For American Library Association members, this past weekend was a firestorm of controversy around a series of press releases, retractions, and apologies having to do with the association’s posture toward the incoming Trump administration and the unshackled radically conservative 115th Congress. I want to avoid chronicling these events, but will refer you to two centerpieces of the weekend’s discussion, blog posts by Emily Drabinski and Sarah Houghton. If you haven’t read them yet, read them first so that I don’t have to spend time rehashing the events. I would add one thing to these statements though, which is to emphasize that the press releases came not from the ALA President, but from the ALA Washington Office, which is ALA’s lobbying arm and its site of relations with the government. These press releases were a statement of ALA’s intention to collaborate with the Trump administration and Congress to help them with some of their goals which ALA shares in common. The fact that they did not express any of ALA’s priorities that are in conflict with Trumpism was what enraged members. My personal reaction was disappointment and anxiety – anxiety that ALA will go down in history as collaborating with a fascist government rather than opposing it in any way. And my impression of the press releases was that they were driven by fear – fear, perhaps, that the Washington Office has to show it is willing to cooperate if it is to have any hope of preserving the LSTA and the IMLS. (The Library Services and Technology Act and the Institute of Museum and Library Services are the two major sources of Federal funding for libraries and have to be periodically renewed by Congress, so they are the main focus of the Washington Office’s activities as lobbyists.)
It is important to understand that the Washington Office operates with a lot of independence from ALA. ALA President Julie Todaro was quoted in their press releases with statements that reflect their cooperative and supportive attitude toward the Trump administration, but if you know about how press releases are produced you know that you can’t assume she came up with those words herself or that they represent her own personal views. Her role as ALA’s spokesperson is necessarily an impersonal role. So I don’t believe it is appropriate to put the heat on President Todaro as though the press releases represent her views. However, I consider her apology for the Friday’s retracted press release to be a bit of a misdirection, because in apologizing she was tacitly taking responsibility for it. In taking responsibility for it she deflected attention from the fact that the press release was a statement by the Washington Office with the government as its primary intended audience.
This morning, President Todaro issued a statement that was intended to cool off the weekend’s firestorm. In it, she reassures members that ALA stands for all things good, just like we want it to. It is important to keep in mind the fact that it does not retract last Tuesday’s press release, which is still sitting on the website as the Washington Office’s official statement of its posture toward the Trump administration. That makes it a misdirection. I want to try to put the focus where it belongs, on the Washington Office. So enough about Julie Todaro.
A few words about the Washington Office, because people should understand its role and its relation to the rest of ALA. ALA of course is an odd beast, an organization of 60 thousand members, a governance structure that is member-based, and lots and lots of employees, who have their own governance structure and call the shots in many ways. So there is tension between member governance and executive governance. Washington Office staff are employees of ALA, and they operate with a lot of independence, owing in part to the fact that other people can only understand their work with Congress and government offices so well. (The fact that their website has its own domain name for staff email addresses underscores their independence.) It is a rather arcane business, inside-the-beltway politics. But officially, the Washington Office is not supposed to set its own policies. It’s policies are supposed to be set by ALA’s Committee on Legislation, which is composed of ALA members and reports to ALA Council, which is ALA’s main governing body and is elected by membership. So through a supposedly democratic process, the membership, you and I, are supposed to determine the policies of the Washington Office, through the Committee on Legislation. In reality, it works that way only to a minimal extent (although arguably the potential exists for members to exert more control, which is the reason I am posting this). I served a term on ALA Council, and used to attend Council sessions for several years prior to that, and I can tell you that Council seldom if ever directed the Committee on Legislation in terms of what the Washington Office policies toward government would be. There were occasions when Council would make a political statement on an important issue through the resolution process, with instructions for the Washington Office to relay this message to Congress. This can be very significant, as it was with ALA’s statement against the USA PATRIOT Act. But more often than not, when ALA Councilors with connections to SRRT (ALA’s Social Responsibilities Round Table) made an effort to get a politically oriented resolution passed, the Committee on Legislation would push back, saying, “The Washington Office says this would make their work with Congress more difficult in terms of getting LSTA funding.” A valid point with some degree of truth that we can’t know without being a lobbyist ourselves, but two points come to mind in response. First, there are plenty of examples of precedents for taking a strong stand politically where no negative impact on LSTA funding was felt, for example, the Resolution on the USA PATRIOT Act. ALA took a risk, against the general guidance of the Washington Office that it does not pay to ruffle feathers, and the result was a statement that members are still proud of. And LSTA funding survived. Second, it is worth highlighting that the COL’s role on Council has primarily been to relay policy advice from the Washington Office, a staff organization, to Council, which is supposed to be the body that sets its policy. This is a reversal of the way the relationship is formally designed. (If you want to do some reading about the history of attempts to get ALA Council to make political statements and the politics surrounding those efforts, I highly recommend Elaine Harger’s book, Which Side Are You On: Seven Social Responsibilities Debates in American Librarianship, 1990-2015, published by McFarland earlier this year.)
So it is in the context of these relationships that you should read the press releases.
(Parenthetically, I do have a couple of questions about these press releases that maybe someone can answer in the comments. I wonder why last Tuesday’s press release didn’t attract any attention, and why it was not acknowledged by Todaro in her apology for Friday’s press release, which was practically identical to it. For that matter, why were there two nearly identical press releases in the first place? Why was Friday’s press release released at all?)
To reiterate, the Washington Office press release from last Tuesday still stands and still has to be taken as their official position on how they will relate to the incoming presidential administration and Congress, and to that extent it remains extremely disappointing and remains a problem that we have to deal with. We should shift the focus away from questions of the way the press releases were worded, and we should be careful to understand that a message from the ALA President about what the association stands for has no impact, in itself, on the Washington Office.
What we should do is this. We should communicate, through Council, that the Committee on Legislation has an important task – to review the overall policies of the Washington Office to ensure that those policies are well-aligned with the priorities of the association, as expressed in statement’s like President Todaro’s statement from this morning. And we should ask for a retraction of Tuesday’s press release and the crafting of a new one that puts ALA’s positive priorities front and center, as goals of its lobbying efforts. Statements of how ALA wants to cooperate with a few of the Trump administration’s goals can be secondary. (There are other associations to look to as examples. Lisa Hinchliffe brought this statement from the National Association of Social Workers to my attention as an exemplar we should look to, and also pointed out a similar situation that the American Institute of Architects are dealing with.)
It is also important to keep in mind through all of this that the context of the Washington Office’s work is changing radically. It is changing to the extent that what they have learned about lobbying in previous sessions of Congress may no longer be valid. Maximizing funding through LSTA and the IMLS may no longer be a concern if the LSTA and IMLS don’t exist anymore (and there is a very good chance that they will go away completely, as the 115th Congress promises to be an orgy of destruction). That might make it paradoxically easier for them to take a strong stand against the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress, or at least give them less of a reason to try to block political statements by Council. We don’t know what will happen yet, but we do know that Republicans in Congress have educational institutions in their crosshairs and they have expressed every intention to cut government activities radically. I do not envy Washington Office staff in this situation, and I feel for them. I wish I had a better understanding of how they do what they do, and how they look at all of this. Judging from the tone of the press releases from last week though, it is pretty evident that they are feeling afraid. I hope we can give them a sense of strength in having the association behind them, and that knowing we are behind them they can craft a stronger statement. But in offering them strength, we should also be assertive about the need for a new statement from the Washington Office, laying out ALA’s values and letting the contrast between those values and the Trump administration speak for itself.
Regarding the argument we are beginning to hear that ALA should indeed cooperate with the Trump administration where possible, if it means being better able to achieve some of our goals. I do not dispute this, but it shouldn’t be the sole message of ALA’s statement of its position with respect to the new government. The Washington Office should make it clear at the same time what ALA stands for. Personally, I don’t think we need to say that “ALA refuses to cooperate with the Trump administration and repudiates its fascist ideology,” but we can say what we stand for, and we can register what we are concerned about specifically, before mentioning possible areas of collaboration.
I am terrible at concluding blog posts, so I will just repeat my central point. Julie Todaro’s inspiring statement from this morning has no effect on Washington Office policy, and it is Washington Office policy that their press releases from last week have revealed to us and that we should be concerned about. And there are ways that we can influence that policy. To that end, I have to share Diedre Conklin’s wonderful list of relevant contact information. Use it to write your letters.