Here’s BLL Season 2, Episode 3, In which we talk about the Equitable access parts of the ALA code of ethics, and I go on a bit of a rant about neutrality in the wake of the library social media kerfuffle about meeting room policies in the wake of Charlottesville. Oh, and I manage to work in two movies that were ROBBED of Best Picture Oscars in their respective years.
(Well, OK, Robbed is a strong word. but some years they should really give out 2 trophies…)
PS–After I recorded this episode I saw that Lane had posted a follow-up essay, Dealing with “Both Sides” in Your Library. It’s like he read my mind… 😀
Hey everyone, and welcome back to Better library leaders, and episode two of my series on the ALA code of ethics. I had not expected this to be so timely, but one can’t control when professional social media wars over letting bigots meet in your conference room will crop up. But hey, when reality gives one a good test case for exploring the tenets of the code of ethics and their implications beyond bland pieties in our policy documents, you don’t ignore it. Because, and prepare yourself to hear this at least a dozen times over the course of the next few episodes, the ALA code of ethics is not about you. It’s about your patrons, people who are trying to use the library and its resources to engage with information in a welcoming space. It’s about standing up to those who want to challenge the sanctity of our spaces with their own misinformation and threats. It’s about clearly drawing the line between avoiding censorship and enabling propaganda. It’s about seriously considering the cost to your career and your life that you are willing to pay to help your library become a place where all people can engage with accurate information to improve their lives. The ALA code of ethics ain’t perfect, and we’ll get to that in the final episode of this series, but it’s a decent starting place. Especially since, as the amazing book and movie Hidden Figures remind all of us who squirmed uncomfortably in the movie theater, our high-minded ethical principles have historically been noted more in the breach than the observance.
(Hidden Figures clip)
Of course, your local neighborhood rules lawyer might argue that by excluding their merry band of troublemakers from using the library meeting room as a base of operations is somehow morally equivalent to forcing Nasa’s first black female IT manager to swipe a book on Fortran. I hope we can all agree that argument is a pile of steaming horseshit. If you don’t agree with that premise, and aren’t willing to hear out my argument for it being a pile of steaming horseshit, then turn off this podcast. And don’t bother posting your whataboutism to my facebook group or page because I will ban you so fast it will make your head spin. If that means I pay a price in listeners or subscribers or ultimately customers to one of my courses, then I’m cool with that. If you decide my particular moral stance makes me a hysterical woman of questionable intellect and not worth listening to, then don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Ethical leadership has consequences. I’ve figured out my personal beliefs of right and wrong, sometimes the hard way. I’ve decided which prices I am and am not willing to pay in order to live with myself. I’m not going to be squeamish about enforcing my values in the spaces I lead because I personally see no contradiction between them and the values of my profession.
So now, I hope most of those who are left are the grownups who can handle a few shades of grey in their ethical decisionmaking. That’s required when you’re a library leader who has implicitly or explicitly committed yourself to enforcing your professional values even when things are messy and ambiguous—you know, like real life, not cutesy philosophical thought experiments. I realize that mindset may not come naturally to many of us who picked a profession known for its orderliness and elegant structure. But if the LCSH can dump headings like Wife-beating, Yellow Peril, and Mammies, I think we can suck it up and allow a little nuance into our leadership decisionmaking. That’s the price we pay as leaders because, again, it’s not about us. It’s about our communities. So, since it’s not about us how do we use the code of ethics to make decisions about how we serve our communities, especially in the many instances where one group within our community has different goals and interests than another? Well, let’s explore the code.
Upon reading, the tenets of the code of ethics seem to essentially touch on four major issues: Equitable access to and representation of information, services, and patrons; Privacy and Confidentiality Rights, Intellectual property, and general professional conduct. Because of how parts of the code intersect and overlap, we’re going to consider the tenets thematically, rather than the order they were presented. Because I doubt you people want me to pull a Dan Carlin and pontificate about ethics for over an hour, we’re going to break this deep dive into practical implications of the code into two episodes. Today we’re focusing on equitable accesss, because as mentioned that’s kind of a Big Issue right now, and then take on the rest in the next episode. Then, as stated last time, the series will conclude with a look at the code itself, and critique its strengths and flaws. This approach should maximize your attention span and minimize the risk of my droning making you fall asleep on the elliptical or behind the wheel. But before I start talking about these values in-depth, a brief word from Russell Crowe as Captain Jack Aubrey in Master and Commander—a movie and a book series that I recommend highly to those who look to pop culture for leadership guidance.
(M&C Clip 1)
According to tenet #1, Librarians “provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.” Tenet #2 elaborates on this point, stating that “We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.” And later in #7 of the code, the ALA states that “We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.”
Basically, what we are talking about here is serving our communities in an inclusive manner, providing information, services, and spaces that, in the words of David Lankes, “improve society through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities”. This makes a lot of sense to me, and side note—his atlas of New Librarianship is a pretty handy resource if you’re looking for a theoretical framework you can use to think about the intersection of our profession’s values and everyday practice. Most libraries are funded and to a degree regulated by the communities they serve, whether those communities are towns, schools, or other groups. Libraries also exist within a larger community of their region, nation, and globally. Library leaders, according to tenet #1 of the code of ethics as viewed through the lens of David Lankes, should provide the highest level of services and resources possible to ALL patrons, as long as it is in service of improving—or at least not harming–the life of an individual patron, AND by extension the community and society on a larger scale.
This of course, leads to a critical difference between resources and services such as meeting space. Some librarians have recently argued that if we have Mein Kampf in the collection, that we should provide equitable access to groups that support the ideas in that book.
If for some reason my derisive laughter isn’t a sufficient counterarguement, we’re going to game this out, using the code of ethics as a guide, with an assist from David Lankes’ famous statement about the role of libraries. Reading Mein Kampf, which I’ve read, well, ok, skimmed, is a useful learning experience for some people. If you’re a typical well-meaning but kind of clueless privileged white non-jewish American. It teaches you a lot about how the extremist mind works, and what to look out for in your own and others’ thought processes, if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t want to explicitly or inadvertently support bigotry. It should be in your library alongside other books on that time and place, if you serve a community that needs and is old enough to handle that level of introspection and self-critique.
That said, there is no way in hell I would ever acquire, say the Protocols of the Elders of Zion for my library. For those of you who are blissfully unaware, this booklet of forged minutes of an imaginary meeting where Jews are plotting world domination is essentially the 1911 version of fake news, but has gone on to serve as a primary source for anti-Semitic extremists from Czarist Russians to Hitler to Stalin to middle-eastern terrorists to the modern Alt-right. It has warped the minds of vulnerable, ignorant people into hatred by offering them a myth that allows them to blame their troubles on a community that has committed the grievous sins of being different, existing, and asking for equal opportunities for success. It has been a tool of oppression against the people it targets. Aside from a few scholars of propaganda or the history of antisemitism, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion has zero redeeming social or intellectual value. There’s not even value to it as a cautionary tale, as there is to an extent with Mein Kampf. It’s the kind of resource that destroys a society rather than improving it. For all intents and purposes, there is no reason I should spend a limited collection development budget on a book that makes those hoax websites with the fishy URLs look like the Wall Street Journal. I won’t kick you out of the building if I see website devoted to it in your browser, but I’m not spending the book budget on it.
See what I did there? I didn’t “censor library resources”. I didn’t “allow my personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources”. I made the kind of judgment call as a leader that you make every day, albeit on less emotionally or ethically charged issues. Due to finite resources, I considered whether an item would be a net positive or negative to all segments of the community if added to our curated collection. And I made a choice, because that’s what a leader does, and that is how we provide the highest level of service to our community, as the ALA code of ethics states.
That argument can be extended to the groups we allow to meet in our limited spaces as well. You know me—I’m all about the practical application. How and when do we draw the line between protecting free speech and protecting our community? Well, I decided to consider some recent posts from a few library thinkers that popped up in the midst of the controversy, like Barbara Fister, Meredith Farkas, and Lane Wilkinson. All of whom would be welcome to come on the podcast to talk about whatever they’d like. Hint Hint. First we’re going to talk about Barbara Fister, whose column “A Necessary Footnote” essentially covered a lot of this ground, but more efficiently and elegantly. I’m going to quote the following, central point of her argument: “when you say “everyone is welcome here” you kind of have to add a footnote: “except people who demand that other people leave.” This is not to say their viewpoints can’t be explored in a library. You can have books that unpack why some people want other people gone. You can even have books by people who want other people gone. You can put them on a shelf next to books about the civil right movement or reparations for the descendants of people who were kidnapped and enslaved and flames won’t spontaneously break out. You can argue with a book, but it won’t gather a crowd to physically threaten you. You can rub ideas together until they ignite, but they can’t get together and march with torches. People don’t dress up like soldiers and carry weapons through the stacks to protect free speech. That would be stupid. Scaring other people into silence is not how you protect free speech. We can protect speech without violence, without making anyone feel unwelcome.
Except for the ones who only want to come inside to tell others to get out. They have chosen to exclude themselves by declaring the category “everyone” something they reject.” End quote.
Now, the comments, as is common for Inside Higher Ed, have become a bit of a cesspool of rules lawyers and concern trolls saying that you can’t deny these kinds of assholes access to meeting group spaces unless or until they waltz into the children’s section with 2 by 4s, bedsheets, and a can of lighter fluid. I would merely refer these pious free speech activists to spend some time exploring the case law discussing veiled threats as a form of assault. I would further warn any who would like to pipe up in a similar vein on the Better Library Leaders Facebook community that I have less patience than Barbara Fister and less tolerance for nonsense than the moderators at Inside Higher ed. You have pretty much the whole rest of the internet to play in. And if I lose standing as a library thought leader, then I’m cool with that. Because as a leader, it’s not about me.
The next article I want to mention is an excellent piece by Meredith Farkas, titled “Whose rights matter more?”. Like the other pieces I’m mentioning you should read it all, because she makes a powerful statement about library leaders’ responsibilities in this moment with both passion and clear logic. Here’s two bit I’m going to let you ponder. First, as I alluded at the top of this episode with my shoutout to the movie Hidden Figures, “Libraries have not always been hotbeds of freedom and civil rights unless it was the civil rights of white people. Their so-called “neutrality” often reflected the racism and oppression existing in the larger society.” She goes on to say, “It seems like the ideas of encouraging oppressed groups to fully participate in the library and allowing hate groups to speak in the library are in direct conflict. And I struggle with this, as a long-time civil libertarian and as a librarian who does not believe in the so-called neutrality of libraries. But, in the end, I choose to support the members of our community whose very existence is threatened by these individuals and groups.”
And so do I. And if you are the kind of free speech activist librarian who wants to quibble with that moral stance in the name of the first amendment or the literal letter of some ALA policy document, go find another podcast to listen to and another person’s leadership training to buy. Because we’re not gonna be a good fit. I’d be sad about that, but as a leader, it’s not about me.
Finally, Lane Wilkinson points out, in a very necessary way, that the real ethical quandaries we face around this issue are not as black and white as a wingnut fan club wanting to stage a protest planning seminar in your information literacy classroom. In his column “The Nazis in your library”, He mentions examples of three perfectly well-behaved library regulars who hold some rather…disturbing beliefs. Lane notes, “White supremacy is endemic. It’s part of the fabric of this country. And it’s good at hiding in plain sight. For every fascist wearing a Pepe shirt, there are a thousand more who aren’t. And the more we focus on the most egregious displays of hate coming from the alt-right, the more we risk overlooking the hidden hatred that lives right next door. The hate that perpetuates discrimination and inequality. Redlining loan officers don’t carry torches. The high-income hipsters whitewashing Harlem aren’t carrying Confederate flags. George Zimmerman wasn’t wearing a white hood when he shot Trayvon Martin. Remember, after the white supremacists rally, they go home, take off their silly costumes, and blend back into white, suburban banality. And how do the Walters and Tylers and Kellys blend in? Because we let them. We nice white folks let them. To me, that’s more frightening than any rally.”
And he’s right of course. And to extrapolate from his point. By making it clear that serving our communities comes before unfettered free speech, we send a message to the Walters and Tylers and Kelly’s of the world that their oppression is not welcome in our libraries, whether or not we ever know specifically who received the message that we sent. And who knows? We might even inspire them to rethink some things. Because the thing I believe most strongly about this whole controversy is that bigotry damages both the target AND the bigot. And I don’t need to know that I succeeded in that effort by making my stand, much less get a cookie or a special award for merely being an ethical person. Because as a leader, it’s not about me.
So, where do these arguments leave us? Well, I think there may be a way to thread the needle, by making clear that while reality-based ideas and discussions are ok in the library, events that make any part of the community feel unwelcome, demeaned, or threatened are not. For example, I could see the value to a community in hosting a civil debate on the confederate flag or a controversial local sports mascot. Some local political science professors or journalists could put together a panel explaining all the current flavors of America’s political spectrum from Antifa to Alt-right. There’s a growing trend of “Meet a Muslim” events that seem tailor made for a library interested in providing a space for people to expand their perspectives. Those might not be workable events for your community, but if done well and with some ground rules of conduct and respect, I think they could be useful spaces for many community to learn some things. Determining what meetings or events would benefit your community, or course, is a fuzzy line—it’s easier to compare and contrast the intellectual and civic merit of Mein Kampf versus the Protocols of the Elders of Zion than telling the difference between a “productive” and “nonproductive” event exploring hot-button issues. You have no way to predict if a speaker will go off-script or a provocative question will spark mass outrage or worse. And even if both those hypothetical events went off without a hitch, there would probably be moments that would leave me anxious and squirming that the event would go off the rails. But that’s irrelevant, because as a leader, it’s not about me.
All of these things are judgement calls that must be made based in a leader’s personal ethics, professional ethics, and an understanding of the needs of the community the library serves. And yes, you as a leader have to make those judgement calls, and there may be consequences for them. I made some judgement calls when I decided to state quite plainly what kinds of speech will and will not be welcome at Better Library Leaders. And I will happily live with the consequences of the choices and value statements I have made today. After all, It’s not like I was Captain Aubrey, forced to sacrifice one sailor’s life to save the lives of the hundreds on his capsizing ship.
But seriously, I want you to think about the consequences of picking the well-being of your community over the pieties of policy and tradition when your ethics collide with real life. That’s why we’re going to close by talking about Miss Ruth Brown. a librarian from my part of the world who lived and worked in a place and time that was perhaps not as different from ours as we’d like to think.
In 1919 Ruth Brown became the new librarian at the Bartlesville, Oklahoma Public In 1931 Miss Brown was voted President of the Oklahoma Library Association, and encouraged her colleagues to serve everyone during the depression years and “reduce to a minimum worry about lost books and other red tape” so library access would be available to all. In a 1932 newspaper article, Miss Brown related a typical day which included use by whites and African Americans alike. She took story hours to Douglass School, the public school for African-American children, and eventually brought Douglass children into the library. In February 1950 Miss Brown, along with two young African American teacher friends entered Bartlesville’s largest drugstore and seated themselves at the lunch counter. When service was refused, Miss Brown asked why, and was curtly answered. The ladies left, planning to repeat the action if repercussions were not “too violent.” Two weeks later, Senator Joseph McCarthy exploded on the national scene. This event not only sent the country into a spin, but it also gave opponents of Miss Brown’s interracial activities an opportunity to attack under false pretenses.
At a City Commission meeting that month, a group of citizens accused Miss Brown of supplying “subversive” materials at the library. A few days later the front page of the local newspaper carried a photo of the offending magazines and two books about the Soviet Union which were not actually owned by the library. The photo was taken when the library was closed, without the knowledge of the library staff or its board of directors, who were dismissed en masse by the city commissioners during the ensuing controversy and replaced with people hand-picked by the commission. None of the members were supporters of Miss Brown or the library. Two weeks later, Miss Brown was summoned to an executive session of the city commissioners. No one was present to record the interrogation which dealt with her interracial activities and her loyalty to America. She was concerned that her words would be misrepresented so stated she would only answer questions in writing. Within the hour, Miss Brown was fired. She and her supporters filed a lawsuit that eventually made it to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Miss Brown lost.
Ruth Brown is now a local hero to librarians. She promoted he cause of civil rights, and the Bartlesville commission’s victory was a short lived pyrrhic victory, as the town became a national disgrace for its actions. There are awards and scholarships in Ruth Brown’s name and a big bust of her now stands in the lobby of the Bartlesville Public Library. I know I’m not alone when I say I consider her a professional role model, and hope I could act with the same courage if I ever had to. But she was still humiliated and railroaded by the Bartlesville city commissioners, and her values cost her a job. Hopefully none of us will ever pay that kind of a price, but it’s still the kind of thing that can happen to a professional who stands up for what is right.
Next time, we’ll discuss the parts of the ALA code of ethics that relate to privacy, intellectual property, and professional standards. You know, the uncontroversial stuff! But between now and then, this is the ethical thought I want to leave you with. Being a library leader is a privilege—in several senses of the word privilege. We need to think carefully about how we use our power and who the use of our power serves. And we need to take responsibility for the consequences of our choices, right and wrong. We may never be called to choose the lesser of two weevils, but a firm grounding in both the ALA and our own personal code of ethics will allow us to make those calls. In the moment of stress and decision, we will be that much more likely to act in accordance with our purpose. And when librarians lead with purpose, we can never become obsolete.
3 We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.
4 We respect intellectual property rights and advocate balance between the interests of information users and rights holders.
5 We treat co-workers and other colleagues with respect, fairness, and good faith, and advocate conditions of employment that safeguard the rights and welfare of all employees of our institutions.
6 We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.
8 We strive for excellence in the profession by maintaining and enhancing our own knowledge and skills, by encouraging the professional development of co-workers, and by fostering the aspirations of potential members of the profession.
Atlas of New Librarianship