How to Chair an ALA Committee Meeting

Although I haven’t the decades of experience of some librarians, I have recently returned from my 26th ALA Midwinter or Annual in a row and have been a member or chair of one or more committees since my first ALA attendance. I’ve been a member of committees at the ALA level and the ACRL section level, and a chair and member of committees at the RUSA division and section level. In that time, I’ve been to a lot of bad meetings and many good ones. I think I can say without too much immodesty that most of the meetings that I’ve chaired have been better than average, at least if the goal is to get the most amount of work with the least amount of time spent. And if that’s not the goal of meetings, then why have them? Below are some tips that I offer freely to anyone who will be chairing a committee meeting at ALA, especially any meeting I’ll be attending.

Remember the Chair is in Charge

The committee chair is in charge, period. Everyone should participate and have a say. Decisions should be the result of group deliberation. But if something derails the meeting, it’s the chair’s job to get it back on track, even if that means being blunt or forceful. The committee is there to get work done, and anything that takes away from that needs to be dealt with. When disorder reigns, people look to the chair to bring things back to order. Don’t let them down. The chair can keep charge of the meeting while still being polite, considerate, and even amusing. While it might seem rude to stop timewasters and squeaky wheels, it’s actually rude to everyone else not to. Members can get away with just showing up, but chairs have to work, and if you can’t do the work, don’t take on the job.

Do Everything Virtually That You Can

This might seem obvious, but the pattern of work of some librarians hasn’t progressed along with the technological capacity for virtual work. Based on my experience, the old norm was for long, multiple face to face meetings, because it was much harder to do group work at a distance. Email has modified that considerably, and tools like ALA Connect and Blackboard Collaborate finish the job. If it doesn’t need some extended discussion, then it can be handled virtually. I once took over a committee that had been meeting twice for a total of 4.5 hours over the course of a conference. I streamlined it to 1 meeting of 1.5 hours and got just as much work done, because everything that could be handled virtually was, and by the time we got face to face we had to deal only with the stuff that required a meeting.

Give the Committee a Structure

Again, it seems like an obvious point, but it’s not. Librarians tend to be nice, democratic people. They want to solicit opinions, gather viewpoints, and then consider acting at some time in the future. But as a volunteer organization, most librarians don’t want or have time to think a lot about the work of a committee until they absolutely have to. They typically won’t respond to general questions like, “tell me what you think.” Instead, don’t ask them what they think; give them something to think about. If the committee needs to come up with a plan, give the committee a plan. If it needs to review a document, review it and submit your suggested revisions. If it needs to create a document, then provide a possible outline. If the committee is between projects, don’t just ask people what the committee should do next. Give them concrete suggestions to consider along with a request for further suggestions.  Then give people the options: adopt this, critique it so that it can be improved, or ignore it and propose your own alternative. Make it clear that you have no personal investment either way. Chances are, they’ll choose the middle option, which will give the committee something detailed to work on. Sometimes it’s just adopted. And then every once in a while someone actually proposes an improved alternative. So much the better. Everyone gets a say, but people are more likely to speak if they have something in front of them to critique.

Give the Committee a Deadline

Again, because of the volunteer nature, librarians are prone to procrastination regarding committee work. So, along with the structure, provide a deadline. Something like this usually works (although fleshed out more to sound less brusque): “Here is a possible plan/revision/document that moves us along on the project we’re working on. Please adopt it, critique it, or provide an alternative by one month from today. If I don’t hear from you, I’ll assume you approve.” That last bit is crucial. Always take their silence for assent. If they know this, those who care will respond, and those who don’t care won’t feel bad for not responding, and you won’t feel bad for ignoring them later if 6 months down the line they don’t like something. People will usually respond, often enough with good criticisms of the proposal. Those who don’t respond had their chance, and everyone knows it.

Call for Agenda Items

Agenda items should require in-person discussion and action. Calling for them includes everyone in the discussion. This is important both to be courteous of the committee members as well as to give teeth to the agenda later if you need to deal with timewasters (see below).

Create an Agenda

Regardless of whether anyone submits anything, create an agenda. If you can’t come up with any agenda items that require in-person discussion or action, then you should cancel the meeting. Avoid announcements or anything that could just as easily be handled in an email.

Send out Documentation Well in Advance 

Any documentation that’s necessary to understand the agenda items or prepare people for action should be sent out well in advance. A month is a good lead time, because it lets you wait to set the agenda, but gives people ample time to read the documentation. Announce that the documentation needs to be read in advance of the meeting. There are two typical failures here. Sometimes the chair sends out documentation at the last minute, and by last minute I really mean anytime in the week leading up to the meeting. The week before a conference is almost busier than the conference itself. If you send it out that close to the meeting, there’s a good chance it won’t be read, and it’ll be your fault. The other failure is people not reading things even if sent a month in advance. That’s too bad for them, because the meeting isn’t the place to be reading or going over background documentation. Don’t let it devolve into that. The absolute worst thing to do is to bring documentation to the meeting that no one has seen before and then ask people to read and react to it. Save that discussion for another meeting unless it’s an emergency, and really, how many ALA emergencies are there.

Start on Time

Time is increasingly precious at ALA. Also, anyone who is late to a meeting (barring some sort of emergency or alternate commitments) is being discourteous to those who showed up on time. Don’t do a further discourtesy to those people by saying, “let’s wait another ten minutes to see if more people show up.” Unless you have rules about quorums for votes, then who shows up shows up, and start on time. Since you never know why people are late, don’t draw attention to them when they come in after you’ve started. At a minimum, you could just announce, “we’re on agenda item X and the question under discussion is Y,” and then proceed as if they’d been there all along. Given the tightness of the schedule, they probably had to attend another meeting simultaneously anyway.

Stick to the Agenda

After you start, stick to the agenda. You might move things around depending on events, you might even drop something, but don’t add anything or allow for irrelevant discussions until you get through the agenda. People know the time and plan in advance, and respect them enough to stick to it. Focus, focus, focus.

Don’t Talk Too Much

By the time the meeting has started, you’ve sent out documentation well in advance, called for agenda items, sent out the completed agenda, and prepared everyone to discuss and act on the agenda items. You’ve done the bulk of your communicating. The meeting is the time for the members to communicate with each other regarding the agenda items. After introductions, move to the first agenda item and ask an appropriate leading question. Don’t give long speeches about it. Don’t try to fill up dead air if no one speaks immediately. The longer you talk, the less they will. So state the question, ask for discussion, then shut up. Your job now is to guide the group through the agenda and make sure action is taken.

Deter or Defer the Timewasters

Timewasting is relative. In this case, it’s anything that’s not on the agenda or relevant to the discussion at hand. Whether you deter or defer depends on the importance of the timewaster’s point. Committees need to get the work of the agenda done. That’s what meetings are for. Some people like to spend time whining or complaining about the organization, or its members, or something else. That’s what bars are for. Don’t confuse the two. If someone brings up an irrelevant and unimportant issue, acknowledge it but then say we have to move on and we can possibly discuss that after we’ve completed the business at hand, by which time everyone will have forgotten about it.

However, sometimes people bring up important issues that just aren’t relevant to the business at hand. They should be deferred, not deterred. For example, I recall a meeting where the discussion went something like this:

“But I thought Important but Currently Irrelevant Question A was decided in Manner B by Organization C.”

“No, it wasn’t,” reply multiple respondents.

“But I thought it was.”

And so on for several rounds, frustrating everyone. Instead of letting that kind of thing take away from meeting time, a good response might be: “No, I don’t think it was, but that’s an important question, even though it’s not directly relevant to the work we need to do right now. However, because it’s an important issue, after the meeting I will consult with Organization C to make sure what actually happened and will communicate the results to the committee. Perhaps that is something we can take up at a later time.” With this response, the agitated timewaster is recognized as a person with a worthwhile point, is provided an explanation of why that point won’t be addressed at the moment, and is promised further action to follow up and to possibly address the point in more detail later on. (And do the following up; don’t be lazy.) Recognition, explanation, promise of activity. Reasonable people will stop there.

If the timewasters persist, then it’s appropriate to be more blunt and say, “we have to move on now,” and then go to the next item on the agenda. Don’t seem angry or annoyed. Just calmly announce that it’s time to move on. The agenda has strength as a guide because everyone has been invited to contribute and everyone has approved it. Furthermore, not deviating from the agenda shows everyone else the courtesy of not wasting their time. Committee members are reluctant to stop the ramblings of timewasters. That’s okay, because it’s the committee chair’s job. The only person who might be upset will be the person who unreasonably expects to take up everyone else’s time. Everyone else will be silently thanking the chair, just as they were silently cursing the timewaster.

End on Time, or Early

Time is tight and people have other commitments. If they don’t they’ll still be tired of sitting in the same chair for an hour or two. End the meeting on time. If you run out of time, postpone the business. If you go way over time, that means that you planned badly or let things go awry during the meeting. Don’t make everyone suffer because of your errors. There’s rarely anything so crucial that it can’t wait. And if you’re focused and get done early, everyone will be pleased. It’s an example of what Edmund Burke called “the unbought grace of life.” Add a little bit of that to someone’s day and they’ll appreciate it.

An important consideration for all these points is that they show courtesy to the committee members, all of them and not just the squeaky wheels. Members of the committee who want a say in the agenda have it. Members who want to propose alternatives to the chair’s suggestions are free to do so. Everyone has a say at the meeting, and everyone has some control, but that control is regulated to ensure fairness and productivity.

Librarians and Traditional Cultural Expressions

[Update: a revised version of this post was published as “Librarians and Traditional Cultural Expressions.” Journal of Religious & Theological Information 9 (2010), 47-54.

In the context of a project I’m working on about libraries and Enlightenment, I was asked what I thought about “Librarianship and Traditional Cultural Expressions: Nurturing Understanding and Respect.” (The latest draft I could find is here.) I’d read a little about it, but my only impression was that most of it seemed fine while some of it seemed to conflict with academic and library values. The basic thesis of the document is that librarians should be sensitive to the desires of indigenous communities regarding library collections of “traditional cultural expressions,” i.e. objects, documents, etc.  created by members of those communities.

In a general sense, this seems a reasonable and ethical position, and upon further analysis, I realized I supported many of the document’s claims, but not at all for the reasons given by the document. A very small portion of the TCE document does indeed conflict with core values of libraries and universities, but a lot of the rationale does. It took me a while to parse out which parts I thought were in conflict with library values and which not, and also to figure out why I supported most of the document despite the flawed rationale. I’m still working through the labor of the notion, as Hegel might say, and the result is below. I think this is supposed to be debated by ALA Council. My opinion is that the Council should probably support a revised version of the document, but that the document as it stands is unsatisfactory. 
Philosophical Objections
Librarians can object to bits and pieces of this document, and those are the bits and pieces which should be revised. First, we can simply analyze the document to see if the statements all make sense.  The portion on “Meaning and Social Context” is the most problematic from this perspective, and the least necessary for the document as a whole. In that section it is claimed, for example, that “Traditional cultural expressions do not exist separately from the living cultures they reflect. Tradition-bearers are the living repositories of cultural heritage.” Quite frankly, the first statement isn’t true. If it was true, then there would be no need for such a document as this, because libraries wouldn’t own any of these “expressions.” They obviously do exist separately from their cultures, as all expressions do. And yet, this statement is somehow supposed to justify the claims being made. The position of the writers is that there aren’t objects in libraries, but “expressions,” and an expression must have an expresser. But “expressions” as such don’t exist as “expressions.” They exist as objects or texts or whatever. Calling them “expressions” is presenting an interpretation of those objects preferred by the writers of the document, but difficult to support if you don’t share their assumptions.
It’s definitely true that these objects or texts are meaningful in their cultural context, and such a context is the best way to try to determine their original meaning. Objects and texts out of their appropriate context can be interpreted many ways, though, and their meanings can never be restricted or contained by any one context. If there is any value to poststructuralist arguments about texts and interpretation–and I think this is the most valuable part of the poststructuralist enterprise–I’m not even sure how anyone would begin to prove that an “expression” doesn’t exist beyond its expresser. 
The second sentence, that tradition-bearers are the living repositories of cultural heritage, makes much more sense, but it’s not clear how it’s related to the first sentence, or how it is related to an argument about how librarians should treat objects and texts in their care. If the tradition-bearers are indeed the repositories of their cultural heritage, then once again there’s no need to worry about other repositories like libraries. If “expressions” can’t exist without the expressers, and if the expressers are the repositories, then what could there possibly be in libraries? What are those things librarians collect?  Statements such as this do little to support the main claims of the document. The rest of the statements in that section might be true, but aren’t necessarily relevant to an argument about what librarians should do with TCEs.
Librarian Objections
The document claims that “the special sensitivity and care TCEs require are supported by the fundamental tenets of librarianship. These principles serve as a reminder of core library values and our mission to safeguard and provide access to materials without sacrificing individual liberty or respect for cultural differences.” I don’t think this is correct, and it’s certainly not proven in the document, which references librarians’ core values but doesn’t analyze the claims regarding TCEs according to those values. Here’s the list of ALA “core values”:
  • Access
  • Confidentiality/Privacy
  • Democracy
  • Diversity
  • Education and Lifelong Learning
  • Intellectual Freedom
  • Preservation
  • The Public Good
  • Professionalism
  • Service
  • Social Responsibility
We could take them in turn. Access requires that librarians strive to make collections as freely available as possible to all comers. In addition to the commendable statement that libraries should help indigenous peoples preserve and even digitize their cultural “expressions,” we also have this statement: “Libraries should be sensitive to the possibility that digitizing traditional cultural expressions could expose the content to a world beyond the boundaries of the library, making it potentially more vulnerable to misuse.” I’ll address “misuse” in a moment, but even without that this is an odd statement. First of all, there’s not just the possibility that digitization would expose the content beyond the bounds of the library; that’s the entire purpose of digitization. We want to make our collections more accessible. That’s why we digitize. 
Confidentiality/Privacy could conflict with this statement: “Libraries strive to provide the necessary social and cultural context in connection with use of indigenous materials in their collections, and make every effort to ensure appropriate use of materials.” It might not conflict, but it all depends on what one means by ensuring appropriate use. To make sure someone isn’t going to destroy or deface an object? Definitely.  But what if the object or text is used as a source for a research project? Should librarians inquire about how the object will be used, and not allow access to those who aren’t “using” the objects “appropriately”? This relates to the worry over “misuse.” What would it mean to “misuse” a digital collection? To interpret it badly? To use it to mock or criticize a culture? These are certainly possibilities, but they are “misuses” that must be allowed for educational and intellectual purposes. If someone interprets something wrongly, they should be refuted, not prevented. This is the essence of democratic debate and education. The language here isn’t very clear, and doesn’t explain what appropriate use might be. That alone should be reason enough to require revision.
Democracy would also possibly conflict with the claims that indigenous peoples somehow control the meanings of objects in libraries. Democratic values protect, but don’t privilege minority groups. It also conflicts with the claims about misu
se. Democracy requires open inquiry and debate, that requires access to information and the freedom to debate it. These are core library values that we disregard at our peril.
Diversity is a contested term, but would probably be one of the most relevant values to support the parts of the document worthy of support. Because libraries have diverse collections in a diverse society, it’s important to make the effort to understand that diversity and to be sensitive to the needs and desires of diverse communities. This would lend support to the more reasonable and defensible claims in the document, such as, “Librarians have a responsibility to develop an understanding appreciation of the traditions and cultures associated with materials held in their collections.” Absolutely, they do. 
The next two values–Education and Intellectual Freedom–are perhaps the most crucial to academic libraries, and the values that have the best claim to provide the foundations for libraries in the first place. If we consider these values absolute and universal, they undoubtedly trump some of the claims being made in the document about sacred knowledge or (potentially) restricted access. The modern research university is a product of the Enlightenment, for better or worse, and its values are that anything can be considered an object of investigation, and that in most circumstances the importance of  the production and dissemination of knowledge takes precedent over other concerns. We study and investigate peoples, texts, objects, nature, etc. because knowledge is both good for its own sake and useful for the progress of society. Together with other Enlightenment values such as democracy, freedom of speech and publication, and toleration of dissent in a marketplace of ideas, these provide the rationale for the research universities and their libraries.
Here also is where possible difficulties lie. Some parts of this document are utterly incompatible with such values. In the discussion, the other librarian posed the problem as possibly one of colonialist versus indigenous people’s values. This is the cultural relativist perspective. But the Enlightenment perspective would pose it as a problem of universal versus local values. Who’s correct here? Your position on this will probably determine your position on some of the more mystical portions of the document. 
The tempting position to defend is that the values of the indigenous peoples should take precedent because they were both the victims of aggression and the creators of the “expressions.” I’m tempted by this argument. However, one can be sensitive to the suffering of indigenous peoples without sacrificing universal values.
Think of what happens in other, more fraught contexts when universal Enlightenment values that underlie librarianship are considered merely the relative values of European colonialist oppressors. Do we consider it morally acceptable to stone homosexuals to death? To perform forced clitorectomies on women? To keep girls away from educational institutions and throw acid in the faces of little girls who dare go to school? To forcibly marry preteen girls to older men? These are all practices among some cultures. What should our position be on them? If all values are relative to particular cultures, and Enlightenment values of liberty, democracy, and racial and sexual equality are merely the local values of Western cultures, then we can’t criticize them. What librarians would be willing to stand up and defend such a position?
There are times when librarians must respond like General Sir Charles Napier in India. “”You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.” You say it is your custom to venerate certain objects. It is our custom to study them.
But if we can’t defend such practices, or at least refrain from criticizing them, it’s because we believe that values such as liberty and equality are necessary and universal human values, and that humans who don’t believe this are wrong, and in extreme cases evil. Isaiah Berlin makes the rather existential argument in “Two Concepts of Liberty” that values pluralism, the belief that there are many ultimate but irreconcilable human values, is what makes the liberty to choose absolutely essential to the human condition. Liberty, equality, security, order–they are all ultimate and necessary for humans to thrive. Because there are many such values, we have to choose among them, and because this choice is essential to the human condition, then it cannot be justly restricted.
For librarians, this supports the value of intellectual freedom. Intellectual freedom isn’t an ultimate value because we like the sound of it. It’s an ultimate value because educating ourselves about options and choosing among them are a necessary part of being human. It is a universal value. If we believe it is a universal value, then we believe in universal human values. And if we believe that, then we also believe that local values that conflict with universal values must lose in competition. We don’t restrict access to materials based on cultural or religious grounds for the same reason we don’t believe homosexuals should be stoned to death. We make objects and texts from other cultures available for study because we think educating ourselves about everything–including other cultures–is important. 
Let’s skip to social responsibility because the other values are less clearly relevant, and because I’ve gone on long enough. According to the “core values” statement, “The broad social responsibilities of the American Library Association are defined in terms of the contribution that librarianship can make in ameliorating or solving the critical problems of society; support for efforts to help inform and educate the people of the United States on these problems and to encourage them to examine the many views on and the facts regarding each problem; and the willingness of ALA to take a position on current critical issues with the relationship to libraries and library service set forth in the position statement.” [Note to ALA: that sentence could definitely use some editing.]
Supporting efforts to inform and educate Americans about critical problems would support all of the statements in the TCE document that want librarians to educate themselves and others about the “expressions” of indigenous peoples and those peoples themselves. But that education is concomitant with the fullest and freest access to the texts and objects the library possesses. We can do our best to present such objects in their most relevant context, but ultimately “misuse” or misinterpretation is beyond our control.To use the objects and texts to try to educate the public about what they really mean and about their relationship to indigenous cultures is part of the universal values of education and intellectual freedom as well as social responsibility. We do this because of our universal values, not because of our cultural relativism, which is the same reason we would digitize collections or make them available to library users.
This is also why we might return items. “Indigenous communities understand that some traditional cultural expressions are private or sacred knowledge and share this insight with libraries that may have these works in their collections. Libraries that hold private or sacred knowledge should consider returning those materials to the indigenous communities or
to institutions in which such restrictions are appropriate.” From the relativist perspective of the document, libraries would return sacred objects because they are sacred, but libraries don’t recognize the value of sanctity. An object or text is there to study. We may find it interesting and relevant that some groups consider this object or text sacred. The Bible is sacred to Christians and the Koran to Muslims. But from a more universal and academic perspective, that is but one fact about these texts. It doesn’t change the nature of the texts for the researcher; it only adds a relevant and important fact about their context. The same is true of objects from indigenous cultures. If I am from that culture, I might consider an object sacred. But I’m not. And even if I was, the values of education and intellectual freedom would still trump the supposed sanctity of objects. 
Reasons to Support a Revised Document
At this point you might think I disagree with the general idea of the TCE document, but I don’t. What I disagree with are its reasons for making the claims that it does. The values of one group in a society don’t trump the universal values of education and intellectual freedom, nor do they trump library values of access or privacy. But the most important desiderata of the document can be defended in terms relevant to library values, even though that isn’t done in the document as written. Education and intellectual freedom and access means we make objects and texts as available as possible, but it also means we do all we can to understand these objects and texts and the people that produced them, and also do our best to pass that understanding on to library users. 
Returning some collections is also completely justifiable, but from the universal perspective of justice, not the local perspective of sanctity. Justice trumps even education and intellectual freedom. The important question is, how did these collections come to exist? Were they stolen? Purchased? Traded for? Acquired as gifts? The prominent libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick based his philosophy of distributive justice on the principles of justice in acquisition and justice in transfer. In other words, if property was initially acquired justly (via the Lockean proviso that enough and as good is left for others), and transferred justly, then whoever owns it in the end is the just owner.  If we find at the end of the line that ownership isn’t just, the principle of rectification requires us to reallocate resources in a just manner if possible.
Casual libertarianism is usually the political philosophy of people who can only hold one idea in their heads at a time (freedom!), but  Nozick’s principles don’t support his libertarianism very well, because if we go back far enough, little was ever acquired justly. The history of acquisitions of property can probably be traced back to force or trickery or exploitation. He also supports a principle of restitution of property, if it can be shown that ownership didn’t follow the two principles of justice. Jeremy Waldron analyzes Nozick’s principles from this perspective in his essay “Superceding Historical Injustice.” Waldron argues that reparations for historical injustice have to consider changing circumstances and what would currently be just. For example, it wouldn’t be just to send all non-indigenous persons in the United States back to whatever part of the world they or their ancestors came from, even if that were possible, because that act in itself would cause tremendous amounts of suffering and injustice. However, this doesn’t preclude reparations for actions that were historically unjust, if such reparations don’t create injustice in the present. 
Something like this might support the return of some objects. Libraries shoudn’t return objects or documents because they are sacred, but because they were acquired unjustly or transferred unjustly. Their sacredness as such is irrelevant to library values. Returning items or negotiating with cultural communities about their use are forms of reparation, and could only be justified within a library framework as works of justice. This argument smuggles in a plethora of problems regarding the relationships between indigenous peoples and colonists, but it helps us make more sense of some of these statements from within the value structure of librarians, rather than from an external and incompatible set of values. If libraries were to return objects or restrict access, it’s not because the objects are sacred or because they’re “expressions” of a culture. That could be said of many objects and texts and carries no special weight for librarians. Instead, it would be because the objects or texts were acquired or transferred unjustly at some point, and their return itself wouldn’t cause injustice in the present. Figuring this out for every collection would be difficult, if not impossible, but only this type of reasoning could be compatible with core library values. One group’s claims about sacred knowledge tells us what they believe, but gives librarians little cause for action.
However, there are probably cases where even a return of unjustly acquired objects might do an injustice to education and knowledge. Let’s say for the sake of argument there’s an absolutely unique collection of TCEs in an archive somewhere. I don’t mean unique like yet another Civil War diary is unique, but unique in a strong sense. There’s nothing quite like this, and it’s the only public available collection of objects from a community available for study. And let’s assume that if the objects were returned to their cultural community, they would be restricted so that only members of that community could see them. Even if the provenance wasn’t completely pure, there’s an argument for keeping them in the library, because restricting access to that extent would be impossible to reconcile with the values of education, intellectual freedom, and the public good. It’s a thorny area, but once librarians betray their values we could be on a slippery slope to other problems.
The majority of of claims in the TCE document are fully compatible with library values, but not for the reasons given in the document itself. A revised document, with more rigorous reasoning about how the core values of librarianship support the claims about education and context, and a revision of the claims not supported by those core values, specifically those on restriction of access, would be an appropriate document for ALA support.

ALA Campaigning

Tis the season for ALA elections, and thus for ALA campaigning, something which almost no one does. I have received some emails regarding the two people running for ALA president, touting what are no doubt their superior qualifications for the highest library organization office in the land, but otherwise I’ve seen no campaigning.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m running for two different offices within RUSA: RSS Vice-Chair / Chair-elect and CODES Member-at-Large. I have a history of losing RUSA elections. Whenever nominating committees want Person A to win, they need to find a plausible Person B to run against Person A. So someone approaches me at conference and says, “Person B, I want to ask you a question.” That’s B for Bivens-Tatum, I suppose. When I call them on this, they always swear it’s not the case, and since they’re always nice people I suppose I have no reason not to believe them.

Everyone writes up statements of purpose and fills out a biographical form, but there’s usually little campaigning. Even the campaigning for the top office always strikes me as odd. It’s not like being the president of ALA brings that many perks with it. You don’t get a salary and a house and Secret Service protection. At least, I don’t think you do. It seems like a lot of work not to at least get your own limo and bodyguard.

Campaigning for some of the lower offices would be amusing. I was introduced at an RSS all-committee meeting, and I thought it would be funny if I broke tradition and started making a campaign speech. I didn’t, of course, but I wanted to stand up and tell everyone how I was going to take control of RUSA away from the lobbyists and special interests and bring the power back to the people, or something like that. Then I could have gone around shaking everyone’s hand and asking if there were any babies to kiss. My Vice-Chair opponent has been a librarian a bit longer than me, so I could also say that this election should be about judgment and not experience (not that I’m questioning your judgment, Barb, if you’re reading this. If you’re not reading this, then it might be a different story!). I might also point out that I’m the taller candidate and have a lot more facial hair, which is important for representing RUSA-RSS on the world stage. My height and facial hair would also make it easier to heal the rifts between RUSA-RSS and various world leaders, with whom I would obviously be willing to meet and initiate diplomatic relations. I would also offer to debate on a range of issues from the RUSA strategic plan to how many RSS nametag ribbons we might need to give out at functions.

My third time up for one office (which I lost that time by two points), I did consider putting as a “statement of concern” that I was coming up for promotion and tenure and that being elected Member-at-Large would look very nice on my vita. In retrospect, I wonder if that would have given me the two votes I needed to win, or just made everyone who didn’t know me think I was such a jerk that they wouldn’t vote for me. Now, it doesn’t matter as much, since I have our equivalent of promotion and tenure. I guess I didn’t need that office, after all.

Of course because of the lack of campaigning we’re not overwhelmed with propaganda and disinformation about all the candidates, which for me is the most enjoyable portion of any political campaign and the sort of thing that makes me proud to be an American. Unfortunately, this means that unless we want to read all the statements and bios, which could mean a lot of time spent when we consider those counselor ballots, we have to just vote blind. Many ALA members have a simple system. Mine goes something like this. First, I vote for me. Then, I vote for people I know. Then I vote for academic librarians. Then I vote for people who have unusual names. So far I haven’t had to go below that level.

In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, not that I’m campaigning, but if you step into that ALA voting booth between now and whenever the elections end and you see my name, I wouldn’t be averse to getting your vote. I’m not saying, “go vote for me.” Just if you’re voting anyway, you might as well vote for me. You can even use my criteria. I’m me, and you at least know who I am, and I’m an academic librarian, and I certainly have an unusual name. And I’m pretty tall, don’t forget that. Not freakishly tall or anything, so don’t worry. I have some other qualifications, too, but those are all listed on the ballot. Keep all this in mind come election day.

God bless RUSA, and God bless you all!

Posted in ala

Copyright and the Code

You might not know this, and based on the attendance at open hearings and such you probably don’t care, but the ALA Council approved a minor revision of the ALA Code of Ethics last week. I had a very small part in this process as the RUSA representative to the ALA Committee on Professional Ethics.

Almost everyone with any interest in the Code was happy with it, except for Article IV, which since 1995 has read, “We recognize and respect intellectual property rights.” Apparently, this article was slipped into the Code during the last revision without much discussion. On the surface, it seems innocuous enough. To me it doesn’t say much more than, “we obey the law.” The problem that I and others had was with what wasn’t said, namely, that librarians also want to make information available to people. After many good suggestions and a lot of wrangling, the revised wording, and that which I think was approved, is: “We respect intellectual property rights and advocate balance between the interests of information users and rights holders.”

Near the end of the committee discussion, I found myself in the unusual position of being on the radical side of the debate. In general, I’m temperamentally moderate and believe in different spheres of justice, to borrow and inappropriately apply a term of Walzer’s. For example, I’m one of those who thinks the ALA shouldn’t take a position on the Iraq War, despite the fact that I have opposed it from the beginning on ethical, political, and military grounds. This would mark me as a “conservative” among some groups of librarians. However, the pendulum shifts when it comes to library issues. I proposed dropping the property rights clause entirely, and substituting something like, “We want to make as much information as possible as freely available to as many users as possible.” Perhaps not that very wording, since it isn’t bureaucratic enough, but certainly that sentiment.

At one point, I was accused of wanted to do away with copyright, but such was not the case. My argument for this change assumed that the ALA as an organization and the vast majority of librarians want as much access to information as possible, and that while we agree with the idea of copyright, we do not in fact agree with much of current copyright law, especially the Sonny Bono copyright extension and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Had those acts been in force in 1995, Article IV might not have been written.

Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution states the purpose of copyright: “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” My personal test case for copyright is T.S. Eliot, who has been dead for over 40 years, but whose estate maintains strict control over much of his work because of copyright extensions and charges high prices for inclusion of his work in anthologies. But any copyright that extends this far past the author’s death isn’t promoting the progress of anything. It’s of no benefit to the author or the common good. The idea of copyright as an unlimited right to ownership by a corporation to some piece of intellectual property in perpetuity has no justification, legal or moral.

I wanted to write this yesterday, because I was thinking of Martin Luther King Jr., and his use in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” of Aquinas’s distinction between just and unjust laws. Under natural law theory, a law on the books (or a positive law) is only just if it’s in accordance with the natural law. We can have unjust laws, and it seems to me that people are much more likely to ignore an unjust law and not feel bad about it. How many people, I wonder, make copies of their own DVDs to put on their video iPods or other portable devices? Plenty. But why would so many people violate the law against this? Because it’s a stupid law, and also an unjust one, if we can imagine a clause of the natural law governing digital copies of DVDs. People violate this law all the time, and feel no remorse at all. Nor should they.

The new code wants to ensure that librarians are on record supporting the rights of people to access information that may be copyrighted, which libraries have been doing since there was copyright. With current copyright law, we might not be able to create libraries today if they didn’t already exist, and if we move to an all digital world with the extremely restrictive digital rights of today, then libraries will have a harder time serving users. A more radical approach would have been the acknowledgment that a lot of us only grudgingly accept current copyright law, and push it to the limit in various ways to get information to users. Upon reflection, I don’t think the more radical version would be a good idea, because we don’t want to give the copyright fascists any more ammunition to attack libraries with, but I still believe that in the dark shadows of our professional souls where the lawyers aren’t allowed, the needs of the users still trump excessive copyright laws. We just can’t officially admit it.

ALA Transparency and Inclusion

Lately I’ve been thinking a bit about the workings of the ALA, prompted by several things. First, I’m running for a couple of offices withing RUSA, RSS Vice-Chair and CODES Member at Large. (RSS stands for Reference Services Section, btw, and has nothing to do with feeds.) I know it seems strange to run for two offices in two different sections of RUSA, but I was nominated to run, and I have a developing history of losing elections, so I figured what the heck. And if I win both, then I’ll have a very busy year and might be able to do some useful stuff. Also, I’m chairing a nominating committee in RUSA-RSS. Lastly, I ran across this post on the ACRLog by a new librarian considering going to Midwinter, but unsure if he should, partly, as I read it, because of the opacity of ALA. He’s not sure what he’ll be allowed to do.

All of these led me to think of what I like and don’t like about the ALA. To be fair, I can’t say much about the ALA proper, since most of my work since taking this job has been with RUSA. I’m a rep to an ALA committee, but I haven’t enjoyed it as much as most of my RUSA work. I’ve liked most of the work I’ve done in RUSA. Regardless, one thing has always bothered me about the entire ALA enterprise–its unnecessary opacity to new librarians and those on the outside.

The blogger at ACRLog was understandably confused by what’s going on, because the ALA doesn’t seem to do a great job of welcoming new librarians, despite the New Members Round Table. By my first ALA conference (ALA Annual in Chicago in 2000), I was already on two ACRL section committees, but I had some professional incentive to dive in quickly, so I just wrote some section chairs and asked them to put me on something. Also, going to library school at Illinois and working as a GA in the central reference department there gave me a good initiation into ALA activities, since many librarians there are so active. That assistantship always seems to be a feeder to academic research libraries and ALA participation.

But even with this, I remember wondering what else to do. I went to my meetings, wandered the exhibits, saw a couple of presentations, and tried to avoid running into my then supervisor, but I still didn’t feel very engaged. It was only when I switched jobs and also switched most of my activity to RUSA that the sense of engagement increased, because I was suddenly thrown into the middle of a big project revising some reference guidelines. Because I knew something about writing and editing and reference, I felt very qualified to participate in the discussions and influence the changes taking place, participation which everyone welcomed. Without this sense of empowerment, it might have taken me longer to realize that at the committee level, many divisions and sections can be very welcoming and even democratic. There’s nothing for new librarians to fear.

It always seems to the neophyte that the old hands within ALA know all the answers and have seen it all before, but I don’t think that’s the case, and I’ve never encountered any librarians in ALA that ever tried to dismiss my opinions because I hadn’t been around for years. Maybe they did it in private, but never to my face. I’ve always felt very welcomed when I showed up, even if I just sat in silence not knowing what to say. As I’ve gained a bit more experience and chaired some committees, I’ve certainly always been welcoming to any guests. As far as I can tell, there’s almost nothing that should be secret at ALA, and hardly anyone treats newcomers badly. But how are the newcomers to know?

That’s one problem of opacity. The other is in the electoral process. I’ve been on two nominating committees so far, and am about to chair a third, and I’ve always been surprised by the insular nature of the process. Last time I was on a nominating committee, I advocated casting our net beyond the usual suspects, and actively trying to recruit people who might not think about running. I wanted to let people know that we weren’t just looking for people who had served their time on a dozen committees, people who might be capable and energetic, but not necessarily in the inner circle.

It would be helpful if all the unnecessarily mysterious inner workings of ALA conferences could be made plainer to everyone, but especially new librarians. I know that a lot of what goes on seems like meaningless busywork, and perhaps a lot of it is, but there are some interesting and useful things to do, even, perhaps especially, in some of the lower levels. It would also be good if there was a greater sense of inclusiveness, though I’m not sure how this can be done when 10-20,000 people show up for conferences. This is where the divisions and especially the sections can be most effective, I think. They can provide smaller, less daunting, more inclusive environments new librarians and others, if only those librarians knew about them.

I guess I’m trying to develop a platform of sorts if I win anything. This probably sounds silly considering I’m running for an office, but I’m not much of a politician. There’s not much campaigning for these offices, and they sometimes become merely popularity or name recognition contests, but if there was campaigning I’m not sure I’d be good at coming up with a program and persuading everyone I was the right person for the job. I’m too shy, and it’s too easy for me to see the other people running, most of whom I’ve worked with, and say, “oh, they’d probably be pretty good, too.”

But if I have any issues with RUSA, and by extension with the ALA, increased transparency and a sense of inclusion would be high on the list. I’m not sure of the best ways to make people feel welcome, or even to make them feel that any organization activity is at all worthwhile for them, but the whole thing should at least be as welcoming and inclusive as it can be.