Archive for January, 2009

Collaboration as Leveling Agent
January 28, 2009

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.

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Neutrality versus Advocacy
January 19, 2009

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

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.”

Focus Shifting
January 10, 2009

As I’m taking a class on Intellectual Freedom in libraries this quarter, I am going to shift the focus of this blog a bit.  I’ll also likely share some reflections about my internship with the Seattle Public Library’s Immigrant and Refugee programs, which I will be taking part in until June.  Both of these new incorporations, I’m sure, will widen the scope of the discussions here, as global issues, intellectual freedom, and reaching out to our global and local communities are all interconnected in the greater world of libraries and information.