Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Reflection

Another student comment prompted me to reflect on the question of what's so secret or, in the same vein, what's new or different about government secrecy.  By extension, you might have wondered, as we've traversed the wide-ranging topics that we have thus far, why we might have stopped to take a look at things that might, on the one hand, seem obvious (issues of access for homeless people in libraries, perhaps) or simply hopelessly insurmountable (media conglomeration comes to mind here) in the context of a policy and ethics course in the library school setting.  It's a fair question and it's worth taking a moment to think and talk about.  I can give you some of my impressions, and please feel free to chime in with what your own thoughts are as a comment or a separate post.

In the course, we're attempting to get a survey or lay-of-the-land look at the kinds of policy and ethics issues that affect library and information professionals in the course of their professional, and very likely, personal lives.  As you note, it looks quite possible that there has been a move away from the important of information ethics (and access) at the levels our fellow student denoted - in government, the media, and so on.  As current and future practitioners, many of you likely see the value of recognizing and articulating how these large-scale issues and cultural trends affect your local library and, just as the personal is political, so is the local, global.  But one thing we might want to think about, too, is the ways in which librarians can agitate not just at the local level, but at a larger scale, to heighten awareness or make demands to ensure that the values and ethics we have talked about in class (and may deal with every day, on the job) are taken seriously and have import beyond our local level.  I spent some time, for example, working with ALA's Washington, D.C. policy and government relations (the uncharitable might call the latter "lobbying") group, and saw firsthand the way librarians were building coalitions, to the benefit of libraries and, by extension, their patrons, with other think tanks and national organizations on a variety of topics we've touched on in class: copyright and fair use, access to information, funding issues, and so on.  Because of the unique role, along with perhaps just a handful of other professions, of librarianship as being seen (by most) as advocating for the public good, librarians have a powerful voice that could be used in ways to agitate against some of these situations and paradigms that, at first blush, may seem insurmountable.   I found those experiences, time and again, to be empowering.  It was also impressive to see both how many trained librarians were working on these big issues and, likewise, the kind of respect they seemed to be afforded by other people and colleagues on their initiatives.  I found that people speak about "librarians" with a different sort of tone in D.C. than they do, for example, about "lawyers."  There is a preponderance of the latter working on policy there, to be sure.

It's also important to remember that while we have had a fairly easy time of it with this particular group of students in our class, in terms of people reaching general shared consensus about these policy and ethical issues, there have been many other instances of great and profound disagreement among library students in other iterations of this and similar classes.  For that reason, I think there is value - and I hope you, the students do, too - in unveiling the state of so many of these issues and evaluating them collectively and vis-à-vis our own espoused ethical positions (e.g., ALA and similar professional ethical statements and documents) and those that have influenced us (e.g., J.S. Mill), on the whole.  It keeps us knowledgeable and it keeps us on our toes, nimble and ready to be advocates for the public(s) we represent and engaged citizens, on the whole.  I wonder if we have a higher burden, somehow, by simple virtue of our chosen vocations.  What do all of you think?


  1. This class has completely opened my eyes to the issues that librarians must face and how we need to be advocates for our patrons. Especially after reading the FDLP article and reading that librarians, who were receiving the paper gov docs for public use were having to create their own system (digging through links/websites) to give access to these things digitally. That's when it struck me -- they weren't sitting around waiting for the government to give them access to the documents, the librarians thought about their patrons and their right to access and did something about it. That's pretty cool -- and I hope, now armed with this greater awareness about information and the various policy and issues entwined in it (who knew!), that I can be a pretty cool librarian too -- one who stands up for her staff, patrons, and herself. I have to admit I wasn't excited about this class when I signed up for it (due to the words ethics and policy), but after all our discussion and readings I'm really happy I took this course.

  2. Sarah, thanks for your thoughtful responses to both Mel’s and my blogs. Just a couple more thoughts and I’ll shut up. I feel I’m traveling precariously close to alienating you and, possibly, my classmates.

    “… librarians can agitate not just at the local level, but at a larger scale, to heighten awareness …” “… librarians were building coalitions, to the benefit of libraries and, by extension, their patrons with other think tanks and national organizations …”
    This is all very cool stuff; however, I think it bears mentioning that the vast majority of us may complete our professional careers at the local/library system/state level, and that’s OKAY! I’m proud to say that I’ve done lots of “agitating” and paradigm-shifting in my own community (sometimes with positive results and sometimes with resistance). Go, ALA and other lobbying entities! Continue to look at the big picture on our behalf. However, a majority of the work is done at the local level, and sometimes ALA and other uber-agencies do not have adequate conceptions of what’s going on in the trenches.

    “I wonder if we have a higher burden, somehow, by simple virtue of our chosen vocations.”
    I don’t agree. I think it implies a certain elitism about the career of librarianship. I think every individual, regardless of his chosen career path, should aspire to perform that job to the highest degree possible and espouse the values that are stated (and implied) for that particular profession.

    Thanks for your patience and attention.

  3. Kathy, your point about the behemoth-level organizations is well taken; there is a great deal of coalition building and community building to be done on the ground at a municipal level, or even at a state level, as the case with many of us in WI (and I'm sure this is true for other states, although I am not as familiar with them). This type of work can often have a much more immediate or at least tangible effect and it becomes easier for people to intercede where they live.

    As far as the second point goes, perhaps some of the students who are not yet in the field as full-time professionals might chime in about what led them to this profession as a pursuit. Sadly, it tends not to be the lucrative salaries that pulls people in. So I do contend that the nature of librarianship and its position in relation to the pubic and a public-service role does make it different from a great deal of other types of work and, by extension, similar to other professions that operate in this public or service-oriented sphere. I find that there is value in recognizing that, on a theoretical basis, to be sure, but also to the pragmatic end of forming partnerships, for example (e.g., journalism and librarianship), that can benefit the profession(s) and their attendant publics*. The fact that there is a heavy public interest dimension to this field certainly marks it off in some distinct way from the types of jobs I've held in the past. The final straw, for me, was when I moved from a long-time university position to working in a private company that lacked a public good dimension entirely, simply due to its nature as being a completely different animal from a university, school or library environment. I missed having that in my work life and turned to professional training in this field in order to live more closely to it in the employment side.


    * The level of public interaction, of course, varies depending on where you work - information professional in a law firm vs. public youth librarian vs. school media resource specialist vs. cataloger in a higher ed setting, etc. But the fundamental professional formation and commitment to access of information for patrons tend to remain the same irrespective of position.

  4. You provide interesting insight, Sarah, about the culture shift from working in an institution with a public good dimension to a private company that lacked it. From my own life experiences, I know that I need to work in a position that does have a public interest, I just wasn't wired to ignore it.

    I agree that it is empowering to work in positions where people can have an impact on issues that impact libraries and, by association, our patrons. However, our ERM class has me questioning to what extent libraries and librarians can actually affect things like copyright policy (hear me out!). I claim ignorance to any of the hands-on activism or changes in the way things are done in legal-land, especially libraries' role in things like policy-making; and I haven't been in on any advocacy events or meetings. (I have a feeling that when I enter into the profession full-time, I'll establish a better idea of my place in that ongoing conversation.) BUT the discussions of copyright that we've had in other classes make it seem like libraries have little to no "real" voice (meaning voice that carries weight beyond moral value).

    It always seems like all the big name players (i.e. vendors, publishers, etc.) and their copyright lawyers are the ones who actually dictate the policies and laws about these issues. So, my question then, is what is it "really like" for libraries/librarians with regard to copyright and other information policy discussions in some of these higher level national levels?

    A reading from another class took the position that even libraries may not be the best advocate for the public good because, despite our best efforts, there are still institutional motives behind the policies for which we advocate that may not parallel what the communities we serve want. Could this be true? Perhaps digressing from this week's topic a bit, could - and if so, in what situations might - our own professional ethics on information policy not align with public interest? Is what we as librarians call "public interest" truly objective, or is it "library public interest", and what (if any) is the dissonance between the two?

  5. What an interesting discussion! I am not in the field yet and I do have a ways to go with this degree before making any final decision about quitting my current job (unless someone else makes the decision for me). I think the main reason I am pursuing this as my next career is, most likely, the direct connection I am going to have with people. I want to be as knowledgeable as possible to help others learn things. I know it won't be all sunshine and roses, but I'm anticipating that there will be more good moments in a day than I have now. I am also excited by the great variety of things to explore and research and discuss. Some of it is very depressing and overwhelming, as many of us have pointed out, but I continue to be enthralled with the new things I'm learning.

    Kathy, I need to respond to your comment: "I think every individual, regardless of his chosen career path, should aspire to perform that job to the highest degree possible and espouse the values that are stated (and implied) for that particular profession." I agree, but some companies don't really reward or value these people. I guess I see librarians overall as being more collaborative and welcoming (is that a stereotype?) -- and I see the profession as recognizing those who deserve it.

    And, in the same vein, it has been interesting to me that in this class our views have been similar, as Sarah mentions. I feel like if we all were in a classroom situation, we would all stay after class discussing all this stuff. It's hard to comment on everything in the blogs, but I'm often nodding my head and smiling at someone's new idea and thinking, "yeah, that's an interesting way to think about that!"

  6. Sarah, can you elaborate on the "tone" in which librarians are spoken about? Is this one of respect or one of "these people have no idea what they are talking about"?