July 29, 2007

A note on library “traditionalism”

First of all, this post is inspired by a new Facebook group called “Zero Based Library School,” which derives from an analogy to Zero Based Budgeting, where nothing is carried over from the past, and everything needs to be justified in terms of present needs and conditions. In librarianship, it means that nothing should be done because “it’s always been done that way,” and all planning should be based on rational thinking about what the needs of the library’s users are and how to serve those needs. I think it’s a small Facebook group, but I’m really not sure, as the last time I checked it was closed off in order to create a community that can work together based on some common agreement, rather than debating the premise. (I think that’s often a good approach to online groups.) I mention this Facebook group only as one small but clear example of the present trend in librarianship of approaching questions freshly and trying to escape tradition in favor of a rational approach. I have something I want to point out about this trend and some of the thinking in this direction.

I think it should be noted that “traditionalism” in this context is at the same time something real that frustrates many librarians who want to experiment with new ideas in their libraries and an accusation leveled against writers that isn’t recognized as such. It is often seen as a simple description rather than the accusation that it is. Michael Gorman, for example, is seen as the ultimate traditionalist by many in these circles. Thomas Mann of the Library of Congress is another writer who is commonly called a “traditionalist.” Some of the writers who have written articles for Progressive Librarian that address libraries’ at times unthinking and uncritical adoption of new methods are also called “traditionalist.” I want to point out that these writers would not necessarily accept this designation. A traditionalist is someone who does something without a reason beyond the fact that “things have always been done this way.” Therefore the word denotes a pre-modern and irrational approach, in contrast to the scientific, modern approach of the person using the word. Many people can call Gorman, Mann, or others “traditionalists” without realizing that the term carries an accusation of irrationality and that it signals a disregard for their actual arguments, which there is no reason to call irrational. These “traditionalists” do have real arguments against many of the trends presently affecting librarianship, and have pointed out that in many cases it is in fact not a rational approach that has led to them so much as a failure to direct the profession from within and instead to be governed by external factors (mostly having to do with money or ideology).

If groups begin planning services on zero-based premises in a way that excludes people who don’t share their views, the essential thing that I would ask them to keep constantly in mind is the connection between the “how” and the “why” of what we do. There is a set of values that defines librarianship, and some of our methods can be seen partially to follow from it. The concept of a library can begin to dissolve when every aspect of it is subject to redefinition. In my own thinking I’ve found that at the core of a library are certain values rather than practices – and I think this is something with which the zero-based group can agree. For one, a library is based on a pooling of resources that are shared by the community being served by the institution. For another, it is based on the idea of information resources being available for reuse rather than consumed. Also at the core of libraries are Enlightenment values having to do with freedom of the press and the freedom to read, values which also assume the value of privacy for individual readers. Also at the core of libraries, though in a way that is presently contested in all types of library institutions, is that libraries serve an educational role in communities, or to put it another way, that they exist in part to help users become better people, rather than merely providing for their entertainment or convenience in solving small problems. (This is equally true as well as contested in public libraries and university libraries.)

There are external forces, political and economic, that weigh heavily against our existence as a carrier of these values. It is not always easy to see how some trends in libraries are connected to the erosion of these values due to external pressures, rather than simply being the result of clear thinking in response to social and technological changes. I want to urge “anti-traditionalists” to keep in mind the “why” of your planning, as well as to have a more open mind to the critical writings of some so-called “traditionalists.” If the question naturally arises in your thinking, “Why should it even be a library?,” then I suggest that perhaps what you are planning may in fact not be a library, and perhaps is something you should work on in another context. If it’s really about libraries, then I think you should start by agreeing on a set of “givens,” premises about what a library is and what it is for that it is simply unproductive to question. And go from there, keeping in mind that a way of doing things is more than a technical solution but also an embodied philosophy.

July 27, 2007

Strike at the Vancouver (BC) Public Library

I refer you to Kathleen de la Pe?±a McCook’s Union Librarian blog for the best ongoing coverage of the strike at the Vancouver Public Library (outside of the union’s own blog).

July 26, 2007

French podcast on libraries

Readers who speak French, you probably already know you are favored here. So for your special benefit, here is a link to a very enjoyable podcast from the radio show “Le meilleur des mondes,” from Swiss station Espace 2. It is an interview with the literary historian Jean Marie Goulemot, about his love for libraries. The interview starts a little ways into the broadcast, after the news items. This podcast was announced on the main French library listserv, biblio-fr.

Outage, inage

Libraryjuicepress.com and Libr.org were down and out for several days due to e-gremlins. Service has been restored.

July 13, 2007

Psst! SRRT Facebook group!

Don’t tell anybody, because it’s so embarrassing, but the ALA Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT) now has a Facebook group.

Actually, the idea was debated for a day, and finally those opposed were swayed. The idea was originally Erik Estep’s, and he had my support.

So join if you’re on Facebook and you want to meaningfully display your affiliation….

Italian Library Association and the Public Lending Right

In many European countries, libraries pay a fee to copyright owners based on circulation statistics, in addition to buying the books outright. (And many European countries don’t do this.) This is called the “remuneration principle.” The new policies that come with the European Union are pressuring member states that don’t have this system to start it up (without letting them spend less to buy books in the first place).

Italy is one country that has just introduced a new law that requires libraries to pay these fees, and the Italian Library Association is taking a stand against it (scroll down for the English version) in a statement to EBLIDA (the European organization of library associations).

It is the same fight all over. But I wish it were not conceived of as a fight against globalization, because even though globalization has turned out to be an excuse for privatization and neoliberal policy changes, the two trends can be thought of separately. There is no reason, in principle anyway, that globalization couldn’t bring along with it more socialist policies instead, and happen through the UN instead of the WTO and other organizations driven by a market philosophy. Globalization is problematic for its own reasons, but neoliberal policies are only tied to it by historical accident…

Thanks to Mark Rosenzweig for sharing this with multiple discussion lists.

July 12, 2007

ALA on National Security Letters

For Immediate Release
July 11, 2007

American Library Association urges Congress to reform laws governing the FBI’s use of National Security Letters

CHICAGO – The American Library Association’s governing body has unanimously passed a resolution condemning the use of National Security Letters (NSLs) to obtain library records and urging Congress to pursue immediate reforms of NSL procedures.

The resolution, adopted at the ALA Annual Conference in Washington, D.C., arose out of the ALA’s concerns over the misuse and abuse of National Security Letters detailed in the March, 2007 report submitted to Congress by the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General. The report describes how the FBI engaged in widespread and serious abuses of its authority to use NSLs, including significantly understating the number of NSLs used by the FBI in the classified reports given to Congress; using NSLs to collect consumer information, a practice prohibited by statute; and circumventing the requirements of the NSL statute to obtain information in the absence of any duly authorized investigation.

The resolution also supports George Christian’s appeal to Congress to reconsider the NSL authorities that allow the FBI to subject innocent people to fishing expeditions of their personal information with no judicial review. Christian, executive director of the Library Connection in Windsor, Connecticut, testified before Congress on behalf of himself and his colleagues, librarians Janet Nocek, Barbara Bailey, and Peter Chase, about their experience in being served with an NSL to obtain library users’ records and being gagged from discussing it. In his testimony, Christian asked the Senators “to take special note of the uses and abuses of NSLs in libraries and bookstores and other places where higher First Amendment standards should be considered.” The four – known as the “Connecticut John Does”- were presented with the ALA Paul Howard Award for Courage at the conference.

Among the legislative reforms ALA urges are:

* Judicial oversight of National Security Letters (NSLs) requiring a showing of individualized suspicion and demonstrating a factual connection between the individual whose records are sought by the FBI and an actual investigation;

* Elimination of the automatic and permanent imposition of a nondisclosure or “gag” order whenever an NSL is served on an individual or institution;

* Allowing recipients of NSLs to receive meaningful judicial review of a challenge to their NSL without deferring to the government’s claims;

* Increased oversight by Congress and the Office of the Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Justice over NSLs and FBI activities that implicate the First Amendment; and

* Providing for the management, handling, dissemination and destruction of personally identifiable information obtained through NSLs

ALA has sent letters communicating the resolution to the Offices of the President and Vice President as well as to every member of Congress. ALA further asked its members, state chapters, and all library advocates to ask Congress to restore civil liberties and correct the abuse and misuse of National Security Letters.

The “Resolution on the Use and Abuse of National Security Letters” is online.

The American Library Association is the oldest and largest library association in the world, with more than 65,000 members.

How do you afford your 2.0 biblio-lifestyle?

I love that CAKE song, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Lifestyle,” and thought of it during that thread on “A Hipper Crowd of Shushers.” Liz of the LibraryTavern blog wrote great new lyrics, really great new lyrics, to that song, that apply to hip next-gen librarians: “How do you afford your 2.0 biblio-lifestyle?”

Thanks to Mark Rosenzweig for sharing it with discussion lists.

July 9, 2007

Only Pinter remains

Terry Eagleton has a rather sad article in Saturday’s UK Guardian: Only Pinter remains: British literature’s long and rich tradition of politically engaged writers has come to an end. Eagleton tells how England’s major writers have moved to the right in recent years, and talks about the Left politics of its great writers of the past. The concluding sentences:

“Most British writers welcome migrants, dislike Tony Blair, and object to the war in Iraq. But scarcely a single major poet or novelist is willing to look beyond such issues to the global capitalism that underlies them. Instead, it is assumed that there is a natural link between literature and left-liberalism. One glance at the great names of English literature is enough to disprove this prejudice.”

Thanks to Kathleen de la Pe?±a McCook for sharing this with discussion lists.

July 7, 2007

The judgment of taste and the “hipper crowd of shushers”

I was tickled to see today’s NY Times article in the Fashion section, “A Hipper Crowd of Shushers,” about how hip and cool younger librarians are now, in contrast to a generation ago. Throughout Kara Jesella’s article there are specific markers of hipness that distinguish the new breed of librarians as superior to their elders in matters of taste, in Pierre Bourdieu’s sense of of the word (See his Distinction : A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste).

But how incredibly annoying it is to see so many people, in 2007 especially, linking hipster aesthetics with progressive politics. (You see it throughout the NY Times article.) The Baffler magazine was revelatory in its exposure of the commodification of “rebellious” cultural identities in issue after issue during the 1990s, and I continue to be surprised to see how generally naive so many people still are about the social meaninglessness of their badges of cool other than as assertions of cultural superiority. (Read Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from the Baffler if you haven’t seen these essays.)

I am sorry but if I were outside I would have to spit on the ground about this. There is nothing about tattoos, knitting, going to bars and having drinks with cute names, reading comics, wearing granny glasses, or being cool in general that has ANYTHING to do with being politically to the left. At one time, “hip” meant something political, but those times are dead and gone. Being cool is fine, have fun, enjoy it, but be aware of the function of taste in social distinction, and if you think your hip aesthetic choices constitute a critically based response to the world we live in, then you should think again and think hard. (Not that there is any conflict necessarily between being a hipster and being a progressive, but it’s not a credential, any more than looking like an insurance agent, which is kind of what I look like, is evidence of bad politics.)

The article definitely belongs in the Fashion section, where it is.

Restoring Order: The Ecole des Chartes and the Organization of Archives and Libraries in France, 1820-1870 (forthcoming)

Restoring Order: The Ecole des Chartes and the Organization of Archives and Libraries in France, 1820-1870

Author: Lara Moore
Expected: Spring 2008
Printed on acid-free paper

Between 1789 and 1793, the revolutionary French state nationalized thousands of libraries and archival depositories, thus becoming the proprietor of many millions of books and documents, ranging from Montesquieu’s Persian Letters to proclamations signed by Charlemagne. Unsure whether to condemn these materials as vestiges of feudalism and tyranny or to preserve them as the core of the nation’s historical patrimony, the revolutionaries initiated a series of contradictory plans to remake French archives and libraries. Few of these plans were carried out, however, and by 1800, most of the collections nationalized during the revolution sat abandoned and deteriorating in provincial warehouses. This book is about how the French governments of the nineteenth century dealt with the collections left behind by the revolution. What did they choose to preserve, or ignore? How did they distinguish between the authentic sources of national history and the irrelevant debris of a bygone age? How did they organize the materials they did deem relevant into a national network of libraries and archives? And who did they imagine would use these new collections? Who was included in the post-revolutionary “public”? According to most histories of French archives and libraries, the nineteenth century was a period of slow but steady recovery from the trauma of the revolutionary era. Confronted with the “chaos” of the nationalized collections, it is said, a few forward-thinking archivists and librarians gradually restored bibliographic and documentary order, sheltering the state’s collections from destruction and decay, preparing suitable catalogues, and improving public access. In contrast, Moore argues that the organization of archives and libraries in nineteenth-century France was neither steady nor progressive. By following the development of the Ecole des Chartes, the state school for archivists and librarians, Moore shows that conceptions of “order” changed dramatically from one decade to the next. More important, she argues that these changing notions of “order” were directly connected to contemporary shifts in state politics. Since each new political regime had its own conceptions of both national history and public knowledge, each one worked to “restore order” in a different way.

July 3, 2007

SRRT Councilor’s Report on the ALA Conference

ALA Council Report to SRRT

July 3, 2007

Greetings to the members of the Social Responsibilities Round Table. SRRT took a break in proposing resolutions at the ALA Annual Meeting in Washington, DC. Perhaps we were worn out by the unsympathetic reception to our efforts at the Midwinter Meeting. SRRT did however endorse one resolution, which was then approved by the ALA Council. ALA is now on record in support of the necessary funding to bring new equipment to the National Library Service for the Blind. Council also passed a resolution on the need for “Accessible Digitization Projects” including people with disabilities. A discussion at the SRRT Action Council led to a later initiative at the ALA Council concerning how to move ALA Headquarters and the Washington Office to follow-up on SRRT initiated resolutions passed by the ALA Council. Although we have been assured that these resolutions are sent out to the members of Congress, etc., we are not given any tangible evidence. I now hope and expect to see much better and detailed implementation reports in the future, but of course we will have to monitor this and see what happens. In a related matter, ALA sponsored a successful lobby day where more than 2000 librarians descended on the Congress to lobby for ALA’s issues. Of course, we found that our resolutions on withdrawing from Iraq, opposing disinformation campaigns, and opposing the use of torture were not included in the ALA handout. SRRT made its own handout but it is unclear if it was successfully distributed to many Congressional and Senate offices. I raised this issue three times at ALA Council meetings to no avail. This was particularly unfortunately because the ACLU, an ALA partner organization, along with a couple of hundred other organizations were also lobbying on the same day, and one of their main issues was stopping the torture of prisoners at US and US-affiliated facilities around the world.

The most important Council action was probably contained in the Intellectual Freedom Committee’s report. ALA Council passed a good resolution against the misuse of National Security Letters to obtain library records. The IFC report also contained a substantial guide on “Fostering Media Diversity in Libraries: Strategies and Actions.” The Council also endorsed a short document on “Principles for Digital Content,” with sections on Values, Intellectual Property Rights, Sustainable Collections, Collaboration, Advocacy, International Scope, Continuous Learning, Preservation, and Importance of Standards.

There were two internal procedural resolutions that I and some other progressive councilors opposed. The first created a task force to investigate open-ended electronic participation in all ALA structures. As I said on the Council floor, I am all in favor or e-participation but I am not in favor of e-decision-making. When Keith Fiels later approached me about my remarks, I suggested the extreme case of a call for the ALA Council to meet online. I said that there is no substitute for personal interchange, including body language of folks at the microphone, the emotion in people’s voices, and caucusing during debate to offer amendments. The second was a resolution that will be implemented at the next annual meeting, and concerns the restructuring of ALA Membership Meetings. These meetings were designed to influence ALA policy by offering members the chance to discuss any issues with the possibility of referring resolutions for consideration of the ALA Council. (The ability to overturn ALA Council resolutions was rarely used and is no longer in effect.) Until now, any proposed resolutions had priority on the agendas, but this new provision divides the one-hour meeting into two halves and relegates member resolutions to the second half. This will leave only one-half hour to discuss any controversial resolutions that may arise. We may have to address this problem again soon, perhaps by a membership resolution.

There was one other report of particular interest. The Freedom of Read Foundation lamented the loss of the so-called “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case in the Supreme Court. The FTRF had filed an amicus brief along with several other free speech organizations. This lawsuit challenged a high school student’s suspension from school for displaying his “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner. But this event, an Olympic torch relay, was not a school event and not on school property. This decision was a blow against student free speech rights, and it may have far-reaching implications.

Finally, the Council honored Kurt Vonnegut with a memorial resolution noting his vision, humor, and support for libraries. The text notes that ALA records show 21 reported censorship challenges to five of his fourteen novels, including fifteen incidents from 1972 to 2007 targeting Slaughterhouse Five, which was burned in 1973 in North Dakota.

As usual, I will try to answer any questions.

AL Kagan
SRRT Councilor

July 1, 2007


What is ALA-APA? It is the ALA Allied Professional Association. It was created a few years ago because the restrictions of ALA’s 501(c)(3) tax status. ALA-APA has a different tax status, which allows it to promote the welfare of a professional group, and not just the public interest. (That is the basic distinction in the IRS code.) So ALA-APA’s major activities are getting a certification program going and doing research and lobbying to improve the status and pay of librarians.

There are certain oddities about ALA-APA that continue to be confusing to ALA Councilors, stemming from the way it was legally set up. It does not have members, but it has a Council made up of the same members as ALA Council. This keeps it tied to ALA in a practical way, and keeps ALA members in some control of it without being members of it.

The other oddity that has confused ALA Councilors has to do with ALA-APA’s financial foundations. Because they are two separate organizations, ALA cannot simply use it’s own funding to support the operation of ALA-APA. ALA gave ALA-APA a pretty big loan, but it has been unclear to some Councilors how ALA-APA is going to pay that back without dues revenue and without yet having a significant publishing program. Most of the funding will have to come from donations and subscriptions to Library Worklife, the ALA-APA Newsletter. According the ALA-APA’s financial report, given at the ALA Conference, the revenues from these sources are on track.

Under the direction of Jennifer Grady, ALA-APA has managed to get a lot of activity going in a stable way over the past few years. The Standing Committee on the Salaries and Status of Library Workers, which was a creation of Mitch Freedman during his ALA Presidency, has a number of subcommittees, made up of ALA members. These subcommittees are doing the bulk of the work to advance librarians’ status and pay.

Jennifer publishes Library Worklife, which was sent out for free for the first few issues and is now and revenue generator for ALA-APA. She recently sent out a special, “best-of” issue of Library Worklife, which has 26 articles that seem to be chosen for their general usefulness. I recommend looking at this special issue.

I have to admit that up until this conference I have had a somewhat cynical attitude toward ALA-APA, feeling that their creation was unnecessary, that ALA could fulfill the same functions without the same financial uncertainty or lack of member representation. I am officially changing my tune. I think that ALA-APA has now established their viability as an organization, in both a financial sense and in terms of the necessity of attracting ALA member involvement. They are doing the work that it was promised they would do, and I think we should all support them. I am donating to ALA-APA this year and plan to treat it as an annual voluntary “dues” payment. I think they deserve the support and that our support of ALA-APA will help us as professionals, as planned.