In 2008 at the CAUT Librarians conference in Ottawa, Toni Samek spoke about how librarians – the people who fight for freedom of expression for society as a whole – rarely enjoy freedom of expression themselves. Her talk focused on workplace speech but the experience of several active and retired librarians at the recent Canadian Librarian Association’s (CLA) conference in Ottawa went beyond restrictions on workplace speech; librarians were silenced at their own conference for trying to raise awareness of the current challenges to Library and Archives (LAC.)
In the months leading up to the CLA conference, major budget cuts were announced at the Library and Archives Canada as well as at many federal libraries. In response, CAUT launched a campaign called Save LAC. By sharing information on the CAUT Librarians’ and other library list-servs, readers were informed of the drastic reductions in service and / or closure of libraries funded by the federal government. Librarians, in support of the LAC and federal libraries and opposed to the service and budget cuts, informally banded together and created a National Day of Action on May 31st, 2012.
Part of the activities of the Day of Action included a group of a dozen volunteers (many of them retired LAC employees) promoting a white shirt / black ribbon campaign at the CLA national conference and trade show. May 31st was selected as the Day of Action since Daniel Caron, Canada’ sNational “Librarian” was to make a keynote speech at the conference, as well as present during a Question and Answer session later that afternoon. Of the group passing out ribbons, only two were registered delegates at the conference; the rest were concerned or retired librarians wanting to raise awareness of the impact of the cuts. They talked to delegates, handed out leaflets and answered questions.
Many conference delegates gladly accepted the leaflet and ribbons until about 20 minutes later, when one registered delegate, conference speaker and Action Day volunteer was told by Kelly Moore, Executive Director of CLA that giving out information regarding the cuts to the LAC was “inappropriate.” In addition to handing out ribbons, the librarian and her colleague had placed CAUT “Save LAC” bookmarks on the seats of chairs in the room where the plenary was to be held. They were told to stop, that the conference was “not the right venue” for the activity, and were asked to leave the 3rd floor of the Ottawa congress centre – despite being registered delegates of the conference. Downstairs, on the 2nd level, volunteers continued to hand out ribbons and information. But within minutes, Moore had two security guards remove the librarians and banish them to the street level of the Congress Centre and away from the conference delegates. The official reason given was that the Action Day volunteers were not registered for the conference. But in fact, even the two librarians who were official delegates were asked to leave. (They were re-admitted later).
What does it mean when librarians are physically removed from a library conference for circulating information regarding library funding? And, what does it mean when the national library association in this country is the body removing them?
Before answering these questions, consider CLA’s official position on Intellectual freedom:
All persons in Canada have the fundamental right, as embodied in the nation’s Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to have access to all expressions of knowledge, creativity and intellectual activity, and to express their thoughts publicly. This right to intellectual freedom, under the law, is essential to the health and development of Canadian society.
Libraries have a basic responsibility for the development and maintenance of intellectual freedom.
It is the responsibility of libraries to guarantee and facilitate access to all expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity, including those which some elements of society may consider to be unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable. To this end, libraries shall acquire and make available the widest variety of materials.
It is the responsibility of libraries to guarantee the right of free expression by making available all the library’s public facilities and services to all individuals and groups who need them.
Libraries should resist all efforts to limit the exercise of these responsibilities while recognizing the right of criticism by individuals and groups.
Both employees and employers in libraries have a duty, in addition to their institutional responsibilities, to uphold these principles.
To answer the questions above in light of CLA’s statement on Intellectual Freedom, removing librarians from a library conference for wanting to educate their peers about budget cuts to the National Library and to other federal libraries amounts to silencing. It is censorship and it emphasizes Toni Samek’s point made in 2008 that librarians themselves have no protection against those would would silence and censor an opinion that is different from opinions held by those in positions of authority and power. Librarians tasked in our universities, colleges and societies with the protection of free speech and freedom of expression in its many forms, do not themselves share in the benefits of our own advocacy efforts.
In response to the second question regarding being silenced by the national library association, it means something that has been obvious to many librarians for many years; librarians perceive the current version of CLA as uninterested in the well-being or working conditions of librarians but instead concerned with the protection of a handful of library administrators – its Executive Director included.
If there is a take away from this story, it has to be that CLA is hypocritical and afraid. Just because a keynote speaker is controversial is no reason to silence the controversy. If anything, it just adds fuel to the fire. Indeed, as the volunteers were breaking up, they were also planning on renting a van and heading en masse to Mr. Caron’s next keynote at the International Association of Music Libraries, Archives and Documentation Centres’ conference in Montreal from July 22-27, 2012. Caron will be speaking as part of a panel on Monday, July 23rd at 9:00 a.m. It is called “Libraries: A force for change.” If I’m not mistaken, there are still some ribbons left.
The Canadian Library Association believes in promulgating fact.
So let me clarify.
No registered delegates were asked to leave, to stop placing bookmarks, or to stop handing out materials.
Non-registered people were respectfully asked to move outside the CLA conference space. They were still able to distribute their materials within the convention centre.