Call to Action
February 9, 2009

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.

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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.

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.

Code of Ethics
October 5, 2008

“A shortlist of potentially divisive issues with ethical aspects would include globalisation, the digital gap between the information rich and poor, digital inclusiveness, commercialsation of information versus interactive on-line public services, privacy, authenticity, confidentiality, trust and confidence in cyberspace, censorship, copyright, intellectual property rights, grey literature, electronic filters…” Robert W. Vaagan

It’s hard discuss global initiatives in libraries without encountering IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions), for they have been at it the longest, at least in an “official” way.  The quote above comes from an IFLA publication entitled The Ethics of Librarianship: An International Survey, which I spent this past week reading.  Though rather academic, this work is extremely interesting in that it collects various library codes of ethics from around the world, in an effort to create a sense of international solidarity among individuals and organizations in the field of Library and Information Science (LIS).  Yet, this work is also meant to highlight areas in which these codes of ethics are not in concert with one another, as well as draw attention to the fact that many national library organizations still do not possess an official code of ethics.  To further complicate matters, some of the library organizations represented in this text have codes of ethics that are significantly at odds with the governments under whose laws they exist.

A lot of noise is made in this book about those places/organizations that lack an “official” code of ethics.  While I, of course, understand the symbolism and the intentions behind raising such alarm, I found myself wondering what it truly means for a library organization to present an “official” code of ethics, especially in those situations where it is nearly impossible—illegal, even—to strictly follow such a code, or in those cases where following the code, despite all of the meritorious intentions within, does not produce the desired results.

This latter complication brought to mind a New Yorker article a few weeks back about the Russian radio station Echo of Moscow.  Arguably the last significant bastion of free press in Putin/Medvedev’s Russia, Echo of Moscow has remained on the air, some argue, solely for Putin to point to when he needs to defend himself against claims that he censors the press.  Whether or not this is true, a more crucial issue is one broached by Kirill Rogov, a former editor at Kommersant, a respected Russian mainstream daily newspaper, and a supporter of Echo of Moscow, who states: “It’s been the best news service for a long time…But is a free media outlet possible in an unfree country? I would say no. In a free country, the newspaper publishes a story, it influences television, it reaches the public, then it helps to shape the course of policy. In an unfree country, Echo of Moscow lives in isolation, on a kind of Indian reservation. It broadcasts a story or a discussion and it reaches an audience, but then it never goes any further.”

With this in mind, I ask, again: what does it mean to have an official code of ethics for a library organization that exists in a society that will not honor and/or allow for the blossoming of such a code?  Turning to Russia’s code of ethics in the IFLA text, one reads: “[In a] totalitarian state…The development of professional ethical rules was impossible, since the ideological framework strictly determined both external professional space (relations with authorities) and internal ones (relations with users).”  In Putin’s present Russia, has the was in the above statement returned to an is?

Regardless, I think that, in terms of global library ethics, the question above (what does it mean to have an official code of ethics for a library organization that exists in a society that will not honor and/or allow for the blossoming of such a code?) is a crucial one.  While it is exceptionally empowering and noble to create and follow a code of ethics, we must, at times, make the admission that boldly standing-up to those forces that attempt to censor and stymie the very ethics protected by these codes is not enough.  Simply following a code of ethics will not, in and of itself, resolve many of the divisive issues listed above, nor will it even, at times, allow for the freedoms so despertely desired in an unfree society, which libraries strive to provide:  “Ethical considerations, not least the intellectual freedoms of opinion and expression, which are reflected…in the core values of IFLA, have long been a concern for librarians and library associations.”  (Robert W. Vaagan)

Yes, these codes of ethics are absolutely essential and, at times, their employment an act of bravery, but, in combating those forces that censor and divide, and in creating an environment in which information can truly flow freely, they are not an end unto themselves.

What, then, is to be done?