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…

10 Comments »

  1. Hi Rory. Thanks for writing this piece, which should spark a greater discussion in the library world.

    I haven’t been very active in recent years in the debates within the progressive sphere of the library profession, for various reasons, but I do have a peripheral consciousness of various issues. That said, I can’t really comment about current issues in PLG, although I will share some ideas about collective process, after some other comments.

    Yes, I’ve been critical of various people and organizations withing the progressive librarians (and workers) movements. I’ve long been of the mind that these various organizations and movements have their functions and actually complement each other very well. We should be ecstatic that we are part of a profession that has such a vibrant progressive/anarchist/radical current to it.

    SRRT serves as the formal component of progressive librarianship. It provides a formal way to raise issues within the profession and from the big stage that are the ALA conventions. SRRT also gives our movement an institutional memory and historic framework–we can point to its work when we want to explain the importance and efficacy of progressive librarianship. SRRT also makes it easy to organize programming at conferences and give us a voice to get certain speakers.

    PLG serves as a long-running independent voice of progressive librarians (and workers). PLG allows progressive librarians to be vocal about things in a way that isn’t possible within ALA. It also gives a framework for prog librarians to do activism outside of ALA strictures. PLG has a socialist/Marxist flavor, but I think they’ve always been welcoming to anarchists, progressives, liberals, non-label politics, and different forms of leftism.

    The anarchist librarians movement is even looser than PLG and isn’t even an organization. It provides a network for anarchist and anti-authoritarian library workers and for people who may not be librarians who work in quasi-library projects like infoshops. The movement also reflects the political culture that many of us come from and our interests, such as zines. The anarchist librarian movement also provides another radical take on library issues and it encourages activism.

    Radical Reference originated in the anarchist librarians movement, but it has morphed into a practical project that embraces people from across the progressive spectrum and beyond. Rad Ref is an example of a practical project that was set up quickly which would have been impossible within ALA’s bureaucratic process. RR also provides a highly visible working example of our politics. There is nothing like a little practical anarchy, or praxis, to demonstrate to librarians and members of the public that our ideas are viable and relevant.

    I have several frustrations with SRRT and PLG, which really consists of an overlapping group of people. One is that their organizational culture isn’t often unwelcoming to new people. It’s understandable that long-time SRRT/PLG activists would tend to dominate things–this is what they are interested in, they are stakeholders and so on. I’ve been in those shoes many times as a senior member of various collectives. It can be difficult to incorporate new people and turn over power within a group. It’s not like SRRT and PLG exist in a profession with a lack of new prog librarian blood. The number of prog librarians out there keeps increasing. Yet, SRRT and PLG seem to be dominated by the same small group year after year. I don’t want to blame these people, because their commitment to progressive librarianship is honorable and respectable.

    My other frustration with SRRT, PLG and the progressive librarian movements is that they are often divorced from the day-to-day concerns of our prog librarian colleagues. It may be worthwhile to pass a resolution on library repression in Lativa or against the U.S. war in Iraq, but these activities reflect two things: 1) an organization that years ago had fewer members and could afford the time to work on these boutique issues; and 2) a liberal hypocisy of focusing on issues outside of the U.S. instead of issues in this country, or in our profession.

    Why has there been so little work and activism done on the most important issues that affect progressive librarians, that being workplace issues? This may sound odd to some people who think that I don’t care about union issues, but progressive librarians are doing shit about workplace organizing or the shit being done against librarians. I really suspect that these issues aren’t raised by the leadership of prog librarians because they have comfortable jobs in academia, archives, and special libraries. As any class war anarchist can tell you, somebody who lives a comfortable middle class professional existence will only pay lip service to the idea of organizing workplaces or doing activism relating to these issues.

    Let’s look at one example. What have progressive librarians done or said lately about the damage being done to our profession and, more importantly, to our jobs and salaries, by university library schools who continue to accept *all* applicants and flood the profession with new librarians who further glut a dwindling base of library jobs? One easy thing prog librarians could raise awareness about is this myth manufactured by library schools that there is a shortage of librarians. This myth goes back more than 15 years and can easily be discounted by looking at ALA job listings. If there was a librarian shortage, libraries would have problems filling positions and would list them for months. This just doesn’t happen.

    There are many other workplace issues that progressive librarians should be tackling. One systemic problem in public libraries is nepotism, hiring-from-within, and outright idiocy when it comes to considering people whose resumes don’t reflect straigh-and-narrow careers. Another workplace practice that needs to be changed is the hierarchical organizational structure that all libraries inflict on their employees. There is absolutely no reason why libraries can’t be organized collectively. Libraries also suffer from over-specialization. Let people rotate job functions-that would spice up the work environment for many library workers.

    The Cuba issue has been frustrating for many progressive librarians, but it really represents an irrelevant issue that is inflamed by the nature of the Internet. If you give political people some free time, an Internet connection, and a forum to say their mind, they will talk endlessly about issues that really don’t affect them. Let’s face it, the Cuba issue is something that doesn’t affect our day-to-day lives. It’s almost irrational that we all argue about this topic, instead of workplace issues that affect us.

    Last week I had a long talk with a local librarian and a young student who is thinking about going to library school. The other librarian is a relatively new librarian, while I’ve been a librarian for almost 18 years. I shared my concerns with this student, being frank about issues like the conservative nature of the profession and the lack of jobs, but I also wanted to encourage them because we can always use more progressive librarians.

    Comment by Chuck — July 27, 2008 @ 5:58 pm

  2. One last thing about student PLG chapters.

    This should be encouraged. PLG would really grow as an organization with the existence of student PLG chapters. I wouldn’t worry about students in these chapters “doing anarchist stunts.” You would hope that student PLG members would be motivated to engage in some creative forms of protest, activism and organization. The milueu I was part of in library school in 1989-1990 was not political, but that kind of creative atmosphere deepened my commitment to the profession.

    Comment by Chuck — July 27, 2008 @ 6:02 pm

  3. Hi Rory,

    Interesting ideas — very challenging. I should first say that I wasn’t ever on the Coordinating Committee, and never resigned… so you can maybe edit that.

    I haven’t been to the last two PLG meetings because of scheduling conflicts, but I definitely saw a broadening of the group over the past few years. The workshop that Elaine and others organized (I believe I co-signed the proposal) on diversity and overcoming conflict in activist organizations was fantastic and brought in such a great group of people. Wow. Plus, I have enjoyed the co-joined discussion group/roundtable followed by a business meeting format. The roundtables I’ve led and the ones I’ve attended have been great, and it sounds like Peter has led the last two in an inclusive and thoughtful way.

    I think a rich area for more follow-up is the roundtable that Elaine led (I think in Seattle, Jan. 2007) focused on what PLG’s mission and activities should be… A lot of the activities mentioned (e.g. developing a speakers bureau, building connections and collaborations among diverse activists, creating an Action Network of letter-writers, etc. if a library or librarian is in crisis) will need lots of energy and enthusiasm to accomplish. So always getting fresh ideas and, perhaps more importantly, new members’ energy is a good idea and crucial to accomplishing new projects.

    I joined in 2002, and my first meeting was when Elaine (in Toronto) was asking for input on the newly drafted bylaws/guidelines for a CC. I liked the idea of there being a clear organizational process, which still appeals to me.

    All this said, I don’t know enough about the Coordinating Council to advocate for its makeup one way or another. But if you need ten people just to raise a vote, you can count me as one of your ten. Without knowing exactly how I myself would vote, I’m happy to at least raise the idea of a vote.

    Thanks for being so thoughtful about all this Rory. I love PLG — and Elaine and others have always been more than welcoming to me. But I think it’s worth figuring out how to best use PLG to foster progressive work in librarianship and sustain the ideas and projects that will empower librarians to take progressive stands in their profession, workplace, community, and beyond.

    Georgie

    Comment by Georgie — July 28, 2008 @ 4:52 pm

  4. Thank you, Georgie.

    Edits made…

    Comment by Rory Litwin — July 28, 2008 @ 5:14 pm

  5. […] 29, 2008 · Filed under Uncategorized &#183 Tagged PLG Here is an interesting blog post from a long-time PLG member who is hoping to create a dialogue about […]

    Pingback by On the Past, Present, and Future of the PLG « PLG Halifax — July 29, 2008 @ 10:06 am

  6. Rory,
    This was a very interesting blog post and I do appreciate that you were obvious and naked with your opinions and clarifications.

    I have been a member of PLG since 2002 and recently joined the CC. I recall the stinging email exchanges a few years ago and I recall verbally talking with some of the more vocal and harsh people about their online persona. I still feel that it is imperative that online you maintain a more gentle sense of self and try to be kind to others–even when they attack you (easier said than done, I realize). That being said, there have been a few PLG folks who have been involved for a long time that have turned off many students and potential new-comers based on email rants and what seemed like philosophical debates. Perhaps there was more behind the discussions.

    I am all for PLG being more democratic and open. I always assumed (bad idea) that PLG was open and the members were advised and/or asked important questions. Although I did not get to Anaheim, I was a bit shocked that there was no business meeting. Anyway, I’ll be one of your ten b/c like Georgie, I’d like to have the issue addressed.

    As to your claim about power-holding by certain folks, I just have to say a word about that, and this is just my opinion and may be off from reality. I think it is perfectly natural for those “permanent members” to feel compelled to be in leadership roles for their tenure in this profession. If those folks you mentioned were in fact the founders of PLG, it seems completely unreasonable to me to assume that they would give up leadership easily. I do not happen to mind that these folks maintain permanent membership status, although it might be better to change that to ex-officio status if the reason for “permanence” is maintaining organizational knowledge and practice.

    However, that being said, it is not practical to maintain a permanent leadership that never changes, it is counterproductive and will discourage new members. Without a steady and healthy infusion of new blood, so to speak, any organization/group, will implode.

    I’m not sure how democratic ALA is, but I would hope that PLG does NOT try to imulate ALA structure and bureaucracy. PLG, IMHO, needs to remain lean in order to function as a progressive organization.

    I would love to have a discussion about the two things in conflict within PLG, assuming these are in fact the two things that are in conflict. If a more open and democratic structure is desired, then those holding onto the totally socialist ideology may have to give up some ground to allow other views to surface. If, however, the focus is on staying socialist only, then that needs to be made clear so that folks know what it is they are joining. To me any group is either open or it’s not, but the reality that this group is made up of human beings needs to be constant. Human beings react without necessarily realizing they are reacting and yes, it’s to be appreciated for their work and contributions.

    As to the naming of individuals and calling into question their character, I’m less than impressed with this. I believe that each person involved in PLG, throughout its history, has given a lot of their personal blood, sweat and tears. If stating that someone is addicted to the power is what you’d like to say, then say it to the person. Your opinions are yours, and it’s fine to point them out to the individual in question, but I do not support blogging disdain with individuals. It just seems completely inappropriate and impolite to me–no better than the flamers on the PLG list, although written in a far more respectful manner.

    Comment by Tiffani — July 29, 2008 @ 11:57 am

  7. Thanks for your comments, Tiffani.

    Regarding discussing individuals, I would have avoided it if I felt that it were possible given my goal of shining a light on PLG and showing what has been happening, especially in trying to give the history. I tried to be fair and understanding. I agree that it is unrealistic not to expect leaders of a group such as PLG not to want to retain their positions – that’s only human. I tried to express that and not demonize or condemn people for acting in a way that’s only natural and no different from how I would act in their shoes.

    In that light, is it more or less helpful of you to talk about people whose communications with members you feel have been destructive, without saying who you’re referring to? I realize that it is polite and professional and safe. However, it’s clear that you think someone has been in the wrong, but you leave us to trust you without evidence or example. For all I know, there might be a ghost finger pointing at me that I don’t know about. I tend to think it is better to say what I’m saying instead of not saying what I’m saying, because it means I’m clear and accountable. At some point the specifics matter. Especially when you’re attempting to do some organizational history.

    The sticky wicket of focusing on individual bad actors is part of why I find it important to emphasize the structural factors in play, which I think are the real cause of the problems we have seen, not nasty people. I think the people who I think you’re talking about would behave differently in a different organizational situation.

    Regarding PLG’s attempt at organization, I think there’s no comparison to the elaborateness and complexity of ALA’s structure and bylaws. I think it is about as minimal as it could be. We just need a more democratic makeup of the coordinating committee.

    Thanks for offering to be one of the ten signators. I like your suggestion of having more editorial board members on the CC in ex officio positions, but I think it deserves some thought experiments.

    Also, I appreciate your analysis that the organization should either be more truly open to other views or more forthright about being socialist. I think it hits the nail on the head in the sense that there has been a certain practical vagueness about what PLG is and is not. It is something that sometimes sounds different in public and in private, and that is not good.

    Comment by Rory Litwin — July 29, 2008 @ 12:36 pm

  8. Rory,
    Your history is a little off. I was invited onto the CC by Elaine (presumably with the nod from other CC members) owing to my participation in the general PLG discussion list.

    The general PLG discussion list is, I agree, much quieter now than it was when I was in library school…which makes it harder for CC members to have any appraisal of newer, up and coming members. The PLG student chapters don’t regularly advertise or talk about their local affairs with the list at large. Most we hear of them is “yay, a new PLG student chapter was founded in University X”. But students come, students go. Their energy and enthusiasm are certainly welcome, but PLG as I see it exists for the career librarian and library worker, who form a more stable base.

    Your desire to shift yourself within the organization also fell afoul of certain organizational bylaws governing the EB and the CC which your resignation helped us sidestep. It was painful for me to watch us lose such a gifted, dedicated member and brilliant essayist over what I viewed as a bureaucratic trifle at best, but others insisted on sticking to the letter of the bylaws and so I relented, and your resignation ended the squabble.

    If memory serves, I joined PLG around 1999-2000?, when I was only still considering library school and reading lots of issues of ALTERNATIVE LIBRARY LITERATURE, especially lots of Sandy Berman. I started UNT-SLIS in the Fall of 2001, and was invited to join CC as a student member in Spring of 2002.

    I remember the dust-up with Willett/Munson and it p*ssed me off so much I was clamoring for an outright sectarian street battle with them (I was more full of piss and vinegar then), but cooler heads prevailed and the crisis withered away.

    Unless you have spoken to others and confirmed the reasons for their resignations, you shouldn’t infer everyone who has left CC has done so motivated by the reasons you claim. I can recall people leaving because 1) personal issues meant they couldn’t devote time to the organization anymore 2) they felt like they weren’t being activist enough and maybe someone more committed could replace them or 3) they felt like they served their time and it was time to go on to the next big thing.

    I stay on PLG-CC because I believe in the org’s central mission and I think Mark & John are both brilliant writers and theorists who are miles ahead of more mainstream ALA writers. It also buoyed me morally between the time I earned my MLS and the lag time until I got my first stable library post in January of this year (I did have an unsuccessful, abortive stint as Tech Services librarian at a small academic library in Galveston,TX from late 2005-2006).

    I would like to see student members post and talk more about their local goings on. Not so much that so CC can “keep tabs on them”, but so that they can motivate and share with each other…and also so CC can actually spot rising talent the way CC originally spotted me…”By their works ye shall know them”, as the church says, but the PLG-NET list is so quiet these days, how can we separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff…Maybe we should restrict reading privileges to paid members as well, to counter the “chilling” effect you cite.

    The EB is justly proud and highly protective of what they see as their baby–the Progressive Librarian journal itself, and they have (rightly) been resistant to any CC members who are not EB members meddling in any way with how PL is put together, etc. I respect that boundary.

    I will think some more and post more later.
    I’m also following the discussion on PLG-CC’s list, too.

    Comment by JJR — July 30, 2008 @ 9:48 am

  9. Thanks for your posts, John.

    Regarding people’s reasons for resigning from the CC, you’re right that I should be careful in making assumptions about people’s reasons. But I can tell you that I’ve had enough private conversations with CC members who have left to feel pretty sure about it.

    Regarding the independence of the PL editorial board, I haven’t suggested anything that would compromise that. I think giving the editorial board a smaller share of representation on the CC would effectively separate PL from PLG and enhance the editorial board’s independence.

    Comment by Rory Litwin — July 30, 2008 @ 9:55 am

  10. […] additional information on the history and principles of PLG and progressive librarianship, see the […]

    Pingback by Progressive Librarians Guild | Statement of Purpose — August 25, 2012 @ 7:08 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. | TrackBack URI
You can also bookmark this on del.icio.us or check the cosmos

Leave a comment

XHTML ( You can use these tags): <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong> .