Conduct Unbecoming

Shortly after the American Library Association‘s Annual Meeting in Chicago last summer, I was approached by a group of ALA Members, ALA Councilors, and others about coming together to develop a “code of conduct” for ALA’s professional conferences. The group worked over several months, offered a document to ALA’s Office of Conference Services and the ALA Executive Board which was approved and accepted. The “Statement of Appropriate Conduct at ALA Conferences” is not new policy, but rather  a restatement of existing policies and procedures that have existed in the Association for many years in a concise form.

This Statement has been causing much consternation in Libraryland as of late. As someone who worked hard on gathering policies and solidifying them in this statement, I am proud that our Association offers this information – quite plainly and openly – to all conference attendees. Will Manley offers the latest critique of the Statement, and I feel that the time is right to offer my own voice to this discussion. As one of the people involved in creating this statement, but speaking on my own behalf, I’d like to respond to his criticisms and offer my own unique insight into this discussion.

Why? – ALA has gone over a hundred years without making librarians conform to a conference code of conduct.  What were the circumstances that necessitated enacting a code now?

As an ALA Councilor-at-Large and ALA member for over 10 years, I have been approached by several ALA members who have experienced bona fide examples of harassment and intimidation at conferences. Women touched, embraced, or fondled inappropriately. Others who had to suffer through verbal harassment or intimidation. Transgender and genderqueer members told by conference staff that they could not use a certain restroom. While the association has had policies guarding against such behavior for years, there has never been a definitive statement on the types of behavior that will not be tolerated and what the consequences of such behavior would be.

And to be honest, even though this type of “bad behavior” has been going on at ALA Conferences for years as evident in my experiences and the experiences of others, the impetus of the Statement was born out of some high profile incidents at recent technology conferences in the last few years. As these conferences were developing “statements of conduct”, a group of concerned ALA members got together and worked with ALA staff and leadership to develop a statement for the Association as well. As stated above, the Statement is not new policy. We simply concatenated existing policies and statements into a unified and easy to reference document.

How? – Admittedly I am not an ALA junkie so it’s quite possible this policy was comprehensively vetted by ALA’s membership.  However, I don’t recall reading about it  so I wonder: how exactly was this policy written, vetted by the membership, and approved by the ALA Council and Executive Board?

First, this is not new policy, just a restatement of existing policy. It was developed by a concerned group of ALA members in conjunction with the ALA Office of Conference Services, and vetted and approved by the ALA Executive Board. If this was indeed new policy, ALA Council would have had to weigh into the process as well, but as this was a restatement of existing policies and practices, no action by Council was necessary. As an ALA Councilor-at-Large, I have a feeling that this will come before Council at Midwinter next month, and I anticipate that Council will give its stamp of approval as well.

Please Define and Refine Your Terms:  The policy states: “Some behaviors are specifically prohibited: harassment or intimidation based on race, religion, language, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, appearance, or other group status.”  My guess is that if you ask 100 librarians for a definition of “gender identity” and “gender expression” you will get 90 different answers.  ALA needs to define those two terms.  Also “other group status” is incredibly vague.  If I say something negative about Skinheads will I be violating the code of conduct and be reported to the Director of Conference Services?  How about the Knights of Columbus?  The Tea Party? The Rotary Club?  The Burlington Liars Club?  Please specify, ALA.

“Gender identity” and “gender expression” are both codified in ALA’s anti-discrimination policies. Both terms have very solid definitions in this context. According to the Human Rights Campaign, gender identity is a “refers to a person’s innate, deeply felt psychological identification as male or female, which may or may not correspond to the person’s body or designated sex at birth (meaning what sex was originally listed on a person’s birth certificate)”. Gender expression “refers to all of the external characteristics and behaviors that are socially defined as either masculine or feminine, such as dress, grooming, mannerisms, speech patterns and social interactions.” As I mentioned above, I know of several ALA members who experienced discrimination and harassment from conference center staff based on their gender identity/expression and the “proper” restrooms they should be using. Due to a lack of unified and consistent policy, these members were unaware of what group at ALA they should have reported this to, and what actions could and would be taken to rectify the situation.

I do agree that “other group status” is vague and needs clarification. I would welcome working with Will Manley and any other ALA members to clarify and modify the Statement. Like most documents, this is the first iteration and clarification and amendment is always welcome.

This Policy Can Have a Chilling Effect on Intellectual Freedom: The policy states: “Speakers are asked to frame discussions as openly and inclusively as possible and to be aware of how language or images may be perceived by others. ”   This is a very scary requirement.  It sounds an awful lot like…if you offend anyone you can be hauled before the Director of Conference Services and asked to recant.  Shock, satire, and hyperbole are all rhetorical strategies that speakers employ to shake an audience out of normative thinking in order to consider alternative points of view, but shock, satire, and hyperbole can also be very offensive.  I remember going to an ALA conference in the late 60s in which a black power speaker began his talk with the assertion: “Fuck this shit.”  He went on to deliver a great, inspiring message that shook the mostly white audience into a better understanding of his world.  Would that man be arrested by the ALA political correctness police today under this policy? Another effective rhetorical tool is humor.  Good humor is double edged.  It is funny but it also can be quite biting.   Would Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce be arrested by the ALA political correctness police under this policy?  It is a very scary but very real thought.

I wholeheartedly agree that there is a fine line between intellectual freedom/free speech and harassment. The Statement was written not to squelch intellectual freedom and free speech, but to remind Conference attendees that intellectual freedom and free speech are never entirely free.  I cannot yell “FIRE!” in a crowded auditorium and claim free speech as a legal defense. Likewise making statements that are misogynistic, homophobic, racist, sexually charged, and the like may be free speech or fall under intellectual freedom, but are not appropriate behavior at a professional conference. The Statement does not seek to silence hot button issues or controversial topics, but seeks to ensure that discussions of these take place in a professional context.

Ambiguity Reigns in this Policy: Consider this clause from the policy: “…use of sexual imagery or language in the context of a professional discussion might not constitute hostile conduct or harassment.”  A good First Amendment lawyer would have an absolute field day dismantling this wishy washy directive and taking ALA to the bank.  What in heaven’s name does “might not” mean in this case?   ALA is the organization that sued the federal government so that children could have access to pornography on library computers.  This clause (and this whole policy) seems to be completely at odds with ALA’s historic defense of an extreme interpretation of intellectual freedom.

This phrase was taken from other codes of conduct used in other professional conferences. It indicates that there may be discussions or presentation that happen in a professional context, are not harassment or hostile conduct, even if this language or imagery outside of professional context, may be something to be avoided. In my opinion, this clause “gives an out” for intellectual freedom and free speech, if done within a professional context. Obviously you can’t have a discussion on literature related to child abuse survivors without using sexual imagery or language, and this is protected in the Statement, but leaning over to a colleague at a conference and telling him or her your abuse fantasy, is most definitely harassment and hostile conduct.

Where is the Due Process for Violators?: Here’s what the policy says: all violations “will be directed immediately to the Director of Conference Services, who will determine and carry out the appropriate course of action, and who may consult with and engage other ALA staff, leaders, and legal counsel as appropriate.  Event security and local law enforcement may be involved, as appropriate based on the specific circumstances.”  Good grief!  Imagine Howard Stern being arrested by law enforcement at an ALA conference for saying the seven words you cannot say on radio or Chris Rock being arrested for making fun of white people or Sarah Silverman being arrested for ridiculing men.

The spirit of the Statement is not to be the ALA Thought Police. Conference Services will not be placing moles in programs and presentations to guard against violations. That being said, if someone feels they have been harassed, abused, or otherwise made uncomfortable at a conference, this statement directs the member who to contact and provides a sense of how the situation will be evaluated and resolved, all within existing policy.

I am very proud of the Statement and was honored to have worked on its creation and distribution in the Association. I will be the first to admit that it’s not a perfect document, and could use clarification and amendment. I would welcome anyone with suggestions — and critiques — to contact me and I will bring these forward to ALA Council. the Executive Board, and Conference Services and ensure that we make this Statement better.


Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” — Mark Twain

You would think that librarians, as a rule, would be more skeptical of data, facts, and other pieces of information than the general public. Most of us spent at least a couple of years working on a graduate degree in library and information science that ostensibly should have prepared us to ask the “hard questions” about what we read and hear in our professional discourse. Perhaps I’m more skeptical than many, but I expect librarians to have a pretty sensitive bullshit meter with the ability to work through information like data and statistics to discern the “damned lies” from reality.

Source: Wikipedia

Therefore, I was taken aback by the sturm un drang over the recent statistics in the Library Journal’s annual placements and salary issue by members of the profession.  Social media and the library blogosphere lit up with posts and statuses that bemoaned the plight of librarianship and the lack of jobs in the marketplace. After all, Library Journalone of the more respected sources of information in the profession, paints a dire outlook for the profession with confusing statistics that appear to show employment rates of recent graduates hovering in the area 10-15% for many schools. Dismal indeed! Additionally, the usual suspects that you would expect to call out this type or rhetoric, like the Annoyed Librarian, even took the bait, and saw the results of the survey as “not pretty”. Taking the data at face value does indeed paint a dreary outlook for our profession.

As you dig into the data a little further, you realize that there are some glaring problems with how the data is presented and represented. I’m no statistical wizard, but I could see immediate problems with much of what was presented. Population data is compared side-by-side to sample data. Response rates for the survey are not readily available. The data in the tables is a hybrid of survey responses and data provided by the placement offices of a few schools. The list goes on and on.

I don’t blame Library Journal for the way the data is presented. Could they have done a better job? Sure. Is the data misleading? Yes. Should they have been more forthright with how they presented the data? Absolutely. But as librarians and information professionals we should have dug deeper into the facts presented and drilled down a bit before snatching the doomsday ball and running with it. I guess I expected better from the profession. How can we teach our patrons to be enlightened consumers of information when we were so easily swayed by this information? Do we think that librarianship is such an enterprise bereft of value that we are willing to buy the “big lie” that it’s going to hell in a handbasket?

I wish I had answers to these questions. I know that I have spent the last two weeks talking colleagues and new grads that I am mentoring away from the proverbial ledge. In my own Facebook post about this I learned of many new positions opening at various libraries. Yes, the economy as a whole is pretty bad right now, but there’s no reason to think that were seeing rates of 90%+ unemployment for recent LIS grads. Librarianship will weather this “storm” just as it has previous “storms”. The sky is not falling. Librarianship does indeed have a bright future. Of this I am sure. Regardless of what the pundits and naysayers and their “damned lies and statistics” say about this.

N. B.: There were some in librarianship who saw the errors and  called them out on their blogs, including Jacob Berg, His post was the catalyst for me digging into the data and writing this post.

The Common Good

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I’m a true believer in the “common good”. The common good is the notion that a community builds shared assets, typically from taxes or other public revenue, that are shared with, available to, and enjoyed by all members of the community. The common good is founded on the human realization that by pooling resources we can be, and ultimately are, stronger as a community than as individuals. The common good forms one of the “core values of librarianship” as defined by the American Library Association, and one of the core values of my own personal philosophy and worldview. I’d be a true believer in the common good if I weren’t a librarian; my being a librarian only solidifies my resolve on this issue.

Many assets can be thought of as “common goods”: Public roads, public parks, public libraries, public schools, colleges, and universities, public hospitals, social security, public housing, supplemental nutrition assistance programs, public health care, and the like. Although we may lag behind our peers, the United States of America has a long history of creating these assets to serve the common good. These assets benefit everyone, and we are all richer, more prosperous, and better off because of them. But the common good appears to be under constant attack in contemporary America.

Much of the current political debates over the Affordable Care Act, funding of Medicare and Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Social Security, and the social safety net in general, at the federal, state, and local levels, is about the common good. Whenever the citizens of a municipality vote to deny funding to schools, parks, or libraries a piece of the common good dies in that community. Whenever a state legislature votes to defund student aid or education programs, the common good dies in that state. Whenever the federal government shuts down over fiscal matters, or cuts funding for social programs, education, health, and the welfare of the citizens of this country, the common good slips away.

For at least as long as I have been a librarian (15 years), there have been debates over the “future of the library” and whether public libraries are a necessary common good in our communities. On Sunday, a post in TechCrunch, a technology news site, mused about the “end of the library” stating the author’s assertions that the usefulness of the library had ended when “the internet has replaced the importance of libraries as a repository for knowledge” and “digital distribution has replaced the role of a library as a central hub for obtaining the containers of such knowledge”. While I do not disagree with the author that the internet and digital resources have changed the information landscape, I am an ardent believer, with many others both inside and outside librarianship, that libraries will and must remain to serve the common good.

There is no denying that there is a “digital divide” in this country. The gap between affluent “haves” who can afford technology and access to information on the internet and through e-books, and poorer “have nots” that do not have the means to afford this technology or access is growing. Libraries often function as a means of bridging this divide and ensuring that all citizens have equal access to contemporary information sources regardless of their “ability to pay”. Libraries have always lived out this mission to serve the common good.

Although the concept of the common good has taken a beating in recent years, I think that the future of the library and other assets that meet the common good are strong. But the common good needs people to assert its usefulness in the community and advocate for community assets that serve this common good. If we do not nurture the common good in our communities, it will wither and die. As librarians, we can become advocates, not only for our libraries, but fall all assets in our communities that serve the common good. We need to turn our anger from news of the demise of the common good into positive action supporting it on our communities.  Let us all believe in the power of community and coming together to make something greater than we can as individuals, and spread this belief among our patrons, friends, neighbors, and communities. I’m a true believer in the common good, and want you to be a true believer as well.


Teaching Skepticism

Skepticism is “generally any questioning attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere.” — Wikipedia

Yesterday I posted on the need to for academic librarians to teach college and university students critical thinking and critical evaluation skills during library instruction. I feel that the role of the academic librarian is not simply to teach student how to find information sources, but how to think critically about the information sources they find and evaluate information sources both for their research needs and for validity and purpose. Regrettably, these skills are not taught very often in secondary education, and students arrive as college freshman lacking the ability to be “discriminating consumers” of information, media, or facts in general.

Source: wburris on

I feel that we, as academic librarians, have a duty to not only arm our students with these tools, but to stress the importance of skepticism in dealing with the constant barrage of information, media, news, data, and facts that we encounter in the early 21st century. I find that many students I work with are simply willing to believe anything they see on television or encounter on the internet instead of approaching it with a critical eye and a healthy dose of skepticism. But let’s face it, skeptics don’t always command respect in out society that holds the ideologies of “blind faith” and “stand your ground” as law and “capital-T” truth.

This is where academic librarians enter the picture. As educators, our primary role is teaching skepticism. It is our job to instill the “questioning attitude toward knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs” and to teach students how to debate “claims that are taken for granted elsewhere”. As Michael Gorman argues in his book Our Enduring Values: Librarianship in the 21st Century,  rationalism is a core value of librarianship. As rational professionals, we are trained to be skeptical of information we encounter. We seek for corroboration of facts and strive for the most accurate data and information sources. We seek to debunk myths, half-truths, and falsehoods. And we seek to impart these values to the students we instruct. To me, library instruction is much more than just “showing students around the library resources”. Library instruction is teaching critical thinking. Library instruction is building inquisitive consumers of information. Library instruction is teaching skepticism.

Library Instruction is more than Teaching How to Fish

When I first started my career as an academic librarian over 10 years ago, my “teaching philosophy” when it came to library instruction was simple: Arm students with the tools they needed to navigate library databases, the online catalog, and find information sources needed to write good papers and create good projects. Working with both undergraduate and graduate students over the years, I have found that most students, when pointed in the right direction, are pretty good at searching and finding the sources needed for their own research. Even first-year undergrads and high school students taking college courses for credit can navigate the library’s home page, connect to a “discovery layer” or a large commercial database, and make it do what they need it to do and bring back good results. I credit this to growing familiarity with search concepts in the use of Google and other search engines, better instruction in secondary and elementary education on using library and Internet resources, and better search engines and user interfaces on the Web, on commercial databases, and on library systems.

Source: danguer on

Increasingly I found myself instructing students on “how to search” or “how to use the online catalog or discovery tools” only to find that many are coming to college with these skills. A trend that I am seeing much more often, however,  is a lack of critical thinking skills and the ability for students, undergrad and grad students alike, to evaluate information sources, intelligently and articulately describe why they used a particular source,  and lack of a reasoned explanation of why they searched a specific way on the Internet or on more “academic” sources. Students know the “hows” of searching, but not the “whys” of searching or how to determine which results are good and which results are crap. To this end, I have been spending much more time in my library instruction sessions working with students on information evaluation tools, critical thinking skills, and asking many more “why” questions than “whats” or “hows”.

The old adage of “Teach a man to fish and you will feed him for a lifetime” needs refinement. We not only need to teach students “how to fish” but also how to determine which fish are poisonous, which are too small to keep, and why we are fishing in the first place. The most important skills that academic librarians can teach college and university students, are critical thinking skills and the ability to evaluate information sources effectively. The lines between “good” and “not-so-good” information sources have become extremely blurred, and it’s our job to teach our students how to evaluate the “good fish” from “the bad”. We’re not only instructors of search techniques and library research, but instructors in critical thinking and information evaluation. Let’s make our students discriminating fishermen.

The Nonexistence of “Digital Natives”


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Jacob Berg does a great job of dispelling the myth of the “digital native” in his blog post this morning, The “Digital Natives” Myth and Library Science Education. I’m not sure why library and information science, especially LIS educators, have taken such a shine to this concept. Perhaps it’s because we see it as a way to “keep up with changing times”, but as his post (and a lot of subsequent research) has shown, the profession is chasing rainbows in tying itself in knots by looking for new collections and services to serve this “new group” of users.

Sure, college students and younger folks are more tech savvy than others. But what do we really mean by tech savvy? I find myself helping plenty of college-aged students use Microsoft Word or Google Search while they run circles around me in the features of their iPhone or downloading music from the web. I think there’s a long way to go to bridge the divide between “knowing how to use a smartphone” and being a true “digital native”, where being a productive member of the Information Age, with a mastery of technology and information sources, is as natural as breathing. A long way, indeed.

I agree that we need to stop using the terms “digital native” and its cognates “born digital” as soon as possible and face up to the fact that individuals are complex organisms with varied talents, skills, needs, and abilities. We need to be smarter as librarians and information professionals in gauging these needs and responding to these talents, skills, and abilities. If we can do that, a true revolution in our profession will occur.

Values-based Librarianship

Chris Bourg of Stanford University Libraries gave a presentation at the Penn State University Libraries a few months ago entitled “Beyond Measure: Valuing Libraries” on assessing academic libraries based on the core values of librarianship as defined by the American Library Association. This presentation, and some other reading that I am undertaking, including Michael Gorman’s “Our Enduring Values: Librarianship in the 21st Century” have me thinking a lot about values-based librarianship lately. Values-based librarianship, as I see it, is professional practice informed by these core values. In other words, in a values-based system our core values forms the guiding principles for what we do as librarians.

Setting our shared values as what guides us as librarians leads to some interesting, and necessary questions. What if who we are as librarians were based on shared values? What would this type of librarianship look like? Would it change the way we manage libraries, build collections, provide information, and facilitate the creation of research and knowledge? What if these shared values informed all that we did as libraries and librarians? Can these shared values answer the why questions of librarianship and show us the importance of what we do as librarians?

I will be exploring these questions and additional readings in the upcoming months as I grapple with the idea of values-based librarianship. Please feel free to comment and stay tuned for more writing on this topic.