Thursday, July 12, 2018

The American Library Association: Neutrality, Civility, and What Comes Next

The American Library Association has not had a good run under the current presidential administration.

How We Got Here

First, in a since-rescinded press release from shortly after the 2016 election, the Association offered "its expertise and resources to the incoming administration," despite that administration containing racists, Islamophobes, and white nationalists like Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, and Michael Flynn. And despite a president-elect that, as a candidate, bragged about sexually assaulting women, called Mexicans "rapists," and mocked a reporter with a physical disability. Offering the expertise of information professionals to this group of people was understandably not well received, and the press release was updated.

Second, ALA's Washington Office presented an award to Representative Darrel Issa (R-CA) for his introduction and sponsorship of the Research Works Act, which mandates that federally-funded research be open access, a worthy goal. However, Issa was, and is, opposed to net neutrality, opposes some internet privacy measures, and has voted to cut funding to libraries on many occasions. In addition, there is some controversy over whether or not the Washington Office received adequate feedback from the ALA Committee on Legislation or an appropriate subcommittee prior to awarding Issa and a congressional colleague.

Third, the Association allowed librarians at the Central Intelligence Agency to post content from the ALA's Instagram account. The CIA then recruited from a booth in the expo hall of the ALA's annual meeting. No doubt the CIA offers good paying government jobs, with excellent benefits, but that organization is, ahem, problematic at best and there was some understandable push-back to their presence.

Fourth, and also at ALA's annual meeting, the Council amended and added an Interpretation of Article VI of the Library Bill of Rights, which pertains to meeting rooms. One such change was the explicit naming of "hate groups," left undefined, and that libraries may not discriminate based on hate speech, which, per multiple Council-members and ALA office-holders, was not presented to the deliberative body. "The statement I read and commented on, all the way up until ALA Annual in late June, had no specific mention of hate speech or hate groups," wrote one.

Taken individually, one could, maybe, forgive the first three offenses. Taken as a whole, they are a damning indictment of the ALA. In the fourth, the ALA discursively treats hate groups and hate speech as co-equals to civic clubs and groups: "If a library allows charities, non-profits, and sports organizations to discuss their activities in library meeting rooms, then the library cannot exclude religious, social, civic, partisan political, or hate groups from discussing their activities in the same facilities." The existing case law seems to support the ALA's cautious interpretations, but this was true prior to any revisions to Article VI. As a result, the amendment appears to, on some level, tacitly advertise library spaces to hate groups, potentially drawing attention to library meeting rooms as welcoming. One expects to see the sentence quoted above used in a courtroom in the near future. By counsel for hate groups, not libraries and information professionals.

As was the case with the Issa award, amending Article VI points to a disconnect between those who work for ALA and the people information professionals elect to various divisions and groups within the organization. The Washington Office chose Issa for an award, seemingly without much oversight from elected representatives. Article VI was altered and multiple Council-members expressed surprise.

More importantly, drawing attention to hate groups will do nothing for diversifying librarianship. It is hard to imagine a member of an underrepresented and historically marginalized group wanting to join the information professions given these revisions. James LaRue, head of ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom, put the phrase "safe spaces" in quotes in response to criticism, but for some people this is literally a matter of safe space. Sure, libraries are afraid of being sued, but information professionals are afraid of being assaulted by white supremacists. No amount of wellness initiatives can make up for that, nor will pointing out, unhelpfully, as Carrie Wade notes, that free speech and free association are legally allowed.

The White, Neutral, Radical Centrism of ALA

It seems that few, if any, members of the ALA staff involved understand the paradox of tolerance. As a Jewish person in America, I understand my whiteness, and the privilege that comes with it, is very much contingent. White supremacists meeting in my neighborhood library make it much less likely for me to want to be there. I can stay, putting my physical and mental health at risk, or I can leave, ceding that space. There is no civil discourse to be had with such actors. That is not an option. I know many information professionals who have it much, much worse. Extremists can infiltrate library spaces, pushing out moderates. The both-sideism of the ALA here, under the guise of neutrality, is anything but. By tolerating the intolerable, they will put information professionals and patrons at risk with only potential legal liability as an excuse.

Further, the applications of "equal treatment" will be anything but. Power and social relations are asymmetric. Here is the head of OIF, prior to his accepting the position, siding with the powerful, for example.
That link leads to: …
That a white man who heads OIF does not understand the power asymmetry at work here is sadly to be expected, but also gives me pause because of the office he holds. The University of Chicago's Dean of Students' words played well with donors, boards of trustees, and wealthy alumnae/i, but not with faculty or students. Whose speech, whose expression, was being suppressed here, and at whose expense? I am not convinced that he, or any of us, really, know how to accommodate hate speech while making people feel welcome and safe to speak, and one can also see this in the response from Martin Garnar, co-chair of ALA’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Implementation Working Group. That is the paradox of tolerance. There is a choice here. Neutrality is a myth, benign neglect and the status quo are choices. I was not convinced at the Midwinter meeting, and I'm not convinced now.

A Black Lives Matter group wanting to meet in peace in a library is not the same as a white supremacist group, given that this country is a white supremacist state. Power matters, intention much less so. "They fundamentally do not understand that the presence of white folks is inherently more dangerous to People of Color than the inverse due to the structures of oppression and discrimination built into our profession and society," per Wade.

Having white people in charge leads to organizations that take the concerns of people of color less seriously, because it, however defined, doesn't happen to white people. Dismissing critiques of ALA policies on social media is ignoring peoples' lived experiences (and LaRue should know, because he has been the target of trolls). Social media, a powerful organizing tool, is where people of color are more likely to be. They're not the ones writing and implementing these policies. There's a reason not as much criticism is taking place on ALA Connect.

What Do We Do? Exit, Voice, Loyalty

I don't know what's to be done with ALA. It's a truism that it's the American Library Association and not the American Library Staff Association. They are, by some accounts, a very effective lobbying organization. And yet they can't seem to get out of their own way lately.

If these four occurrences, plus more, I'm sure, make the ALA irredeemable in your eyes, I understand. I really do. And maybe so does ALA, having dipped below 60,000 members, and facing with declining conference attendance. These are not unrelated, just as these four incidents did not occur in a vacuum.

You're tired? I get that. Fight elsewhere if that's what you think is right. That's Exit.

I've seen both Council-members and ALA staff complain about social media push-back to ALA policies, resolutions, and press releases, especially since the most recent annual conference. Consider this Voice, and also consider using the ALA Position on Hate Groups in Libraries google doc as a way to express your opinions.

You could vote. Only twenty percent of ALA members bother to do this even though it's done online over the course of a few weeks, which is to say it's absurdly easy. Voting won't solve the disconnect between Council and ALA staff, but having conscientious people like Emily Drabinski, April Hathcock, and Jessica Schomberg represent you is a good thing. Given that we are information professionals, I find the low turnout in ALA elections to be especially dispiriting, and I encourage ALA members to vote for people of color in particular. People who look like me are far more likely to think as the OIF does, because we do not bear the brunt of "free speech" or library "neutrality." Consider voting for people who will not treat such policies as an intellectual exercise, but as tangible and corporeal, with real, material consequences for both library staff and patrons.


Anyway, given that an employer pays my dues, Voice is where you can find me for the foreseeable future.

But however the organization responds, the damage is done. OIF's revisions have no doubt already been Internet Archive'd, pdf'd, and Wayback Machine'd. We'll see those words in a courtroom, used against us.
As for loyalty, well... it hasn't gotten us much so far since November, 2016.