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.

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