July 31, 2008

Interface agents and human control

We hear a lot about Radical Trust, with the emphasis being on trusting users (of systems, websites, etc.) to guide organizations. I have tried to sound a skeptical note at times, pointing out that something called “groupthink” is the danger when you decide to trust the wisdom of crowds. I’ve always most admired people whose ideas were extremely unpopular, and who may even have been cast out of their own communities, but whose ideas proved to be true or whose work turned out to be of great value later on. Only because they worked independently and recorded their ideas or art for posterity did we benefit from their thinking. Radical Trust is primarily about trusting the average (or so it seems to me).

Right now, however, I want to focus on a different but related contemporary problem of trust, and that is the trust that we put in increasingly intelligent machines to help us do what we want to do. I’m limiting this discussion mainly to the way search engines work differently than the earlier generation of database interfaces that information professionals used, which were operated using pure Boolean logic. There is a whole host of interface agents, however, that are designed to do some of our thinking for us. “Smart” is the signal, in marketing campaigns, that a new level of AI is being applied in a service, for better or worse. (I remember when I first saw “smart cards” advertised, I thought, “Just what I need – an ATM card that is smarter than me.”)

I received my education in information retrieval at a time when simple Boolean searching was still the norm. Boolean searching meant that the searcher could construct effective search expressions based on clear knowledge of what the machine is doing. Knowledge of how to use Boolean logic combined with knowledge of what is in the database (size of the database relative to the desired results set, likely frequency of search terms, etc.) was what a professional needed to do skillful searches with good results.

A search engine algorithm, on the other hand, works fundamentally differently, and is designed to do some of the user’s thinking for him. Not only does it incorporate relevance ranking in its display of results, but it determines what will be in the results set according to its relevance formula. It does not simply determine what is in or out of the results set according to the presence or absence of search terms. It determines what is in or out of a result set based on a calculation of relevance measured against a numerical threshold. Not all items in the result set will necessarily contain all the search terms, and not all items with a given search term will appear in the results set.

In practical terms, a Boolean interface provides exact control but requires a higher degree of skill, while a search engine offers weaker control but requires less skill. It is true that there is skill involved in effective use of a search engine, and it is true that this skill involves the same kind of knowledge of what is in the database (i.e. being able to roughly predict what kind of a search will work based on a sense of what is out there). But because search engine algorithms are proprietary, complex, and change frequently, it is not possible to have the kind of knowledge of the system’s workings that one would need to control one’s search results nearly as tightly.

This means that we have to trust the interface (just as library patrons who wanted a database search formerly had to trust us as search intermediaries), and give up a degree of control.

The results are sometimes frustrating, and as interfaces become smarter, the frustration can increase rather than decrease. For example, I have noticed recently that Google has started to include similarly spelled words as hits in its results, beyond merely suggesting alternate spellings. This can make it more difficult to search for a person who has a name that is an alternate spelling of a common name (where in the past their odd spelling made it an easier search). Just a small example of the way that a smarter interface can make it harder to do what you want.

Part of the problem is that interface agents are programmed according to the patterns of a common denominator of users, while as information professionals we tend to search differently from the average user. We expect more precision from systems, and as systems do more of our thinking for us, we are losing our ability to get that precision. Most people aren’t interested in the degree of precision that we are, or at least don’t have a clear concept of how to control an interface in order to get it, or the time or inclination to learn the necessary skills.

This problem interests me as a librarian, because I’m concerned about deprofessionalization and disintermediation in our field, but the broader issue also interests me as an observer of society. Not only are interfaces becoming smarter, but the databases with which they interface us (government, commercial, medical) are becoming integrated. This means that we are being encouraged to trust what is gradually becoming a unified interface to a decison-making network of software that makes assumptions based on averages and data of unknown quality. Interfaces that were initially transparent tools have become opaque agents in their own right, with consequences for our ability, ultimately, to have control over our own lives. It seems like sci fi, but to an extent it is already here….

July 28, 2008

Review article of six books on the loss of Iraqi antiquities

In the current issue of the New York Review of Books there is a review article by Hugh Eakin about the loss of Iraqi antiquities and records in the current war, titled, “The Devastation of Iraq’s Past.

From an historic standpoint, the great loss of Iraq’s cultural record and the inventions of Google will probably be looked back on as the most significant library-related events of our era. (Just a guess.)

So this article if not the books it discusses are recommended to librarians with a broad view of what they do.

The works discussed are:

Catastrophe! The Looting and Destruction of Iraq’s Past
an exhibition at the Oriental Institute Museum, Chicago, April 10–December 31, 2008. Catalog of the exhibition edited by Geoff Emberling and Katharyn Hanson. Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 87 pp., $29.95 (paper)

The Destruction of Cultural Heritage in Iraq
edited by Peter G. Stone and Joanne Farchakh Bajjaly
Boydell, 319 pp., $95.00

Antiquities Under Siege: Cultural Heritage Protection After the Iraq War
edited by Lawrence Rothfield
AltaMira, 322 pp., $80.00;$29.95 (paper)

Muqtada: Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia Revival, and the Struggle for Iraq
by Patrick Cockburn
Scribner, 226 pp., $24.00

Reclaiming a Plundered Past: Archaeology and Nation Building in Modern Iraq
by Magnus T. Bernhardsson
University of Texas Press, 327 pp., $45.00

The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Epic of Gilgamesh
by David Damrosch
Henry Holt, 315 pp., $26.00

American Hostage
by Micah Garen and Marie-Hélène Carleton
Simon and Schuster, 288 pp., $15.95 (paper)

Quoted in the article is Gil Stein, director of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. The catalog of their new exhibition, “Catastrophe!,” is one of the books reviewed. He said, “What is currently taking place in southern Iraq is nothing less than the eradication of the material record of the world’s first urban, literate civilization…”

July 27, 2008

On the past, present, and future of PLG

This is a very long post and one that I think some people will wish I had simply sent to the PLG listserv instead of putting it here before the world. I have chosen to post it here because 1) I think that it is a more effective way of getting the issues that I am addressing to actually be dealt with; 2) discussion in the comments on a blog tends to be a lot more civil than on our listserv, because of its public nature; and 3) because as a blog posting it will have surer footing in the historical record than would an email message.

So here we go…

The Progressive Librarians Guild (PLG) has been in existence as an activist organization in librarianship since the early 1990s. Most librarians who know of it know certain things about it: it is associated with certain individuals who are its founders and spokespeople; it publishes the journal Progressive Librarian; it is the sponsor of a number of student chapters at library schools that are doing some exciting activist and educational projects; it periodically makes official statements of the organization’s positions; it has a meeting and a dinner at ALA conferences; it has a socialist perspective, making it ideologically stronger and more specific than ALA/SRRT on many library issues; and membership in the organization is the basically the same as being a subscriber to the journal. Many also know that for the past few years PLG has attempted to formalize its structure in a way that provides for some democratic control by members and some transparency. A Coordinating Committee now exists that has PLG members on it as well as the founders and other editors of the journal, and official guidelines exist for the organization, centering on this committee.

This post will take you beyond these basic facts into some hot territory regarding the tension within PLG between two imperatives: the need to be a democratic organization with member representation in decision making, and the need to maintain the group’s original, specific socialist orientation and purposive nature (referred to at the end of the page giving the composition of the Coordinating Committee as the “original programmatic compact,” but not recorded anywhere so much as understood).

Stated in these terms, the conflict between these two imperatives in PLG sounds abstract, like it might manifest primarily in furrowed brows as the leadership ruminates on how to balance them. In fact, the way the tension has come to the surface within the Coordinating Committee and at membership meetings has been anything but calm and thoughtful; it has manifested in the form of conflicts between people in different ways, sometimes very heated and painful, and sometimes bound up in ego, as the imperative of protecting the group’s political purity is held important by people who think they are right and others wrong, and is pursued in practice through individuals’ efforts to maintain control. A half a dozen people (including myself) have resigned from the Coordinating Committee as a result of the frustration created by the conflicts stemming from this situation. (They were replaced quietly, with an invitation for volunteers that went under the radar of most people and did not result in an election.)

This post is my attempt, as a former member of the Coordinating Committee and journal editorial board, and a present member of PLG and subscriber to the journal, to lay out some of the details and history of this situation from my own perspective, and to say a bit about what I think should happen. I will be talking about specific individuals in the course of it. This will not go over well with them, although I hope it will be clear to readers that I am attempting to be fair and accurate.

While at times I may highlight the issue of the leadership’s desire to maintain personal control of the organization, I want to be clear from the outset that I believe that they have a legitimate and compelling interest in preserving the socialist, activist character of the organization. PLG was founded for certain specific reasons and based on certain ideas, and the specific character of PLG is, in my mind, what has made it so valuable over the years. It is an organization that has managed to maintain a lot of consistency, and is a force that pushes in a specific direction. The founders may appear to have too much of a sense of ownership to members who join the Coordinating Committee with an assumption of democratic decision making, but what looks from the outside like simply a desire to control is felt by the longtime leadership as intense caring and concern for the organization and an intense desire for it to continue to exist and be effective as the socialist force that they originally intended. While the ethic of democracy says that multiple perspectives should be included, the major source of PLG’s value has been that it has a perspective. (Here I should admit that PLG has always considered itself to be non-doctrinal and non-sectarian, but within certain socialist bounds.)

At this point I should explain that I don’t mean to say that there is an inherent conflict between socialism and democracy, because I don’t think there is. The conflict is between the desire to maintain a specific direction (it could be any specific direction) while opening up the organization through a democratic structure.

So the imperatives that are in conflict within PLG are, in my opinion, both as legitimate as can be. It is also a conflict that seems to be built into the heart of political movements in general, and has been repeated innumerable times in different contexts. (Historians of political movements are especially invited to comment.)

Some History

I’m able to tell you about what has happened in PLG from 1997, since that is the year I joined and became involved. When I joined, the leadership of PLG was equivalent to the editorial board of the journal, which was a small group consisting of most of PLG’s founding members and one or two others. I can’t give the dates or years when Henry Blanke left the board or when Lincoln Cushing or Kathleen McCook joined, or when I first officially joined the board, first as review editor and then as full editor; my memory for dates is poor. But over the years that I was involved there has been some turnover on the editorial board – never a great amount, but some. The thing I find important to point out about that is that when we added people to the editorial board it was by consensus of the group and by invitation. I see nothing wrong with that process for the purpose of constituting an editorial board, but it becomes significant in terms of the governance structure of PLG, as you will see.

During these years before we created the Coordinating Committee, PLG was completely informal as an organization; in fact, it was so informal that to apply the term “organization” to PLG was to perpetuate a fiction. But call it an organization we did, and there was a reason for it. We counted subscribers to the journal as members of the organization, and being a membership organization gave weight to our pronouncements. (I personally see great value to formal organizations and even to the bureaucratic structures that are often necessary to provide them with a democratic process; I’m a little out of step with my own generation in this.) Giving ourselves a name that implied that what we said mattered would seem a little empty if we couldn’t give an account of our membership. In practice, our members remained members based on what we offered in the journal and what we said publicly. In this sense, there has always been a degree of accountability to members; they could always cease to be members if they didn’t like what we said or did. On the other hand, we counted anyone as a member who subscribed to the journal (personal membership/subscription now requires agreement with PLG’s principles).

For most of the time period that I was actively involved in PLG, none of the leadership, and few if any of the members (or subscribers), if I’m not wrong, perceived a problem with the lack of a formal, democratic structure. While it was clear enough that it was only a few people making the decisions and using the organization as a platform for their message, things moved forward without difficulty on the basis of trust and a general agreement about the cause.

I think that if we had not made the decision to institute a formal, democratic structure PLG might have continued to exist in this informal way, as a platform for the original leadership and their trusted friends, without conflict. So why did we decide to do it?

There were a number of converging factors.

The beginnings of it, as I understand it, were in the close working relationship that I had with PLG co-founder Mark Rosenzweig and our relationship to the rest of the leadership group. My first contribution to PLG, back in 1997, was to create and maintain its website. As the years went on, there were occasions where Mark and I would add things and make other changes to the website together without consulting the other members of the PL editorial board. At one level, this was simply a product of how productive our working relationship was; it was very natural to think together and to get things done. At another level, it reflected Mark’s own sense of what PLG is and where it ought to go. Among the founders who stayed involved, he is the one whose sense of politics and the political role of organizations like PLG is the best developed and the best informed by history, and his well-founded confidence sometimes led to a desire to avoid the complications of hashing things out with people who didn’t necessarily understand things as well. That may not sound good, but I think it is an understandable fact that should simply be understood and accepted.

At a certain point, PLG co-founder John Buschman, who while not as well grounded in history and socialism as Mark, is himself quite the heavyweight in Habermasian social theory, noticed that PLG’s website, which had quietly become its primary mode of communicating the nature and positions of PLG to members and the library community, kept changing without his or the editorial board’s knowledge, and he understandably raised an objection. This began the discussion of the idea of creating a formal structure, with provisions for decision making that would be democratic and inclusive.

At the same time, the Cuba debate had heated up within the profession and had begun to come between people who considered themselves progressive. It was proving to be a divisive issue. PLG was clear about its position, but we quickly found that not everybody in PLG agreed with it, and some said so publicly. Not all of the fallout from this division was immediate or clear, but it did contribute to a sense within the leadership’s discussions that our membership was, let’s say, a bit more non-doctrinal and non-sectarian than PLG (as defined by the core leadership group).

The Cuba problem had a sudden and destructive impact on the tenor of the PLG listserv, which at that time was open to anyone who wanted to join it. One or two anti-Castro Cuban exiles joined the list and began using it to attack us for our expressed views. For a period of several weeks they bombarded our list with hostile messages, personal attacks, and propaganda, before we decided to take the step of making the list less than totally open, a decision that was difficult. We decided as a list (not as a committee of the leadership) to make posting privileges available to PLG members only, and at the same time, to require people wanting to join PLG to sign onto a brief statement of principles. The membership form still has the text that we added at this time:

Membership is open to library workers and users who are committed to the ideals of the political left, agree with PLG’s Statement of Purpose (as stated on the web site), its commitments and present activities.

Please sign here indicating that this describes you:

X ___________________________

This part of the solution was my idea, and I had a hand in the wording as well. Note the implicit vagueness in the reference to “(PLG’s) commitments;” it allows the signing statement to include the never-quite-stated “original programmatic compact” by implication.

With that solution in place, we closed off posting rights to our anti-Cuban interloper. Problem solved? Not quite. The toxic atmosphere of political activity in librarianship persisted as we were attacked on blogs, which frequently reposted emails that circulated on our list. We had not and still have not made the decision to close access to anyone who wants to read it. Anyone can still subscribe to the list as a reader. Because we had to assume that hostile people were reading the list, it ceased to be a place for free and open discussion, and now, unfortunately, has little traffic besides announcements. (The same “chilling” has affected the SRRT list.)

Partly as a result of the division over Cuba, partly because of our decision to restrict posting to the list, and partly over other things, some critics of PLG, notably Charles Willett and Chuck Munson, began to attack the PLG leadership as an undemocratic cabal. Both of these critics are, not incidentally, anarchists who took it for granted that they belonged in the organization and that it should have room for them. The rise of the “anarchist librarian” movement, which was thanks largely to Chuck’s focused energy but supported by many other Gen X librarians, presented an important part of the challenge. PLG had always advertised itself, as I have mentioned, as non-doctrinal and non-sectarian, and at that time even adopted the catch-phrase (still on the website) “providing a forum for the open exchange of radical views on library issues” (a somewhat phony response to the criticisms being leveled against it at that juncture).

Among the leadership group, Mark and John were most worried about the implicit inclusion of the anarchists, whose views were contrary to the “programmatic compact” as they understood it, and who, moreover, tended to support the “independent library movement” against the Cuban government, a position that was absolutely anathema to the PLG leadership (and, I am sure, most members). Elaine Harger, another co-founder, disagreed with Mark and John and argued for including the anarchists in our discussions and for making PLG more welcoming to them. Elaine has been very welcoming to new members and to members with a broader range of views, but only to a point. When it comes to sharing the governance of PLG and opening up control to the membership, she has been just as hard-lined, albeit with a soft touch. (Stay with me for more about that.)

As for myself, during this period I was firmly on the side of Mark and John that PLG had an overriding interest in maintaining its socialist character, and that we needed to draw a line. At the same time, however, without quite realizing the conflict between these imperatives, I also supported the idea of a formal, democratic structure that would take PLG to the next level, as a mature, mildly bureaucratic organization that could continue beyond the life of its leaders. Actually, all of us did; we all agreed that this was the direction we should go in. In retrospect, I believe that our interest in this idea was partly in response to the pressure from critics who called us an “undemocratic cabal,” but at the time, what we thought was simply, “The time has come for us to take the step to become more formal as an democratic organization.” I believe we all hoped it would serve to relieve us from the interpersonal tensions that were becoming steadily more difficult.

Growing Pains of a Formal Structure

I don’t remember exactly what year it was, maybe 2000, but, we began drafting a set of guidelines for the Coordinating Committee. The part of the guidelines that took most of our attention as we worked on them was how to create a process for making decisions online that would be fair but not overly cumbersome. The attention we devoted to this reflected the growing difficulty we had internally. All of the outside pressures and the emerging tension between the two imperatives had begun to result in conflicts within the leadership circle. These were conflicts that we mostly understood in personal terms, failing to analyze their structural causes.

Despite the difficulty of the job, we drafted a set of guidelines that had a process for working as a committee, and established a composition for it that included PLG members who would be elected by a direct vote of the membership. The members of the editorial board would be permanent members of the Coordinating Committee, at least until the organization were on its feet (or so it was said), while the elected members would serve in staggered terms of a few years. We went to the membership for ratification of the guidelines, which we got, and then called for volunteers for an election to the open slots on the new Coordinating Committee. This was in 2002.

It was a good effort, and resulted in what we felt was a good beginning. The Coordinating Committee was brought into existence, and began working together by email to make decisions for PLG. Membership meetings would still occur at ALA Conferences, and presumably the membership could also make decisions for PLG at these meetings. But the bulk of the work and discussion would prove to be done by the Coordinating Committee, by email.

The honeymoon period for the new Coordinating Committee was rather brief. As the page stating the composition of the Coordinating Committee explains, the members of the journal’s editorial board are permanent members of the Coordinating Committee in order to “provide core continuity with PLG/PL’s original programmatic compact.” This fine detail had the effect of creating two classes of membership on the Coordinating Committee – the leadership group whose function was to tell new members what PLG is really about and make the actual decisions, and the novitiate junior members, who knew nothing and would cycle off the committee soon anyway. This sounds very harsh, I am sure, but I found it to be the reality of the editorial board’s attitude and the reality of their power on the CC. Any suggestion of an idea that was at variance with PLG orthodoxy (which is much narrower than PLG’s promise of non-sectarianism would suggest) was be crushed by the leadership group with an intensity and anger that created a toxic environment. The atmosphere within the Coordinating Committee was one of fear and condemnation. (Disclosure: Although I was intimately involved in PLG for ten years before resigning from the Coordinating Committee, I was never able to overcome my newcomer, junior-member status in the minds of the founding group. This probably ended up being a blessing.)

The ugliness of the proceedings within the Coordinating Committee, and the lack of satisfaction in actually trying to participate, led six of us to resign. (Possibly more – I may not be remembering everyone.) While I feel fairly confident in justifying PLG’s interest in maintaining its socialist direction, it is harder to explain or justify the toxic nature of our internal politics, which at times have spilled out onto the larger list and have also usually been evident at PLG’s meetings during ALA Conferences. I can’t claim to be innocent of contributing to the ugliness that we have experienced within PLG, but I can attest to the difficulty of not contributing to it if you’ve wanted to participate in decision making during this period. It is simply an ugly process, and I think it is fairest to explain it in terms of the structural problem that stems from having these two conflicting imperatives: that of democratizing PLG and that of maintaining its socialist character, in an environment where far from all of those librarians who consider themselves progressive consider themselves socialist. The conflict between these imperatives has created a living tension within PLG that we have not always analyzed or understood.

Here it’s worth repeating that it isn’t the nature of socialism, per se, that is in tension with the democratic imperative. The conflict lies in trying to maintain a particular perspective (which could be any perspective) while making the group more democratic.

By way of contrast, I should briefly mention my recent experience with another group, Information for Social Change (ISC). This is a UK-based group with a history that I am not as familiar with, but I encountered them initially at around the same time I encountered PLG, through their print publication (now an online journal). Shortly after I resigned from the Coordinating Committee of PLG, I was invited to join the board of ISC, which I did. The journal Information for Social Change has always struck me as interestingly eclectic and diverse, as well as not guided by the same high standards as PL. The articles they publish there vary much more widely in quality and represent a more diverse range of views.

When I joined the ISC board and began to read the email discussions in their decision making process, I was astounded and amused by the contrast to the PLG process. Proposals tend to be accepted immediately without discussion, despite what seemed to me like obvious potential for problems in terms of ideological consistency. The tone of their discussions is light and friendly, and debate is as rare as it is sensitive and polite. The reason for this is not that they are a group of nicer people. They are not much different from PLG’s leaders as people. The reason for it is that their group lacks the kind of conflict between imperatives that dogs PLG. For one thing, ISC is much less guided by any particular ideology than PLG – it has no programmatic compact. Its board members include Stalinists, anarchists, liberals, and everything in between, and they don’t worry about the differences. The result of this is a journal that lacks a definite perspective but can be counted on to offer something unexpected. On the flip side, ISC has never had members. It has a board that edits and publishes a journal, and also works on statements together (interesting but true) and sometimes puts on speaking events. But without members, there is no imperative in ISC for a democratic structure. It happily exists as a non-specific, non-membership organization. As a result I think it is limited in what it can offer librarianship in ways that PLG is not, but is obviously less burdened with difficulty.

Back to PLG.

Between its initial ratification by the membership and now, the official guidelines of the Coordinating Committee have been modified twice by the committee itself, without even informing membership of the changes. Among the changes were:

  • Reduction of the length of the term for at-large members of the committee;
  • Elimination of the requirement for an election for new members of the committee. (Elections are now only be expected “in the event of high interest” in serving in an open position.);
  • Restriction of the ability of members to take action in the name of PLG at membership meetings, specifically regarding any “statement, project, or resolution.” These now must be proposed to the Coordinating Committee, which has the sole power to act on them. An exception is provided for, that 10 members of PLG may ask for a question to be voted on by the PLG membership. But, gone is the presumption that PLG members can take action for PLG at a membership meeting.

Though I was a member of the Coordinating Committee at the time it made these changes to the guidelines, I have no memory of the changes being discussed.

These changes reflect definite anxiety about allowing members to have power in PLG. Though I understand and support the imperative at the root of these anxieties, I question their proportionality to the actual danger, especially if PLG is at all as non-sectarian as it claims.

Though I have focused on the imperative of maintaining PLG’s socialist character as the driver of the effort by the editorial board to maintain its control of PLG, it is natural that more personal, psychological factors should be in play. The founders of PLG, despite their objections to the contrary, have a sense of ownership of the group, and don’t want to give that up. It is difficult to sort out the extent to which this is behind the problems we’ve been experiencing, but I feel that I must mention it for the sake of realism as well as humanism. Everyone involved is only a human being.

Elaine Harger has been particularly definite in her denial of any desire to maintain personal control of PLG, and her welcoming personality and personal warmth make it hard to be skeptical. She seems, as a person, to be untainted by the ego issues of her masculine colleagues in PLG, and she has also demonstrated, over the years, less of an attachment to a particular theoretical foundation for the group. This would lead one to expect that she would be supportive of the call to democratize the structure of the Coordinating Committee, and would act as a member of the the Coordinating Committee in a way that empowered newer members. But this has not been the case.

At the organizational level, whenever the idea of separating the editorial board from the Coordinating Committee has arisen, Elaine has opposed it, for the official reason that the board needs to be there to “provide continuity with PLG’s original programmatic compact” (and also that we may not find enough commitment from volunteers outside of this group, which I have to admit is a real possibility). I find it painful to hear her say this, because the conflict between the organization’s two major imperatives is so visible within her as well. Elaine sincerely wants both a more democratic and open PLG but is just as sincerely worried about it losing aspects of its character.

It’s with a sense of risk that I talk about individuals in this way, but it also seems necessary to me, given that I have decided to shine a light on PLG. I hope it is evident to readers that I am making my best attempt at fairness.

A note about student chapters.

Through the years I’m discussing here, we now and again heard from students who wanted to form PLG student chapters at their library schools. We debated about whether this should be allowed, and what kind of formal connections and reporting should be required. Mark and John were particularly concerned that groups of students, without guidance from the Coordinating Committee, might engage in forms of activism, mainly anarchist direct actions with PR-stunt qualities to them, that they felt would associate PLG with ideas that we shouldn’t accept. Elaine supported allowing student chapters, and disagreed with Mark and John’s rejection of playful, showy, anarchist methods. In the end, none of us could deny that the interest and energy of students could only be a good thing, and it was obvious that refusing to allow student chapters would look very bad. So we added provisions for student chapters to the CC guidelines that called for a degree of reporting and connection to the central body. The leadership has felt both a sense of gratitude that library students have remained enthusiastic enough about PLG though these difficult years to start student chapters, and a sense of anxiety about what they might do (in PLG’s name) without the benefit of the group’s enlightened socialist guidance. I talk about it with some wryness now, but it would be wrong of me not to admit that when I was in the thick of it, I shared these feelings.

Recent Events

About a year after my resignation from the Coordinating Committee, ALA met in Philadelphia for its midwinter meeting, and PLG met, too. That was January of this year.

PLG’s meeting was scheduled to be divided in two parts, following the recent tradition of beginning with hour-long discussion sessions led by Lauren Ray (a CC member then) and Georgie Donovan, whose ideas these discussion sessions were. By the time of this meeting, however, both Lauren and Georgie were not able to come (I believe Lauren had resigned from the CC by this point), and the discussion session was to be led by Peter McDonald, who is one of PLG’s founders and who rejoined the editorial board a few years ago.

Peter is someone who, like me and all of the members of the editorial board, has been troubled by the atmosphere of PLG politics and has wanted to find a way out of it into the open air and level ground. Perhaps I should credit him for his commitment to PLG in staying involved while I chose to duck out.

Peter chose as the theme of the discussion session for Philadelphia, “How to make PLG more welcoming to new members.” During the years of the Coordinating Committee’s existence, if you asked members of the leadership circle to identify the major problem in PLG, they would have said, “Attracting new members and not turning them off.” Again, little analysis of the source of the disagreeable fumes.

Peter was and remains genuinely sincere about wanting to make new members feel welcome, and sincere in his perplexity about why we don’t. He began the discussion session by asking the group in attendance, the majority of which consisted of library students who had recently formed student chapters of PLG, what we could do to make them feel more welcome (emphasis mine), and to talk about what PLG means to them. As we went around the room, the young PLG members described activities that they’re doing in their student chapters – with no advice from PLG Central, I will note – that I would describe as original, creative, progressive, refreshing, activist, challenging, educational, and impressive. Some in these student chapters are probably anarchists, but whether I agree with their political philosophy or not, I think it would be a shame to inhibit their creative activities on those grounds. What they are doing, first and foremost, is positive action.

I should note here that Peter was having success in something much desired – providing a welcoming atmosphere for new members at a PLG meeting. For years, the tenor of discussion at PLG meetings was heavy and harsh and intimidating, even toxic. Lauren and Georgie’s innovation of a discussion session was a welcome relief, and Peter understandably wished to continue this healthy practice. The “boring details” of the business meeting, i.e., the place where members would have the power to act in the name of PLG (at least before the CC decided otherwise), would be held afterward; anyone at the discussion meeting who was brave enough was invited to attend.

My place in the circle around the room was at about three quarters of the way around. As the discussion meeting went on, the reports from the student chapters showed where the real life of PLG is located, and my mind seethed at the phony paternalism of wondering aloud how “we” could be more welcoming to “them,” when in fact no opportunity for equal membership would be forthcoming under the current regime.

When the minute hand ticked over to me, I said what was on my mind, and it could accurately be called a rant. It was a summary of the issues that I’m discussing here, delivered with pent up anger.

It was not what Peter, or any of the students in attendance either, expected. Perhaps I should have disciplined myself and saved it for the business meeting that was to follow, which was the designated place for organizational issues. I brought it up because I felt that any discussion of how “we” could be more welcoming to “them,” accompanied by Peter’s sincere perplexity about why we are not, would be dishonest if the core issues went unaddressed. And so, some students were put off by PLG’s internal tensions and ugly politics. I was responsible for that, it is true, but at the same time, I was the only one in the know who can take credit for being honest about PLG at that meeting. Unlike Peter, I didn’t try to protect our new members from the knowledge of what was actually going on in this organization that they are interested in.

I’ll tell you what I said at the beginning and the end of my rant. What I said at the beginning was that if PLG were to govern itself as a federation of student chapters, with student representatives being the only ones in charge, then PLG would have a bright future; but if the Coordinating Committee tries to stay the course with permanent membership for the editorial board, it will not survive beyond that small group’s activity. And I think that’s true.

My rant led to some discussion, at the end of which, still ranting, I suggested a proposal: that we should restructure the Coordinating Committee so that within three years (just to be reasonable) the PL editorial board is represented by just one person, and that there will be one representative from each student chapter (actually Peter’s idea originally, which he suggested during the discussion, and which I liked). In discussion, the group decided to defer this idea until the business meeting. Then, at the business meeting, the group decided that the Coordinating Committee would investigate the ideas presented and address the issue at the next membership meeting, in Anaheim. Action would presumably be taken then.

Fast forward to Anaheim…

Based on my personal conversations with him, I believe that Peter is, among the founding members of PLG, the person who is the most open to restructuring the Coordinating Committee along democratic lines. So I don’t believe that his leadership of the PLG meeting in Anaheim represents any real attempt to maintain control for the CC by avoiding the issue. I think Peter’s main motivation in running the meeting as he did was to create a positive experience of involvement in PLG for the newer members who attended. I think he probably really does believe that the problems in PLG are that superficial, and not a structural problem. As a result of his approach, the PLG meeting in Anaheim was a very positive discussion of the environmental crisis (not the PLG environment, but the world’s ecological systems) and how librarians should address it. Different perspectives and ideas were shared. Peter did a beautiful job of facilitating the meeting so that everyone who wished to say something about the environmental crisis and how librarians should address it would have a chance to speak without feeling intimidated. From beginning to end, the PLG meeting felt the way we all wish PLG meetings could feel all the time. It was full of a sense of fellow-feeling, shared concern, belongingness, and mutual support. These are feelings that most of us remember from our early experiences in the library left community, and wish would characterize that community for us every day.

The problem, of course, was that there was no business meeting. No PLG business was discussed. No minutes from the previous meeting were distributed, nothing reported, no issues presented. The ugly problem of control and democracy was swept under the rug. PLG members were protected from both unpleasantness and empowerment. The CC moved forward with its assumption that the governance of PLG is their task and privilege, and not that of the members. My proposal for restructuring the CC, as well as other ideas that would supposedly be discussed in Anaheim, ignored.

What to do now?

As a result of these developments, it seems that if the problem is going to be solved, it is going to require ten PLG members to force a proposal to a vote of the membership.

Doing that requires some careful thinking about what the future of PLG should be, and carefully weighing the risks of a more open process for constituting the Coordinating Committee. What if it proves too difficult to actually find enough people willing to serve on the committee in a responsible way? What if reactionaries pack the board and reverse our direction? There is some security involved in permanent member status for PLG’s most dedicated people (the ones with the strongest sense of ownership).

And how tightly or loosely should PLG’s idea-base be defined? Despite being non-sectarian, PLG is ideologically much more consistent than ALA/SRRT, and the value of this ought to be recognized. It is difficult for many people to give credit to PLG for this, especially if their own views are different.

Recognizing the energy and ideas in the student chapters, to what extent can they be relied upon for continuation over time? Student organizations tend to wax and wane in activity based on student leadership.

How should PLG, as distinct from the journal, be defined? What should its activities be? What should its function be?

I am still interested in moving forward with my proposal to constitute the Coordinating Committee with the same number of at-large members, plus one representative from the journal and one representative from each student chapter, with a time period of three years for transition, but I would agree with anyone who would say that these questions need careful thought and further discussion.

I made the choice to go public with this story because I feel it’s the only way to be sure that the core issues in PLG will be addressed before it is too late. I definitely feel that PLG’s resistance to change in recent years is self destructive. “Change or die” is the imperative that nature gives us.

I fully expect some people to not like the fact that I’ve posted this. That’s okay.

PLG members are especially invited to comment. If you comment and you are a PLG member, it would be helpful to the discussion if you would state your membership status.

This is written in solidarity with progressive librarians and with the people who make up our world situation…

July 23, 2008

Library Juice Book Club

From Erik Estep, sent out by email today:

Hello Everyone,

I’m very pleased to announce the Library Juice Book Club. Here are the details:

(1) The first book is Questioning Library Neutrality, edited by Alison Lewis. The anthology covers a lot of ground an will give us much to discuss. If you are at interested in activist librarianship, this is a must read. For more information and ordering please click on this link: http://libraryjuicepress.com/neutrality.php

(2) I would like for the discussion to start on Monday August 18th. The discussion will be on a forum moderated by yours truly.

(3) If any of you are interested, please contact me at this email address. Let me know by Friday August 1st.

(4) I’m not handling any book orders myself. So, please click on the link above and place your order online.

I look forward to hearing from you!



Erik Sean Estep
North Carolina Reference Librarian
3300 Joyner Library
East Carolina University
Greenville, NC 27858-4353
Phone: (252) 328-0734
Fax: (252) 328-0868

July 22, 2008

ALA-APA’s Living Wage Resolution in the context of a global economy, global famine, and U.S. economic decline

I am going to be try to be brief here and state my views on the issue of librarians’ salaries as simply as I can, with reference to things happening right now in ALA-APA and in the world as a whole.

At the recent ALA conference in Anaheim, ALA’s sister organization, the American Library Association Allied Professionals Association (which was formed to do things like start a librarians’ certification program and advocate for the profession in ways that ALA’s non-profit status doesn’t allow it to do) passed a living wage resolution for library workers. It sets a recommended minimum salary for librarians at $41,000 and change, to be adjusted annually for inflation, and a recommended minimum salary for library workers of $13 an hour. This is called a “living wage.”

The movement for a living wage, and the movement to improve librarians’ salaries, has its roots in the labor movement, which was successful in the first half of the 20th century in spreading the wealth of American society to its workers, so that the great majority of us could live an affluent lifestyle. As each generation of Americans has expected to do better economically than their parents, our expectations of a middle class standard of living has gone up, along with our definition of a “living wage” and our definition of the poverty level.

My generation is the first generation during this era that stands to do less well economically than our parents’ generation. This is because price inflation has outpaced wage inflation consistently since the 1970s (even during the boom years of the Clinton era, where the increases in wealth were mostly enjoyed by the wealthiest Americans).

Many blame this economic decline on globalization. I would agree with them, except that as someone who sees himself as a “citizen of the world” first and an American second, I have to say that I credit our economic decline to globalization, as wage disparities between countries have begun to become a little more fair due to global competition.

The United States has 5% of the world’s population, and is responsible for 25% of the world’s natural resource use.

According to the World Bank, the poverty level in a poor country is $1 per day. For a middle-income country, the poverty level is $2 per day. (These wages make food inflation a completely different matter for them than it is for us.)

For the United States, according to the department of Health and Human Services, the poverty level is considered to be about $30 a day. These dollar amounts reflect buying power. By comparison to world standards, an American at the poverty level is filthy rich. But it doesn’t feel like it, because it is human nature to compare ourselves to our neighbors.

Please welcome the rest of the world to your neighborhood.

If my math is right (not my best subject), according to ALA-APA, a living wage for a library worker is $104 per day, or $158 per day if that library worker is a librarian. By global standards, our living wage could be called a king’s living wage.

The wealth disparity between countries is decreasing, mostly because many developing economies have been developing very rapidly (China, India, and Brazil are good examples, but it’s true of many many countries). If their middle classes become more like ours in terms of income, then our living wage definition would be relatively in order and we should be justified in defining it in the way that we already do, right?

Wrong. The basic problem is not global inequality, which is indeed decreasing, but the limitation of the world’s resources. Rising demand for natural resources from developing countries as well as developed countries has roughly found the limit of what the world is able to supply. We are running out of oil, water, minerals, and space for trash. We have surpassed the planet’s ability to process our pollution and handle our C02 and methane.

Meanwhile, economic growth on all continents continues, and in many places is accelerating. Populations in the fastest growing economies are also growing fast.

Income translates into consumption, and consumption translates into resource use.

While the people of the U.S. are the world’s biggest consumers, more and more of that consumption has been fueled by personal debt. The U.S. government has the same credit card habit. And our trade deficit steadily increases. So we are the largest debtor nation in the world, and we owe much of our debt to countries that we are in the habit of thinking of as third world countries (China, India, Brazil, etc.)

This means that we are in the beginning phases of an economic decline and global rebalancing that will take generations to complete. The U.S. has already lost its place as the world’s superpower.

In my view there is justice in this course of events. For generations, we have lived like a nation of pigs, and we are just at the beginning of a long lesson in how to live in harmony with our neighbors and how to stay within the limits of the world’s natural resources.

Wages for U.S. librarians, at least in terms of our buying power, have been in decline since the 70s and are continuing to decline, along with wages for all U.S. workers. Because of global rebalancing of wages and because of our environmental footprint, this is how it should be. And there is nothing that can stop the U.S. decline. Libraries will begin to feel, and have begun to feel, external constraints on their budgets that no amount of lobbying can counter, because the economic decline affects every sector of society.

So my response to the living wage resolution is… I would like a plasma TV too, but what world do you think we’re living in?

July 19, 2008

Survey report on library services to the poor

ALA has an important policy, Policy 61, on library services to poor people. This policy was brought about in the mid-90s through the dedicated work of SRRT’s Homelessness, Hunger, and Poverty Task Force (HHPTF), with the leadership of Sandy Berman.

The HHPTF is still going strong as one of SRRT’s more active Task Forces, and has recently turned its attention to the question of implementation and awareness of the policy.

Partnering with ALA’s Office for Literacy and Outreach Services, they recently completed and analyzed an ALA member survey on Policy 61. The resulting report provides the text of the policy, summarizes its objectives, reports on and analyzes the survey responses, identifies issues and trends, and makes recommendations.

Although the report is brief, I think it is very important and deserves wide attention among librarians and in ALA.

July 18, 2008

Please note: We are not the new generation

My generation is called Generation X, but I’d like to start thinking of us as the Silent Generation 2.0, because the world we found is similar in some ways to what the Silent Generation found, and because we are pretty quiet. We don’t make a lot of noise about what our generation represents and what we want to do differently than the generation that came ahead of us. The Baby Boom generation really likes the spotlight as a generation, and that’s okay. We have learned and continue to learn a lot from their performance.

As time goes by and we enter middle age (I’m 41), I and some others, however, have started to feel like speaking up as a generation. I don’t find this easy, because I think it’s unsavory. I would like generational conflict not to exist. I think it’s an ugly form of opposition, as oppositions go, because I think relations between generational groups should mostly be about learning (in both directions).

Usually when I speak, I don’t feel that I am speaking as a Generation Xer, so much as an observer of what exists who came on the scene after most of the people who are doing the talking did. But there is something I want to say as a Generation Xer. Probably only this one thing.

What I have to say is, please notice that a decade has gone by since we were the new generation.

I got my MLIS when I was 31, ten years ago. At that time, my cohort was the first group that came through library school after the World Wide Web had suddenly changed everything in a big way. This meant that we naturally had a different perspective from people who had gone through library school just a few years before. It also meant that we had the same teachers (whereas many of us are now teaching today’s library students, and my favorite teachers from library school are all retired or deceased).

We were talked about as the new generation of librarians. I remember being interviewed for an exciting and colorful website called “New Breed Librarian” that Juanita Benedicto and Colleen Bell created. That website made a big statement at the time. It disappeared from the web several years ago.

The idea of a next generation of librarians that began at that time has since persisted and morphed, but today I am officially too old to be a part of the now-existing Next Gen Librarians group and listserv. I am also too old, as well as too experienced, to be a part of a number of other groups and initiatives that are about the “next generation.” There is indeed a next generation of librarians, but it is two generations removed from the Baby Boom generation that still does most of the talking. While we’ve been talking about the “next generation” there have in fact been two “next generations.” (This may be part of the reason we’re talking about Web 2.0.)

Lately, I have been tolerating a lot of really annoying discussion that refers to the difference between the Baby Boom generation of librarians and the new generation of librarians in such a way that my generation seems pretty much left out or lumped in with the Millennials. (As an example, take a look at Stephen Abrams’ recent pair of open letters to “the two generations.”)

In a way it is not surprising. We have been quiet as a generation, and we are smaller in number in the profession than the Baby Boomers. But our numbers are not so small as to be insignificant. We are present in libraries and are often in management level positions. We also have a perspective, given our experience in library school with both an older generation of teachers and a world of new technology, that allows us to serve as an institutional bridge between the old and the new.

So, what I would like is to ask Baby Boomers to distinguish us, in your thinking, from the Millennial generation. Don’t lump us together with them as the new generation, because we are not the same generation. And please don’t dismiss us as slackers with punk attitudes. I think our attitudes have been misunderstood. I think we tend to be thought of according to the way we acted in late adolescence. Having had time to mature, I think we now tend to offer practicality and realism, as well as efficiency, where as young people I think we were displaying a natural reaction to what we were presented with. Having thrown off the weight of a difficult cultural situation, as now not-young adults I think we can best be described as quietly driven, a fact which Baby Boomers don’t seem to have noticed.

The past ten years have gone by in the blink of an eye. I want it to be recognized that my generation is no longer new.

Electronic journal access found to reduce breadth of citations

Noting an article of interest:

Electronic Publication and the Narrowing of Science and Scholarship

Science 18 July 2008:
Vol. 321. no. 5887, pp. 395 – 399
DOI: 10.1126/science.1150473

James Evans finds that scholars’ access to online journals tends to reduce the breadth of the citations to other articles in their work; that is, articles outside of the sources to which they have electronic access tend to be left out when they wouldn’t otherwise be. This is logical and something that many have suspected, but there’s nothing like data…

Thanks to Fred Stoss for sending the link to multiple lists, after it was written up in The Chronicle of Higher Education today.

One answer: good scholars should have the discipline to go beyond the most convenient information sources. Another answer: bring everything into the electronic fold. I suspect that it’s the second course of action that will continue to be pursued; then, before long, it will be advertised as a completed job. We’ll be told that everything relevant is online and there’s no need to go outside the interface, and that if it’s not in the interface there’s a good reason for it. The interface itself will become the de facto quality filter, though it will be economic factors (pay to play) rather than editorial ones that primarily determine who is in and who is out of the fold…

July 17, 2008

Digital Copyright Slider

Want to know if something is in the public domain or under copyright? Use the ALA OIT’s new digital copyright slider to find out. They’ve had an actual slide-rule like physical one in publication for a few years, and many people have asked for a digital version. I’m pleased to see it.

July 16, 2008

The future of federated searching


July 15, 2008

Intellectual Freedom advocacy in a Huxleyan world

A favorite debate of pessimistic sophomores, or perhaps sophomoric pessimists, is as to whether our society and its future is more like George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It’s such a common juxtaposition and so simple to talk about it that I bring it up at the risk of terribly oversimplifying things. But Orwell and Huxley knew each other (Huxley was the elder), and these are two important satiric novels from the same time period dealing with the same questions. Together they provide an easy framework for talking about two visions of dystopia that relate to social questions of today.

For Orwell, the threat of totalitarianism was of a society controlled by fear, where people knew that they were oppressed but had lost the freedom to stand up against the forces of oppression. He was clearly worried about forces that pull us toward out-and-out fascist or communist totalitarian societies. For Huxley, the threat came from another direction – the narcotic pleasures of an affluent society and people’s susceptibility to the soft propaganda of advertising and group identity. For Huxley, the evil to be worried about was not fascism or communism but something that he saw our own capitalist societies quietly sinking into, like sleep. Huxley would have been at home with some of the basic critiques, if not the language, of the Frankfurt School thinkers’ responses to advanced capitalism (though Huxley was not writing about capitalism per se).

In both novels, society has cut people off from nature and from their own souls, and has taken away their freedom and anything more than a semblance of democratic control. In both novels, society is overtaken by order, but the feel of this order and the manner in which it is maintained are different.

Both novels are also concerned, at certain levels, with the construction of knowledge and the way that truth is communicated or effaced in society. That is to say, they are both concerned with intellectual freedom.

There certainly have been some 1984-like developments in American society since Orwell was writing, and these have accelerated since 9/11/2001. The Federal government has given itself more powers of surveillance and has eroded constitutional protections against tyranny.

Our American Library Association, in keeping with its commitment to intellectual freedom, has spoken up against provisions in the USA PATRIOT ACT and other legislation and executive orders that have eroded our civil liberties during this time. And going further back, ALA and the Freedom to Read Foundation have fought and continue to fight censorship efforts by community members uncomfortable with some ideas present in libraries, and to protect unrestricted access to the internet by opposing the overuse of content filters. ALA’s Intellectual Freedom establishment is working hard to defend our society against a future that is like George Orwell’s 1984.

I will lay my cards on the table and say that I think the greater threat to our freedom, at least at present, is not a 1984 scenario, but is a threat much more like Huxley’s Brave New World. This isn’t to say that ALA shouldn’t fight censorship, or be opposed to filtering, or work against the PATRIOT ACT. It should continue to do those things. But I definitely think that ALA’s Intellectual Freedom establishment should broaden its viewpoint and look at the ways in which information as entertainment gradually works against information literacy and self-government, and the ways in which market forces can limit rather than expand the availability and use of ideas. It has begun to do this, to a certain extent; the report, “Fostering Media Diversity in Libraries,” published a year ago, is a good example of some thinking from ALA’s IF community that is cognizant of the nature of threats to intellectual freedom in a Huxleyan world. The sub-committee that produced it has since been disbanded, but it remains a step in the right direction. More thinking along these lines will require creativity – because the Huxleyan threat is by nature less obvious, more subtle, and more complex – and a certain amount of courage, because people will militate for their next entertainment fix. (“I want my MTV!”)

Unfortunately, ALA is also taking steps in the wrong direction. Just as an example, ALA is presently putting resources into a campaign to help library users prepare for the transition to digital broadcast television. Television is probably the one greatest social development since Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931 that has pleasurably herded us in the direction he described. It is difficult to see what digital broadcast television has to do with libraries, and it seems as though ALA is participating in this campaign as a way of apologizing for being about books, and to try to disassociate libraries from boring, antiquated print media and the discipline of scholarship that goes with it. Aside from that, in a general way, I think that some of the trends that we are seeing in libraries that are based on “feel good” measures may end up short-circuiting and impoverishing independent thought in a narcotic way, rather than supporting democracy as they are advertised as doing. These are not simple questions, and require looking into things more deeply than most people have the time or the inclination to do.

If I’ve piqued your interest in Aldous Huxley, I can recommend a reading for you on the web: Brave New World Revisited, a series of essays that he wrote about modern Western society, looking back on the vision of his novel from the vantage point of 1958. I have found his ideas very useful.

July 14, 2008

Library Journal reviews Questioning Library Neutrality

If you’d like to purchase Questioning Library Neutrality for your library but need to supply a review from a mainstream source in order to justify it, the answer is here. In the July issue of Library Journal there is a nice review of the book that should do the trick.

July 11, 2008

SRRT Councilor’s Report on ALA Council

ALA Council Report to SRRT, Anaheim, June 2008

ALA met at Disneyland, whoops, I mean Anaheim, June 27th to July 2nd. The ALA and APA Councils passed several resolutions that are particularly important to SRRT concerns. As Council goes, it was a remarkably tranquil meeting and Council III finished its business in record time, adjourning around 10 am on Wednesday morning. In fact, I immediately thought that since we had extra time we should have worked harder and got more SRRT resolutions on the agenda.

Our SRRT Resolution Concerning ALA Policy Opposing Sweatshop Labor and Support for Union Businesses passed in modified form. At the Council Forum where Councilors informally discuss forthcoming resolutions, it was quite clear that there was a lot of support for the sweatshop provision but vehement opposition to including anything about unions. Jonathan Betz-Zall and I therefore deleted the union language before it came up on the Council floor. So this as a step in the right direction, but it is unclear on whether we can ever get a union provision. ALA itself is not unionized. Keith Michael Fiels, ALA Executive Director, is quite pleased about our resolution and he is eager to begin implementing it.

Another SRRT initiative came up again as part of the usual ALA Implementation Report from the Midwinter Meeting. It seems that although we had substantial documentation and included a short bibliography, our resolution demanding the return of confiscated Iraqi documents had several inaccuracies. These were pointed out by Dr. Saad Eskander, Iraq’s National Archivist. Jonathan and I revised the resolution and resubmitted it to the International Relations Committee. The IRC reported it out, and the Council passed the revised version without much comment.

The never-ending Cuba discussion came to Anaheim in the form of another resolution in support of the so-called “independent librarians,” who are neither independent nor librarians. Rather they are mostly politicians and journalists, funded by the US Government, who happen to have small book collections in their homes. Although proposed by three Councilors, both seconders were new to ALA Council and when given full information about ALA’s longstanding record and the covert motives of the powers behind the effort, both seconders withdrew their support. The resolution therefore had no second, and was never included in the official agenda. I want to complement Peter McDonald, Chair of the ALA Resolutions Committee, on his excellent work on this matter. Peter explained the background to the debate at the Council Forum to new Councilors and the old ones chimed in to note their disgust in having to deal with this again and again. Peter also initiated a discussion at the Council Forum and on the Council floor exposing the anti-Cuba lobby’s dirty tricks. This time they seem to have crossed a line when they revised an ALA document, and then distributed it as if it were a real ALA document. They even sent it with a simulated ALA Council subject line in their e-mail messages.

The document is Michael Dowling’s (Head of the ALA International Relations Office) extremely well researched report titled Cuba Update for ALA Annual 2008. The original document shows that 98% of the funds of these “independent librarians” come from the US Government. And it also shows how US Government funds have been used to try to influence library associations. Peter explained how this lobby has targeted new ALA Councilors and even candidates for Council. They have bullied them and tried to get them to sign on by asserting that their support would get them elected to Council. Two new Councilors came forward to publicly decry these tactics from their personal experiences. Keith Fiels will write a letter to Steve Marquardt who doctored the document noting ALA’s displeasure, possibly including the legal issues involved. Keith will work on ways to alert new Councilors of these dirty tricks, and he will also alert big name ALA speakers so they are not duped as in the past.

I was particularly happy to see the passage of the ALA APA resolution, “Endorsement of a Living Wage for All Library Employees and a Minimum Salary for Professional Librarians.” This follows-up on a resolution passed last year endorsing a salary minimum of $40,000 adjusted each year for inflation. The rate stated in the new resolution is $41,680 for librarians and $13.00/hr. for hourly workers.

The Intellectual Freedom Committee brought and Council passed six revisions to interpretations of the Library Bill of Rights. Most of these involved only very minor language changes. The most important change added “gender expression” to the interpretation now titled, “Access to Library Resources and Services Regardless of Sex, Gender Identity, Gender Expression, or Sexual Orientation.” The Council passed a separate resolution on pending legislation, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA). The resolution calls for the reinstatement of protections for transgender persons regarding gender identity and expression. Evidently, these protections were in the original bill but subsequently deleted.

The Committee on Legislation brought and Council approved resolutions on funding support for the National Agricultural Library and outreach to the five national libraries regarding the @Your Library campaign, support for the E-Government Reauthorization Act of 2007, and support for preservation and access to the US audio heritage by bringing these materials under federal Copyright jurisdiction.

Finally, Council passed the “Resolution Adopting the Definitions of Digital Preservation and the Revised Preservation Policy for the American Library Association,” and a resolution expanding Council transparency which might eventually lead to live streaming of Council sessions.

As always, I will try to answer any questions.

Al Kagan
SRRT Councilor

ALA IFC’s Fostering Media Diversity in Libraries, and ALA’s grey literature in general

In my view, one of the most important documents and position statements that ALA has produced in the last few years was its June 2007 report, “Fostering Media Diversity in Libraries: Strategies and Actions.” This was produced by a subcommittee of the Intellectual Freedom Committee, now dissolved, called the Subcommittee on the Impact of Media Concentration on Libraries. This subcommittee studied the effect of media concentration and produced a report with guidance for librarians on what is a central issue affecting intellectual freedom in the current economic system. This report has a political-economic perspective to it that is a little different from what we usually see coming from ALA, in the sense that it goes beyond being civil libertarian and critiques – in a moderate and indirect way – the system upon which the Association’s many corporate donors depend.

I had hoped that this report would make it into the new edition of the Intellectual Freedom Handbook, or that it would have its conclusions codified in some other way so that it could have a continuing life in the Association’s communications, and not disappear into the mists of time as “that report from 2007” that a few people vaguely remember. But at present it seems to be having an especially difficult time remaining in memory.

At the moment and for the past year or so, ALA has been having serious problems with its website, as data has been transferred between one internal architecture to another. In the process, this document disappeared and became unavailable (along with many others). ALA is struggling to make its documents available again. I’m naturally paranoid, so I can’t help wondering if there’s some selectivity going on, but I’m aware enough of what happens when systems fail to know that there needn’t be any conspiracy theory to explain the loss of documents, unless you can detect a pattern, and I haven’t looked into it enough to see any.

Karen Muller, ALA’s librarian, was very helpful in finding this document on ALA’s internal network drives, and sent it to me. In order to make it available while ALA is striving to get its website functioning properly again, I have uploaded it to my own server to share with you.

The problems ALA is having with its website are related to a rollout of a new website that should be coming along soon; documents are disappearing in preparation for it. Paranoia aside, this does leave me wondering about the general question of ALA’s grey literature and how it is controlled and made available (or not). Is there a weeding process going on in the transition to the new site? ALA produces many documents in a given year. What happens to them? I don’t think they are ever listed anywhere; their life seems to be tied to the committees that produce them, so you kind of need to know about them to find them (or ask for them if they can’t be found on the site). I think that probably no-one in ALA really knows what documents have been lost. This is a problem that has an obvious solution: index all of ALA’s grey literature in a central way. I think that the responsibility to do this would logically fall on ALA’s librarian and knowledge management officer, Karen Muller. If her job presently demands too much of her to make this possible, then maybe ALA needs to staff that function more generously and give her an assistant. If there is already some indexing of ALA’s grey literature going on, then I think the index should be made available to members and the public.

We are headed for a major turnover in member leadership in ALA as the older generation approaches retirement en masse. This means that the availability of the Association’s committee reports and studies and other grey literature is going to have growing importance. I hope that ALA will approach this issue systematically and solve the problem, and not just float onward without dealing with it.

July 9, 2008

Call for papers on critical pedagogy and library instruction

Critical Pedagogy and Library Instruction: An Edited Collection

Critical pedagogy seeks to identify, critique, and disrupt the inequalities of the dominant culture, thus equipping learners to transform oppressive social, cultural, and economic conditions. While many theorists, critics, and practitioners have considered how critical pedagogical strategies and perspectives might be employed in higher education, the academic library remains mostly absent in these discussions. There have been few interventions in the library literature with specific reference to critical pedagogy, but these perspectives mostly consider critical literacy applications. Other forms of critical pedagogy, such as feminist, queer, and anti-racist, have yet to be fully explored in the context of the library instruction classroom. We intend for this book to intervene in this gap in the literature.

Objective of book

This book, to be published by Library Juice Press in Spring 2010, proposes to consider the following questions: How might library instruction benefit from exploring critical pedagogical strategies? What challenges are posed by the unique requirements of library instruction? And how might our use of critical pedagogical strategies help us embed library instruction in the critical classrooms on our campuses? We invite proposals that 1) investigate intersections between critical pedagogy and the library instruction classroom and 2) identify pedagogical applications that can be adopted in library instruction programs.

Target audience

The target audience for this book includes librarians who teach, library instruction program coordinators, faculty and instructors interested in bringing librarians into the classroom, and librarians interested in developing liberatory and anti-oppressive professional practices.

Suggested topics

Suggested topics include, but are not limited to:

  • Envisioning what critical pedagogy might do for the library instruction classroom
  • Examination of specific types of critical pedagogies–such as queer, feminist, or anti-racist–and their implications for the library instruction classroom
  • Discussions of particular theories/theorists (e.g. Paulo Friere, Lisa Delpit, Peter Mclaren, Henry Giroux, Deborah Britzman, etc.) and their relevance for library instruction
  • Illustrations of how critical pedagogy works in practice
  • Examples of instruction sessions taught from a critical pedagogy framework
  • Explorations of how critical pedagogy intersects with student and faculty research
  • Considerations of how critical pedagogy can inform selection and collection development decisions
  • Imagining how critical pedagogy can be useful in other teaching contexts — e.g., during the reference interview, in workshops, when librarians teach in community spaces

Submission procedure

Please submit abstracts and proposals of up to 500 words and a short author’s statement to criticallibraryinstruction@googlegroups.com by September 15, 2008, with notification by November 15. Final manuscripts of between 1500 and 5000 words will be due February 15.


Maria Accardi, Coordinator of Instruction, Indiana University Southeast: maccardi@gmail.com

Emily Drabinski, Reference Librarian, Sarah Lawrence College: emily.drabinski@gmail.com

Alana Kumbier, Reference and Instruction Librarian, Wellesley College: alana.kumbier@gmail.com