Archive for the ‘ALA’ Category

Yesterday a significant chunk of the librarian Twitterverse Twittersphere Twhatever-it’s-called lost its collective cardigans over a critique of the newly implemented ALA Statement of Appropriate Conduct at Conferences. Will Manley, author of the critique in question, argues that the code of conduct is a substantially flawed document and, in support of that conclusion, he raises four concerns: (1) that the group statuses singled out for protection from harassment are undefined and vague, (2) that the policy will have a chilling effect on intellectual freedom, (3) that much of the code’s language is ambiguous, and (4) that the code does not provide due process for alleged violators. To be honest, I find nothing particularly shocking or offensive about Manley’s criticisms. I also don’t happen to think they are convincing, but I’ll get to that in a minute. Where the real drama unfolds is in the comments to Will’s post, which quickly descended into a mess of identity politics, tone-deafness, ad hominem arguments, and general foolishness.

You can read Manley’s post and subsequent comments in their entirety by clicking the word trainwreck.

I’m not going to do a point-by-point analysis of Manley’s concerns: Matthew Ciszek already has a good refutation of Manley’s critique, as does Nina de Jesus. Instead, I want to look more broadly at the issue of anti-harassment policies. Believe it or not, but there are substantive reasons to reject anti-harassment policies. There are also substantive reasons to endorse said policies. Let’s look at each in turn. (And I apologize in advance for the very rough treatment of each position; I don’t want to take too long a lunch break #newyearsevelibrarian)


The libertarian* argument

Those who reject anti-harassment policies typically make the argument that (1) most harassment is already covered by existing policy and (2) anti-harassment policies stifle otherwise protected speech (or, intellectual freedom). Manley invokes this argument (poorly I might add). On the first part, Eugene Volokh explains that most harassment occurs “one-to-one”, that is, when a speaker is saying things to one listener that the listener clearly doesn’t want to hear. This type of harassment is clearly restrictable on the grounds that restricting it does not infringe upon the speaker’s ability to spread a message or make a public expression of a belief. One-to-one harassment annoys and offends (rather than persuades or convinces) and can therefore be dealt with without violating freedom of speech. Likewise, unwanted physical contact is not speech and, therefore, not at an intellectual freedom issue. If anything, that’s sexual battery, which is wrong in its own rights. However, the free speech libertarian argues that public speech not aimed at an individual is protected no matter how offensive. The libertarian will advocate for the “marketplace of ideas” where there should be no restrictions on the content of public speech. For example, a speaker at ALA Midwinter may want to present arguments against book-challenges raised by fundamentalist Christians. No matter how offended fundamentalist Christians in the audience feel about the presentation (and the ALA code mentions religion), the free speech libertarian would argue that the presentation must be allowed on the “marketplace of ideas” doctrine. Likewise, if speakers wanted to criticize affirmative action, advocate for an Equal Rights Amendment, discuss millennials unfavorably, or otherwise express a contested view, anti-harassment policies could have a chilling effect. Restricting public speech on the basis of its content, no matter how offensive, is antithetical to democratic values, so the argument goes. Think of it this way: while an anti-harassment policy may allow a lesbian or gay audience member some redress against a speaker who argues that homosexuality is immoral, it would also allow a fundamentalist Christian redress against a lesbian or gay speaker who argues that traditional Christian attitudes towards homosexuality are immoral. The best response is to avoid content-based restrictions all together and allow the truth to emerge on its own. Again, so the argument goes.

Whatever you think of the free-speech libertarian position, you should at least know that it is the dominant view in the United States. You know the whole “I hate what you say, but I’ll defend your right to say it” doctrine? That’s what I’m talking about. This is why the ACLU (in?)famously defended the right of Nazis to assemble in Skokie and the right of Fred Phelps to spout hate. This is why the Supreme Court ruled that both burning a flag as well as burning a cross are protected speech (though illegal on other grounds). The list goes on and the point is clear: offensiveness and emotional outrage do not trump freedom of expression. Like it or not, that’s the status quo. (If you’re interested, Anthony Lewis wrote a history of the libertarian view in his recent book Freedom for the Thought that We Hate.)

dignityaintcheapThe dignity argument

So, what’s the alternative? What arguments can be raised in defense of an anti-harassment policy? I think a good counter to the libertarian position is the dignity argument raised by Jeremy Waldron in his monograph The Harm in Hate Speech (though, each chapter was previously published elsewhere and easily Googled). Though Waldron argues in favor of hate-speech legislation rather than anti-harassment policies, the issues are similar enough that Waldron’s arguments apply in both cases. Adapting Waldron, we can make the following argument:First, anti-harassment policies are not directed at thought, they are directed at harm. Specifically, these policies address the harm that harassment causes to the dignity of targeted persons or groups–where a person’s dignity is “a matter of status–one’s status as a member of society in good standing–and it generates demands for recognition and for treatment that accords with that status” (Waldron, p. 60). In the context of the ALA, a librarian’s dignity (or, arguably, any conference attendee) is the assurance of equal standing within the library community. Harassment and intimidation are, by their very nature, demeaning of the dignity of the person or group being targeted, thus depriving them of the “assurance . . . that they can count on being treated justly” (Ibid., p. 85). Note that this has nothing to do with a person’s being offended or made uncomfortable. Offense is subjective; dignity is objective. A frank discussion of sexuality or race might be incredibly uncomfortable for some listeners, but it only becomes harassment if the discussion is calculated to undermine dignity or demean those listeners.

Second, though isolated instances of one-to-one harassment should be able to be handled by existing policy (a concession to the libertarians), many isolated instances of harassment have the effect of creating an unwelcome atmosphere in which the dignity (i.e., the equal standing) of an entire group is undermined. When left unchecked, harassment can harm this “dignitary order” of the community (ibid., p. 92). Whereas we want conferences to be inclusive of many viewpoints (a concession to the marketplace of ideas doctrine), harassment compounds as an environmental toxin that undermines group dignity and, hence, undermines inclusiveness. A fair marketplace requires that all agents involved are assured equal standing but, to take just one example, harassment on the grounds of sexual identity serves to undermine that assurance among the LGBT community, thus removing them from the marketplace. This winds up not just harming the LGBT community but also harming the entire community who would otherwise benefit from the additional perspectives. Put another way, if we really want a marketplace of ideas, we have to assure all community members that their ideas will be heard.

Third, although regulating to prevent this dignitary harm may have some costs, the benefits justify the adoption of anti-harassment policies. Yes, we want a marketplace of ideas but, just as there are regulations over economic markets, there ought to be regulations curtailing abuse of the intellectual market. Think of the ALA Code of Conference Conduct as a sort of intellectual Glass-Steagall Act maybe. Given that the most frequent types of harassment are based on “race, religion, language, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, appearance, or other group status” it only makes sense to expressly prohibit those types of harassment in order to improve the intellectual market (there’s a long conversation we could have here about identifying “vulnerable groups” but we can save that for later). I don’t really know if this is even making sense, but in a nutshell, we need the ALA Code of Conference Conduct because it is our best way of assuring librarians of all backgrounds that the library community respects their basic dignity. And we need to provide this assurance because without dignitary order we lose out on the public good of inclusiveness. This isn’t about restricting intellectual freedom, it’s about restricting all and only those actions and words that undermine dignity. So Manley’s fear that Richard Pryor wouldn’t be allowed at an ALA conference is completely unfounded: Pryor may have been offensive, but he didn’t undermine people’s dignity.  Anyway, that’s the quick version of the dignity argument.


I’m just putting these theories out there for people to think about. While I do tend to lean towards the dignity argument, I do have some purely philosophical concerns about it. Likewise, while I’m not convinced of the libertarian argument, I’m not going to think poorly of those who invoke it. Whatever the case, I’m glad that the ALA has a Code of Conference Conduct and I hope that the discussions at Midwinter (in particular Andromeda’s panel on gender issues, which will probably touch on the code of conduct) are more thoughtful than what happened yesterday.


* that’s ‘libertarian’ in the philosophical sense, not the “your crazy 9/11 truther uncle who reads Ayn Rand” sense

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Photo by peskylibrary on Flickr

Well, Banned Books Week is officially over. I don’t really have a problem with the event, though it’s hard not to make snarky observations. Thankfully, the Annoyed Librarian has already taken care of the snark, so I can get along with my day.

Anyway, reading about all of the banned book displays and banned book read-outs has got me thinking about how highlighting banned challenged controversial books matches up with the policies recommended by the ALA. Surprisingly, these displays are a violation of ALA policies on intellectual freedom. Specifically, it seems that a lot of the hoopla surrounding banned books is in direct violation of the ALA’s official position on labeling. That’s right…by pulling controversial titles from the general collection, assembling them into a special exhibit, and encouraging patrons to read them, librarians are going against an official policy of the ALA regarding censorship.

Labeling and Rating
Long before our society was overrun by gay penguins and sparkly vampires, conservative and religious groups had a different problem: Commies. Those damned pinkos were everywhere and they needed to be stopped. So, concerned citizens started pressuring libraries to place big, fat stickers on any books that might be considered “subversive” or “un-American”. Of course, the ALA was having none of that, so in 1951 it released an official Statement on Labeling that condemned any attempts to label a book “subversive”. As the statement argued “labeling is an attempt to prejudice the reader, and as such, it is a censor’s tool.”

The statement on labeling has been amended a handful of times over the past 60 years, ultimately ending up as a statement on “Labels and Rating Systems.” Here are the five core principles regarding labeling:

  1. “The presence of books and other resources in a library does not indicate endorsement of their contents by the library.” 
  2. “Labels on library materials may be viewpoint-neutral directional aids that save the time of users, or they may be attempts to prejudice or discourage users or restrict their access to materials.” 
  3. “Prejudicial labels are designed to restrict access, based on a value judgment that the content, language or themes of the material, or the background or views of the creator(s) of the material, render it inappropriate or offensive for all or certain groups of users.”
  4. “Viewpoint-neutral directional aids facilitate access by making it easier for users to locate materials.” 
  5. “When directional aids are used to forbid access or to suggest moral or doctrinal endorsement, the effect is the same as prejudicial labeling.”

The ALA also provides this helpful FAQ on labeling, if you’d like (slightly) more explanation.

Are Banned Books displays viewpoint-neutral?
The statement on labeling makes it pretty clear that there are only two types of labels: directional and prejudicial. That’s it. The call number on the spine is a finding aid, so that’s an acceptable directional aid. Same goes for barcodes. A sign that says “Fiction” is okay, and it’s even permissible to make a display for a summer reading list, because “assembling materials that will be in high demand for a limited period of time helps library users find them.” But, as the ALA repeatedly insist, any non-directional label is prejudicial. So, where do the Banned Books displays fit in?

It seems clear that a Banned Book display would fall under the “directional aid” category. But, the ALA is explicit that when a directional aid is used “to suggest moral or doctrinal endorsement, the effect is the same as prejudicial labeling.” Moral or doctrinal endorsement, huh? What am I doing if I actively encourage people to read a select class of books in order “to draw attention to the danger that exists when restraints are imposed on the availability of information in a free society“? Sounds to me like I’m…wait for it…suggesting moral or doctrinal endorsement. Oh, snap! We’re endorsing a particular moral stance towards the freedom to read! Oh, double-snap! That means Banned Books Week displays are a form of prejudicial labeling! Yes, I’m completely serious about this. According to the official ALA statement on labeling, Banned Books Week is a biased treatment of specific library materials. Sure, it’s a bias in favor of something librarians think is morally acceptable, but according to the ALA it’s a “prejudice” all the same.

“Ooh, dang!” 

By yaffamedia on Flickr

Celebrating banned books…with extreme prejudice.
Before you assume I’m a conservative zealot like that jackass from SafeLibraries, let me add that I’m all about the freedom to read. I love Banned Books Week. I used to read And Tango Makes Three to my son regularly and if he wants to read those controversial YA books with mature themes, I’m all for it. The problem isn’t with Banned Books Week. The problem is that ALA policies on censorship are inconsistently applied and poorly defined.

The Statement on Labeling was a purely reactionary gesture at the height of the Red Scare but, for whatever reason, subsequent amendments have only increased the derp. In a nutshell, the statement is founded on a straightforward false dilemma: labels are either directional or they are a prejudicial “censor’s tool”. Period. But, there is no reason at all to suppose that these are the only two options for labels.

A simple example of acceptable labeling would be the case of a label indicating that certain pages are missing from a volume. That sort of label is not a finding aid, but it’s also not an instance of censorship. To take another example, if my library decides to go with an OPAC that allows user reviews, public lists, and links to book reviews (which we’re deciding right now) then we are enhancing records with non-directional information. But is this prejudicial information? I think not.

But, you know what, these are boring examples of how libraries might inform patrons as to the quality or value of their collections. They suffice to show that the statement on labeling is B.S., but let’s try something more challenging. What about bowdlerized books? I’m sort of thinking that bowdlerized books should be labeled as such, if only to prevent patrons from mistaking an expurgated text for an original. What do we tell the Freshman English major who checks out the Charles Lamb edition of Romeo and Juliet, where the roles of Mercutio and the Nurse have vanished? Or, more recently, what do we do with that copy of Stephenson’s Reamde that Amazon just reworked on the fly? Shouldn’t we indicate whether a book on the shelf is the censored or abridged version, at least so that we might be consistent in our moral opposition to censorship?

Or, what about instances of fraud? If it turns out that a book in the collection is plagiarized, falsifies data, or the author just made everything up, should you include a little descriptive note in the MARC 500 field? Something like, “hey there, it turns out the author plagiarized, so here’s a link to the original version of this work” or ” ‘sup bro, just wanted to let you know that even though this book is shelved with the non-fiction books, the author admitted that he just made everything up.” Can we do that? Did you know you probably do it already? Yeppers, take a look at your library’s record for James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. What’s that little bit in the 500 field? Oh, crap, it’s a non-directional note! Dear God, your library is an affront to intellectual freedom! You heartless pinko censor, you!


by fortinbras on Flickr

We aren’t prejudiced, we’re discriminating
Obviously, there’s more to maintaining a collection than slapping on a barcode and then washing our hands. The simple fact of the matter is that the Statement on Labeling is poorly written. But, I think the tension between the statement and Banned Books Week points to a larger issue: that official ALA policies on intellectual freedom are inconsistent with other library values and ignore the important distinction between prejudice and discrimination. Librarians advocating for intellectual freedom are not prejudiced, they’re discriminating, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Prejudice involves passing judgment without adequate knowledge or relevant reasons. But, sometimes we do know something about the books on our shelves and we believe that our patrons need to share in the same information. We know how to distinguish between different information sources, and we know how to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant bibliographic data. Likewise, sometimes we do know something about intellectual freedom and we believe that we should spread the word. Obviously, we have constraining moral rules, ideals, and virtues. Out of respect for autonomy, we’re not going to command a patron to read or not read a particular book. But, as discriminating experts on intellectual freedom, there’s nothing wrong with advocacy.

If we took the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom at it’s word, we’d not just have to abandon Banned Books Week, but abandon most forms of library advocacy (want kids to get library cards? sorry, that’s indoctrination). I realize that the ALA doesn’t really want to end library advocacy. Nor does it want to turn its back on issues of intellectual freedom, censorship, literacy, and the other moral concerns of libraries. But, we can’t go about understanding intellectual freedom through policy statements, and I guess all I’m pointing out is that any librarian interested in promoting intellectual freedom is making a tacit admission that the “official” policies on intellectual freedom can be safely ignored. Though, I wouldn’t go so far as to ban them…that’s just what the ALA would want.

By anirvan on Flickr

[and, by the way, I got bored of this post and decided to move on to more interesting stuff halfway through writing it. but, whatever, it’s my blog, I’ll do what I want, yo.]

[[crap. that was a non-directional label on my own post. I am so screwed.]]

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Photo courtesy of Brenda Anderson (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

I’ve been tapped to present at the 2011 ALA Annual Conference as a part of the “Why Transliteracy?” panel and I’m excited by the opportunity. As to the conference itself, I’ve never been to Annual, so I don’t have any sage words of advice or survival strategies. I can’t recommend any sessions or events, though there are some interesting suggestions from HackLibSchoolBobbi Newman, and others. If you want the skinny, it’s best to head over to Ink and Vellum for a bit, then come back. You know, I also can’t recommend what to pack, though I’ve been told that you should wear sensible walking shoes during the day and stash those cute espadrille slingbacks in your oversized summer tote for later (do they have a size 12?). In fact, outside of my presentation, the only preparations I’m making involve the music I’ll be bringing…

I’ll be leaving around 5:30a.m. on Friday, and it’s about eight hours to the Big Easy. Given that I’ll be going from the pre-dawn fog of Northern Alabama hill country to the blistered blacktop of Mississippi to the sweltering back-alleys of the Big Easy, I’ll need a range of musical offerings to keep me going. Here’s the catch: I’ll be driving a university car and I don’t know if I’ll be able to connect my iPod. This is strange because, now that we expect to have our entire music library in our pocket at all times, we don’t usually have to choose which albums to take on a trip. So, just to be safe, I’ve pulled out the old 30 CD Case Logic visor and now I have to revisit the lost art of crafting the road trip playlist.

Here, in a strange order that makes sense perhaps only to me, are the 30 CDs I’ll have by my side. It’s a mix of classic driving albums, Louisiana voodoo, recent purchases, summery weirdness, and more. Links go to YouTube.

  • Battles – Gloss Drop – “Ice Cream
  • Herocop – Tukwila Mockingbird – “Joanna Newsong
  • Radiohead – King of Limbs – “Bloom
  • The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar – “Whirring
  • El Guincho – Pop Negro – “Bombay
  • Dungen – Skit i Allt – “Skit i Allt
Obviously this is more than enough for 16 hours of driving, but it’s nice to have options. Speaking of options…

I’m always looking for more music and I don’t know who reads this blog, but perhaps you could chime in with your ALA playlist. Whether you’re driving, flying, or whatever, what music will you have at the conference? Can you recommend music for librarians?

One last thing, if you’re a music-lover, be sure to check out Euclid Records at 3401 Chartres St. in Bywater (about 1.5 miles east of Jackson Square)

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