Academic Freedom

March 17, 2009 - Leave a Response

Having encountered and studied intellectual freedom almost exclusively from a public library standpoint, it seems to me that there is a much more wide-spread awareness–on the part of everyone involved–of upholding intellectual freedom in public libraries than there is in academia.  And in the greater intellectual freedom discussion, it seems to me that academic issues are often overshadowed by the prominence that public forum, free speech, and unrestricted access to information lend to public library issues.  Whether or not this is the case, this book review/opinion piece by Stanley Fish gets at a lot of crucial points about the state of academic freedom, presently, and raises many questions and points that are worth considering.


Radical Reference’s Un-Conference at ACRL

March 13, 2009 - Leave a Response

I spent most of my day yesterday in an un-conference hosted by Radical Reference.  The “un” element of the un-conference was to build in a safe distance from the “official” events at this year’s ACRL conference in Seattle.  Having what you might call an acquaintance with Radical Reference, the un-conference was a great chance for me to get to know some of the members, discuss crucial (often intellectual freedom-related) issues, and get involved.  It will no doubt turn out to be the most constructive, engaging, and lasting element of the entire conference for me.

At the un-conference, we had a great set of discussions, most notably one that focused on promoting critical pedagogy in academic libraries.  Critical pedagogy is not only a more interactive, engaging, and diplomatic way of teaching, it also promotes a levelling of the traditional teacher-student hierarchy and inbues the entire teaching/learning experience with a more substantial foundation of intellectual freedom.  If you’ve not done so already, visit Radical Reference‘s website and check out the un-conference wiki, which highlights the topics and events as well as provides notes and further resources about many crucial issues in libraries.

The “Sacredness” of Free Expression

March 8, 2009 - Leave a Response

A wonderful insight from the dramatic, yet eloquent and intelligent, Christopher Hitchens:

No, nothing is sacred. And even if there were to be something called sacred, we mere primates wouldn’t be able to decide which book or which idol or which city was the truly holy one. Thus, the only thing that should be upheld at all costs and without qualification is the right of free expression, because if that goes, then so do all other claims of right as well.

Looking back at Salman Rushdie’s fatwa struggle, this is how Hitchens has decided he should’ve answered the question, “Is nothing sacred?” which was posed to him during the fatwa by a Muslim journalist.  Now a famous and textbook example of the importance of freedom of speech, it’s amazing to recall how many governments, fellow writers, etc.–people and organizations that purport to defend free speech–failed to stand up for Rushdie.  Many even claimed that he deserved the fatwa for speaking so critically toward a powerful religion.

Rushdie is one of my most beloved authors, for his writing first and foremost.  But the stand that he took against what Hitchens calls a “cultural fatwa” is one that not only deserves its now famous and lauded status but is an event–a life or death struggle–that needs to be remembered and understood.  Not that I have any fear of its importance dissolving, but even I sometimes skip over another article or quote that rehashes the event, feeling as though I’ve read all there was to read about this issue and patting myself on the back for being comfortable in my own convictions.  Well, in repentance for these lazy assumptions, I’d definitely encourage checking out Hitchens’s article in Vanity Fair about all of this which, if a bit informal and irreverent, is great gloss on Rushdie’s struggle and a reminder of the sacredness of free expression.

Intellectual Freedom, the Digital Divide, and Cuba

February 23, 2009 - 6 Responses

I’ve started doing some research for an intellectual freedom project that examines the relationship between the government and the media in Cuba.  By way of the “Future Librarians for Intellectual Freedom” blog, I came across this article that the Guardian ran last May.  The issue of the Cuban government restricting access to Cuba’s most popular blog is, of course, disconcerting if, admittedly, emblematic of the current information environment in Cuba.  What surprised and concerned me perhaps even more significantly, was this line: “Old Havana has just one internet cafe, a state-owned enterprise charging £2.50 an hour for computer use, a sum that is a third of the average Cuban monthly salary.”

Having the ability to access information is an essential element to intellectual freedom.  In the States, much of the significance of the First Amendment, in regards to intellectual freedom, has just as much to do with being able to freely and easily access diverse information as it does with being allowed to speak freely.

Of course, this is not the first time that I’ve perceived a connection between the digital divide and what I like to call “equality in information.”  But I think that it is imperative that we frequently remind ourselves of how interconnected digital divide and intellectual freedom issues often are.  Addressing one and not the other often overlooks a significant portion of a bigger issue.  In this case, Raúl Castro could lift all governmental bans on access to the Internet today, which would be a cause for joy, in terms of intellectual freedom.  Yet, until the digital divide is bridged, a majority of Cubans would still be unable access this information.

Addressing the digital divide and intellectual freedom in Cuba are both daunting and, in many ways, distinct tasks.  I will be focusing my efforts on intellectual freedom, but I need to remember that it is important to often take a step back and look at the whole equation.  This can be overwhelming, but it should also provide an even stronger impetus to address these issues head on.

Section 215 Revisited

February 18, 2009 - 2 Responses

I couldn’t have been happier when President Obama drew up plans to shut down Gitmo during his first week in office.  It signaled the very break with the Bush administration that he emphasized throughout his campaign.  Now, the next step is to rework, or better yet abolish, the Patriot Act, right?  Well, perhaps not.  As the San Francisco Chronicle and Library Journal explain, Obama’s pick for Attorney General, Eric Holder, has not only hesitated to consider amending the Patriot Act, he has actually asked Congress to renew Section 215 of the Patriot Act which, in part, reads:

The Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or a designee of the Director (whose rank shall be no lower than Assistant Special Agent in Charge) may make an application for an order requiring the production of any tangible things (including books, records, papers, documents, and other items) for an investigation to protect against international terrorism or clandestine intelligence activities, provided that such investigation of a United States person is not conducted solely upon the basis of activities protected by the first amendment to the Constitution.

Section 215 is one of the sections of the Patriot Act that has caused the biggest controversy, as it not only endorses surveillance, it also directly threatens readers’ privacy and other related civil liberties.  Section 215 is vehemently opposed by numerous independent booksellers groups as well as the American Library Association, and the latter sent a report last month to the transitional Obama administration recommending a thorough review and reworking of the Patriot Act, especially Section 215.

Of course, it’s still to early to know for sure how all of this will turn out, but sentiments such as Holder’s, who, in response to Section 215, said:

That’s one that I think has certainly generated more controversy, I believe, than the other two. And I think that the examination, the questions that I need to ask people in the field and who have been using that, I’d want to know as much as I possibly can. But as I said, the tools that we have been given by Congress in FISA [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act] are important ones. And so I would look at all three of these and make the determination as to whether or not I will be able to support them. But I would expect that I would.

are quite discouraging.  Without reconsidering and reworking the Patriot Act—one of the Bush administration’s most controversial, invasive, and violating legacies—Obama’s claims at distancing himself from the Bush administration will appear rather empty and acts such as shutting down Gitmo will seem to be nothing more than hypocritical gestures.

Call to Action

February 9, 2009 - Leave a Response

In a past post, I lamented the ALA’s inaction in advocating for more government funding to be allocated to education and libraries, considering how much was being thrown at the prviate sector from the financial bail out and the first half of the stimulus plan.  Well, they’ve ceased being neutral and have started advocating in releasing this call to action, which highlights the fact that amendment 501 to the current stimulus plan aims to cut $200 million that were to go to libraries.

Apparently, the benefits of libraries in tough economic times are not immediate and tangible enough to our government, which is shortsighted to say the least.  Obviously, those pushing amendement 501 in congress didn’t read this, or this, or this, or any of the other sundry testaments to the significant RISE in library use during this time of supposed crisis.  Perhaps, Ann Patchett is right– per her views in the Guardian article–that the government might better represent their constituency and be altogether more functional if they were to pattern themselves after libraries, rather than deeming libraries and education unworthy of funding in tough economic times.

Due Process

February 4, 2009 - Leave a Response

I’ve been thinking a lot about library challenges lately, and I’ve decided that it’s not just about making the right decision in upholding library policy, it’s also essential that we do our best to make sure that all parties involved in the challenge feel validated throughout the process.  I had this sort of epiphany last weekend, during a conversation with a fellow library student about the difficulties inherent in deftly handling a challenge.  The ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Manual insists that all library policies must, among other essential elements, be “accompanied by an appeal mechanism, even if that mechanism is informal” (p. 374).

My cohort, in our conversation last weekend, emphasized this exact point.  It is essential for us to offer—even recommend—the “appeal mechanism” to the party that is voicing the challenge, for, even if their challenge is not ultimately accepted by the library, we validate their status as a library patron by asking for their input and participation in the great due process from which library policy springs.

When dealing, especially face-to-face, with a challenge that fairly clearly seeks actions that violate library policy, it is easy to grow unresponsive or even defensive toward the challenger.  Yet, if we keep in mind the importance of the “appeal mechanism” and encourage the challenger to take part in the due process that they, as a library patron, are entitled to, I have a hunch that the entire challenge process might unfold a bit more smoothly.

Collaboration as Leveling Agent

January 28, 2009 - 2 Responses

Intellectual freedom denotes a leveling of the educational and informational playing fields. After all, no one is free when others are oppressed. Reading this article about the educational aims of President Obama’s stimulus plan this morning, I was struck by two readers’ comments:

“Don’t waste any taxpayer money on education. Only the wealthy or very lucky have access to higher education, and elitism is now ingrained in our ‘culture,’ such as it is.” —Smalldive, Montana

“The best schools in the country are 1)elite public schools with a select student body, 2) well endowed private schools, and 3) suburban public schools supported by high property taxes.” –David, Nevada

Specific political points aside, the readers’ concerns about inequality in higher education (and education as a whole) are completely valid. Yet, aside from pouring tax dollars into education, how does one eradicate educational and informational inequality?

How about this?  Dr. Desouza has amalgamated open access, text book exchange, digital initiatives, and interactive and collaborative learning to create an alternative to the burden of purchasing textbooks (a huge factor of financial inequality present in most educational systems).

As innovative as Dr. Desouza’s project is, perhaps, the most striking elements are the many degrees of collaboration. Dr. Desouza collaborates with his students to write the textbook; a new set of students collaborate with past students during the revision process; in shoring up theory to deepen the textbook’s content, students collaborate with a management consulting firm; and everyone involved in the project collaborates with the students who use the textbook as these students not only read the textbook, they also provide case studies to be included in future iterations.

The educational community fostered through this one project transcends culture, wealth, borders, and educational hierarchy. It empowers all involved, even those just reading the textbook. In other words, this free textbook levels many informational playing fields.

Neutrality versus Advocacy

January 19, 2009 - One Response

The American Library Association’s Council voted, in 1970, to “define the broad social responsibilities of ALA in terms of the willingness of ALA to take a position on current critical issues with the relationship to libraries and library service clearly set forth in the position statements.” (Intellectual Freedom Manual, p. 37)  This decision essentially sanctioned ALA to occasionally eschew neutrality in order to advocate for libraries within the political and social spheres.

In 1970, this meant taking a stand against the Vietnam War on the grounds that funds for educational programs and institutions were suffering so as to bolster military costs.  The resolution reads: “WHEREAS, The continuing U.S. involvement in the conflict in Southeast Asia has so distorted our national priorities as to reduce substantially the funds appropriated for educational purposes, including support for library services to the American people…” (Intellectual Freedom Manual, p. 37)

Drawing a parallel between the situation in 1970 and now, in terms of the Iraq War, is obvious and has become, therefore, somewhat rote—though, the ALA could stand to be more outspoken about this, in my opinion.  But what I would like to see ALA address is the neglect of educational institutions and services amidst the recent financial bailout.  While we have yet to see how the remaining $350 billion of the bailout will be spent, the fact that $700 billion were allocated to bailout reckless private financial institutions, while, at the same time, education funds were cut around the country (here in Washington State, Democratic Governor Christine Gregoire, who ran on a “pro-education” campaign, is cutting K-12 and higher education significantly in 2009) is completely unacceptable to me as an information professional and advocate for education.

Specific to libraries, the situation has not seemed as dire, and, in fact, according to the ALA’s website, federal funding for libraries will rise slightly in 2009.  Thus, the ALA “applauds” President Bush.  Yet, the simple fact that the funds for libraries are not being cut, as they are for education, does not override the fact that the priorities of the government in the midst of the so-called “financial crisis” are, to employ the ALA’s adjective from 1970, completely “distorted.”  Even with a growth in funding for libraries, the support is vastly incommensurate as compared to the money that is being thrown at the private financial institutions.  Add to this the nationwide cuts in education, and a serious issue takes shape.

The ALA is often criticized by many in the library profession as an enormous bureaucratic institution that is slow to act and often behind the curve of innovation.  However, one of the benefits of being an enormous institution is the clout and power that is inherent in such a substantial organization—especially one that stands for education and public service.  When the ALA takes a decisive stance on an issue, it can be impressive display of advocacy.  Presently, there are many challenges to libraries in which ALA needs to become more involved.  Of course it is always tricky balancing neutrality with advocacy, as both are central to the ethos of a library.  Thus far, though, in terms of the Iraq War and, presently, the financial bailout, the ALA has appeared to choose to remain safely in the arena of neutrality.  This, I firmly believe, is a mistake and gives added credence to the criticism that ALA is becoming, more and more, an ineffective bureaucracy.

Isolate but Preserve: Civil Liberties in Russia

January 12, 2009 - One Response

As a bit of a conceptual bridge between the global issues in libraries I’ve been discussing since the fall and intellectual freedom, which I’ll be focusing on for the next couple of months (there will be much overlap, I assure you), I’d like direct us back to Russia and to this article, by Ellen Barry, from yesterday’s NYTimes.  In particular, I’d like to highlight this passage:

“After presenting himself to the world as a liberal modernizer, President Medvedev has prioritized one major reform — lengthening the presidential term to six years. Last week, he signed a law eliminating jury trials for ‘crimes against the state,’ and pending legislation would expand the definition of treason.”

One of the suggestions for our class on intellectual freedom is to, aptly, read a banned book.  How many librarians do you know who proudly wear their buttons that say “I Read Banned Books”?  I certainly have one of those, in bright purple, and it’s pinned onto my book bag, presently.

It does no good to start a contrapuntal conversation about the differences in intellectual freedom in Russia and the U.S., as Russia always winds up being demonized.  But what if we transferred the idea of proudly proclaiming our having read a banned book to fit this issue above.  I’m not saying that librarians and intellectuals in Russia should start wearing buttons that say “I’m for Treason,” but what about “I Heart Civil Liberties” or “Where’s the Jury?”  I know that these slogans are not as catchy, and, perhaps, my analogy is a stretch.  Does anyone have any better slogans (I’d love suggestions)?  Maybe the tried-and-true “I Read Banned Books” will help, yet, another group in rallying behind the struggle for intellectual freedom.

Later in the article, a think-tank pundit states that, “I just think [the Russian leaders] don’t trust what they can’t control.”  Trust, especially for governments, is often a troublesome issue, as it takes openness and a willingness to put up with criticism from the people—for it is only when all people are free that trust can truly exist.  Attempting to destroy freedoms, ideas, expressions, etc., is only going to push “trust” farther away.  Intellectual freedom would foster this trust, which, in turn, would give continued life to intellectual freedom.

It’s unfortunate that Russian officials continue to choose intimidation and restriction over trust and openness, as this avenue has continually been proven to be ineffective throughout the country’s history.  In 1934, Osip Mandelstam wrote a poem called “Stalin Epigram,” which criticized the leader.  Stalin, in response, sent Mandelstam to a labor camp with instructions to “isolate but preserve.”  What Stalin meant was kill the idea–the art, the poem–but not the man (this was considered a “light” punishment).  The opposite happened, as Mandelstam died a few years later; yet, his poetry lived on, preserved by his wife, Nadezhda, who, knowing that any physical copy of Mandselstam’s work would be seized and destroyed, committed his entire body of work to memory.

You can’t kill an idea.  Intellectual freedom often means fighting and advocating as much for the person with the idea as for the idea itself.  We must continually remind ourselves of this.  So, choose your slogan.  Perhaps, mine will be: “I Read Osip Mandelstam.”