Saturday, September 19, 2009

Who Defends Intellectual Freedom for Librarians?

Too Cautious?
However, the ALA’s leadership has taken a maximally cautious approach over the years to the connection between librarians’ professional responsibilities and rights and the means of protecting the professional enactment of them. For example, the ALA has systematically refused to take any action or make any comments on what have been termed “local management issues.” That means that the ALA has felt obliged to make no statement when local book selection decisions were taken from an entire state’s libraries and librarians and outsourced to one vendor (as I discussed in my 2003 book, Dismantling the Public Sphere: Situating and Sustaining Librarianship in the Age of the New Public Philosophy) or when controversy erupted over the dumping of thousands of volumes from a large new municipal library’s collections and the stifling of staff protests (as Melissa Riley and I discussed in our 1997 article in Progressive Librarian, “Notes from the Front Line at San Francisco Public Library”). These were both deemed “local management issues.”

The ALA Code of Ethics calls upon librarians to act on their responsibilities: one must act to make services and access equitable, and one must act to protect privacy—that is what is meant by the phrase in the code stating our “special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations.” The ALA historically has sidestepped responsibility in protecting that duty to act. For example, the most conservative legal theorizing was applied by the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom to an early proposal on workplace speech, essentially saying that it was counter to employment law to take a stand on intellectual freedom as a library workplace right or goal. Instead of “permit[ting] and encourag[ing] a full and free expression of views by staff on library and professional issues,” as the original proposal stated, the proposal was thus watered down after the Office of Intellectual Freedom and the ALA’s leaders objected: “Libraries should encourage discussion both among librarians and library workers and with members of the library’s administration of nonconfidential professional and policy matters about the operation of the library and matters of public concern within the framework of applicable laws” (quoted in “ALA Resolutions: Workplace Speech, Gay Bias, and Disinformation,” That is not exactly a ringing endorsement of academic or intellectual freedom in our work. In contrast, the AAUP argues for those protections in the name of the greater good in exception to common employment law (that is, the “framework of applicable laws”).
No Teeth

Further, the ALA officially states that it might help defend librarians if their employment rights are denied in the process of defending intellectual freedom (for example, in opposing local censorship) but not when they exercise intellectual freedom within the workplace. We seemingly have intellectual and academic freedom in our work, but the ALA has proposed no means of policy enforcement. Indeed, enforcement is cast as an activity beyond the scope of the ALA’s work. This view is further articulated in the ALA’s explanatory “Questions and Answers on Speech in the Workplace”: librarians have ethical obligations to question policies “detrimental to the public interest or to the profession,” but the ALA cautions that it “does not at this time provide mediation, financial aid, or legal aid in response to” workplace disputes, which are subject to local employment policy, nor does the ALA investigate and publicize abuse as does the AAUP. Its stance on librarians’ ethical obligations is hortatory at best.

If the ALA is not willing to stand behind putting intellectual freedom into action in libraries, why should the practicing librarian do so? As I argued in Dismantling the Public Sphere, the ALA itself has clamped down on internal association expression both through its round - tables and divisions with demands from ALA legal counsel for disclaimers on statements and through the Office of Intellectual Freedom’s virtual monopoly on interpreting the application of intellectual freedom principles. In short, in its corporate actions, the ALA does not substantively support putting the Code of Ethics into action by librarians and does not practice good intellectual freedom principles inside the association.

The ALA’s “Standards for Faculty Status for College and University Librarians”—a document that has served as a model for ethical and academic freedom protections within the profession—has been diluted in the process of revision over the years. The standards for performance, peer review, self-governance, and tenure, and even the recommendation that librarians be faculty members in the first place, are weaker now than when they were formulated in 1971. For example, the language has subtly shifted from clear statements in the 1971 standards that academic librarians “should adopt an academic form of governance . . . similar to that of facult[y]” and that they “must have the protection of academic freedom [and their] professional judgment must not be subject to censorship” to the following statements in the 2007 “Guidelines for Academic Status for College and University Librarians”: “The library exists to support the teaching and research functions [and] thus librarians should also participate in the development of the institution’s mission, curriculum, and governance,” and they “are entitled to the protection of academic freedom” as defined by the 1940 Statement of Principles.

The bottom line is that librarians (academic or otherwise) are unwilling, through their premier professional association, to shame those involved in the most egregious violations of intellectual freedom when the violations occur within the profession. This unwillingness to engage academic and intellectual freedom within libraries has resulted in a serious bifurcation: such protections exist for the users of libraries and in building, maintaining, preserving, and providing access to library collections of all types, but they do not cross the desk in practice to the professionals who must stock those collections and serve those users. Academic and intellectual freedom in the library workplace is, primarily, a rhetorical value and an object lesson to those who take academic freedom for granted or misunderstand it. It is a reality only for those librarians fortunate enough to be faculty members—and to be taken seriously as such.

Full article: Academe Online, Sept. - Oct. 2009>

John Buschman, a former member of the AAUP’s national Council, is associate university librarian for collections development, preservation, and scholarly communication at the Georgetown University library.


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