten me in what situation to find yourself that your professional manner is going to be under attack that you cannot say anything at all without the CoC being slapped on you.

      I’m waiting.

    • David Fiander says:

      Henry Rollins was a great speaker at ALA. I think that George Carlin or Lenny Bruce would have been fantastic keynote speakers.

    • I am so concerned with commenters whose first reaction to women, POC, or LGBTQ folks wanting a safe space is “Well what about me? What if I really want to say something?” If people are so terribly worried that rules concerning harassment and stalking will curb their ability to express themselves, I’m concerned about what exactly they’re trying to express.

      When I’m at a conference, I am at work. When I am at work, there should be policies in place to protect me if you decide to touch me, sexually harass me, or intimidate me. If these are things that you desperately want to do, Jeffrey, I’m sad to think that you have such little regard for your fellow librarians.

    • Henry spoke to a packed audience at ACRL 2013 and I was (nearly) front row center, not sure when he did an ALA.

    • christian says:

      Hey there Jeffey,
      saying that a code of conduct is going to curtail your free speech is just telegraphing to everyone that you are a troll. Grow up, be a professional, and get past your entitlement.

  2. Great post, and thank you, Andromeda, for adding context to the conversation. I look forward to the panel at Midwinter!

  3. I’m sorry that a code of conduct is needed to help folks remember to act with respect to each other … but I’m glad it’s here. I totally agree with Nicholas’ comment “This harassment is not visible to those not targeted by it.”

  4. Jeffrey,

    I’m afraid I don’t quite understand the logic of your metaphor re: speech codes = book banning. The CoC doesn’t ban you from saying what you like. Rather, it sets up expectations and provides an avenue for complaint if someone feels they have been mistreated, abused, violated, or discriminated against. In that sense, it is more equivalent to a collection development policy and a “recommend a book” service rather than book banning.


  5. A while back I read what LIB said about her harassment at ALA conferences and called for ALA to take action to try to stop it. It has, finally. Good! Let’s think of this like the CIPA decision where filtering could continue unless an “as applied” challenge was successful. I have no idea how an anti harassment policy could violate freedom of speech since you don’t have the freedom to harass people. That said, let’s keep an eye on things to see if “as applied” the policy is used to curtail the freedom to speak, say by preventing people from speaking what their religion teaches them. I know one ALA leader was already offended / harassed when a Jewish ALA member said a Jewish prayer for some other Jewish ALA member who just died at an ALA meeting, if I have the facts straight. In such a case, that’s not harassment, and it would violate freedom of speech to curtail that.

    • Dan, I’m afraid you *don’t* have the facts straight. We discussed this same event in an AL post several months ago. The ALA members who passed away did not die *at* the meeting, but rather in transit. It’s incredibly disrespectful to continue to misrepresent their deaths just to give you an opportunity to climb up on your soapbox.

  6. I’m delighted that ALA has set policy on this, and I don’t think my middle-aged white guy speech is being threatened at all. Very much the opposite. If any of ALA’s members were less likely to speak for fear of harassment or worse, then what we had previously can’t be accurately described as free speech for anyone. Free speech has to include freedom to reply.

  7. Can someone elaborate on why it’s necessary to issue a statement on a problem that doesn’t exist? I can understand ALA creating a statement on appropriate workplace conduct, based on some of* the examples the author links to, but I don’t get why this needs to extend to conference conduct. I get it from a liability standpoint, but I’m sensing what’s getting most librarians excited about this is something more sincere than just a strategic CYA move.

    *In Schiller’s story, he got harrassed by a random person on the street while he was near a conference. That’s unfortunate but a pretty weak indictment of conference culture.

    • Hi Joe. I’d love to make this make more sense to you, but I’m not quite sure where to start. I’ve provided links to extensive problems at other conferences; while these are non-library conferences, they are also attended by librarians and therefore affect librarians’ expectations and concerns. Sarah’s blog post makes quite clear that this problem does exist for her. Schiller’s story makes clear that he didn’t know how to respond to harassment that does happen to others (the harassment in question did not happen to him), and I suspect many of us would similarly struggle to know how to react in the moment if we saw a friend being harassed; having a statement gives us all better options for helping our friends and colleagues if needed. I wrote a FAQ on my own blog ( ) and there’s a link to another blog post about library conference harassment in the comments (and I will add more if I discover them). Matthew Ciszek discussed an incident of discrimination at ALA in the post that Kate links to above. I’ve also been privately informed of other incidents over the process of drafting and publicizing the statement — I find that its existence empowers people who have previously been to speak up. So I do not share your premise that the problem does not exist.

      I’ve also provided my reasoning as to why, even if we were unaware of specific problems at ALA, it would still be a positive step to have this sort of statement.

      Do you have specific concerns that are not addressed by these?

    • Martha Hardy says:

      Joe, I refer you back to Andromeda Yelton’s piece for evidence that inappropriate, harassing behavior has occurred at library conferences. I’m sure that there are many more people who have had similar experiences who not spoken out publicly. I applaud the ALA for setting forth this policy. I’m sure they will revisit, revise, and refine it over time, but this is a good start.

    • christian says:

      Sorryman but as a guybrarian I have witnessed some of this first hand myself. I know people who use “conference buddy” systems to keep things fun and safe. It is a drag but unfortunately it happens.

  8. Sorry, I misread some of the particulars of Lisa Rabey’s and Sara Houghton’s blog posts–that’s nuts. I’m also very troubled to hear that this is not an isolated incident and that you heard from others privately that they’ve been the victim of inappropriate behavior by colleagues at library conferences. Like Roy Tennant, I am surprised to hear how widespread this is, since I’ve never perceived even a frisson of something like sexual harassment at these conferences; in my experience we all get drunk but save room for the Holy Spirit. In any event, I’m glad to hear ALA is getting this under control and hopefully this statement will serve to help these troglodytes evolve and empower those that are bearing the brunt of their ignorance.

    As for the more abstract debate that an organization ought to have such a policy in order to send a message to its membership that it does not tolerate such behavior even if such behavior does not exist, we can agree to disagree. But clearly this is indeed a problem for ALA so kudos to them for addressing it.

    • Matt Enis Matt Enis says:

      I agree. I wasn’t aware that ALA conferences had the types of problems that have been better documented at tech conferences, where men often outnumber women. I found Houghton’s blog post shocking and surprising. But regarding the “abstract debate” you mentioned, I don’t understand why ALA didn’t just ask members to have that debate before announcing a policy. If the comments I’ve seen here and elsewhere reflect current views, a policy would have had plenty of support.

      Obviously, the policy addresses totally unacceptable behavior, and not every rule has to be decided by popular vote, but the way this was handled makes it look like ALA is having its business dictated by John Scalzi and a petition signed by 700 people who were primarily concerned with bad behavior at science fiction conferences. In a field where people are very passionate about speech and policies dictating acceptable speech, it really seems like ALA should have, at the very least, invited an open discussion about this issue prior to announcing a policy.

  9. John Myers says:

    I find myself singularly ambivalent about Codes of Conduct generally and this code specifically. There are multiple threads to this ambivalence. First, the thought of intentionally harassing someone is foreign to my consciousness, so it is hard to understand the need — a personal shortcoming. Two, the statements strike me as either platitudes of small effect, or tools ripe for abuse. Third, I strongly value the foment and energetic exchange of ideas and so fear the chilling effect such a code could have on development of policy or initiatives. Fourth, will the formal elucidation of a mechanism for redress be any better known than the mechanisms that were already in place; will prospective victims be any better informed of where to go for help — will it be effective?

    Now, admittedly, a number of correspondents have identified situations where harassment arose. The scientist in me still would prefer data over anecdotes. At a conference of 10-20k attendees, how many are victims of the conduct in question? How many are perpetrators? Are there different categories of conduct, and what is the incidence of each? What are the demographics of victims and perpetrators? What are the absolute numbers and what are the normalized values? What types of locales, events, and activities are involved? Are drugs and alcohol involved?

    As to anecdotes, I have twice been falsely accused of harassment in the workplace — once for posting a GLBT Safe Space sticker acquired at another institution in my office window, and once when I was verbally accosted but responded in an equally forceful manner to tell the instigator to stop. The instigator continued to subject me to hostile behavior for 6 months, during which I was inhibited from taking formal recourse for fear of being further accused of revenge harassment. But also I have a strong sense that it is up to me to cope the way boys of my generation did at the playground — I could leave, I could rise above, I could it work through. I know these childhood experiences could be perceived as exactly the kind of evidence justifying a Code of Conduct (and anti-harassment/bullying policies), but I think they also point to a mentality of learning how to handle situations when an “authority” is either not present or inadequate.

    On the side of application, early on in my ALA career, I spoke quite vehemently during a forum to an official of LC, to protest a policy change made by LC. It was less temperate than I would now conduct myself, but I was new, had the courage of my conviction, and was confident of the righteousness of the cause. My words were directed at LC as an organization, but it was another human being who bore the brunt of my dressing down. Where does that fall in this Code of Conduct? In my mind, I was holding a national institution accountable to its wider stakeholders. But how might others have perceived it? The official was gracious in his response and my friends were embarrassed for me, which were both more effective and productive correctives, encouraging future judiciousness on my part, rather than the resentment that a more officious strategy would have instilled.

    These are the personal experiences that I can see playing out more widely and which give me pause. I acknowledge the inconsistency of asking for statistics but responding with anecdotes.

    To close, none of this is intended to minimize or de-value the circumstances described or cited elsewhere in this dialog. And I unequivocally support the right for conference attendees of every demographic to have a conference experience free of the behaviors the Code seeks to address. Numerous well-respected friends and colleagues fully support the Code. But in my own ambivalence, I still can’t help but wonder if it is a misguided solution for the problem in question. Since I have nothing better to offer, it will serve, if only in the way that positive action of any sort would be preferable to ignoring the problem.

  10. Translation: Don’t be an a**hole. I can get behind that.

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