Saturday, July 01, 2006

Annoyed Librarian American Libraries Column #2: ALA versus the Librarians

Attending the ALA conference in New Orleans gives me a little more faith in librarians, though no more in the ALA.

The upper echelons of the ALA are a wasteland of irrelevant political intrigue and foolish commentary. The ALA Council either is itself composed mostly of scoundrels, or (as I believe) lets itself be hijacked by political scoundrels who, in the words of one SRRT scoundrel I overheard in New Orleans, "really know how to get resolutions passed." She considered it a point of arrogant pride that they were able to herd the other librarians like sheep. I was too polite to tell her what a rude and ill mannered little troglydyte she was. And of course how unimportant she is.

But if you looked at the programs on offer, it's hard to criticize the work of the divisions and sections and the programs they presented the way one sometimes can with an organization like, for example, the Modern Language Association. For all the idiocy of the proposed Laura Bush protests (which I don't think happened), and all the preconference criticism of luminious political and librarian pundits such as Michelle Malkin and the Annoyed Librarian, not much political silliness actually went on, and what did go on was ignored by a stunningly overwhelming majority of librarians.

I'm possibly beginning to disagree with Greg McClay at SHUSH about one thing. He asserted on his website before the conference that if you would be in New Orleans and were interested in change but didn't go to the membership meetings, then you were just wasting your time. I considered that, and in fact made time in my very busy schedule to attend one of the membership meetings (my first ever after I don't even remember how many ALAs), the one where the irrlevant Darfur resolution was brought up. Greg bravely and intelligently spoke against it. A couple of others noted their reservations. Almost everyone in the room voted to send it on to Council, though, as I knew would be the case. That just confirmed to me that direct engagement wasn't much use.

But one thing I noticed about that meeting compared to many programs and events I've attended both at this conference and at other conferences is that hardly anyone was there. They needed 75 ALA members out of approximately 10,000 there to make a quorum, and barely made it. I heard many of the programs were packed, even with the relatively light conference attendance.

What this tells me is that the majority of librarians, even those active within ALA or its divisions, find the activity by the ALA membership and the Council to be utterly worthless. That should send a signal to SRRT and others, but it doesn't. They think they are pulling something over on the rest of us by hijacking the meetings, but they are really like the children we let loose in the play area while the rest of adults go off to do the real work of the conference, which is mostly learning about and sharing things in the profession that are important for the profession or for our particular jobs.

Except for a couple of programs about "diversity" which really have nothing to do with librarianship, it was hard to find a politically motivated and yet completely irrelevant program. Probably the most politically motivated program I noticed was "Out of the Closet and Into the Library: Access to Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Materials for Teens." Even if one disagrees politically with the content, it's hard to argue that it isn't focused on librarianship.

Though one might not realize it to read the professional mockery of the Annoyed Librarian, I am quite active in one of the divisions of ALA, and find myself rising in the organization almost despite myself. It's a blessing, and a curse. The work I do is useful (I think) and very much focused on the field of librarianship, and the librarians I work with are almost all dedicated, intelligent, considerate, and non-political about librarianship and their jobs. Are they mostly to the left of me politically? Probably, though my political views are sometimes rather complicated. Does that matter for the work we do together or our common desire to make that work as good as possible? Nope.

I suspect this is the experience of those who are active at the division level for most of the divisions, expecially those divisions specifically devoted to a type of library or even better a type of service. I'm thinking here of ACRL/PLA or ALCTS/RUSA. The librarians there are dedicated to librarianship.

But the more one is removed from librarianship, and the more one moves in those exalted circles that have nothing to do with the profession and everything to do with the professional organization, the less useful and relevant one becomes. That's the level with the idiotic and irrelevant political resolutions. That's the level where even Council members of good will say things like "Well, remember, 10% of the people do 90% of the posting" when talking about foolishness on the Council listserv. That's the level where dedicated librarians start to become embarassed by the actions of the political ideologues.

But why don't they speak out? Because it's not important, that's why. Also, I suspect, they're just too nice to say anything. They let the rude and inappropriate behavior of the SRRT go on, because they don't want to be rude themselves. That's just the way gentle people often are around children behaving badly. When was the last time you saw a rude child in a restaurant and actually said something to the child or the parents? I don't mean just mumbled to yourself or complained to your date, but actually went up to the parents and told them what a little brat their child was. I'd bet for most of us the answer is: never. Well, that's how sensible librarians are around the SRRT folks.

Perhaps the answer is to promote not active engagement with the ALA Council, but active disengagement from it. Not faithful attendance of irrelevant and annoying meetings, but active boycotting of such meetings to the point where quorums can't be achieved.

If an ALA Council resolution is passed in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?


Dances With Books said...

Have you tried to actually complain to a parent for a brat who just does not behave in a public place recently? The days when you could, and the miscreants would be ashamed are long gone. You try that stunt now, and you are likely to get yelled at or worse by people who have no consideration of decency. So my bet is a lot of the decent librarians just stay quiet to avoid the scene.

Overall, I have learned in my short time as a librarian that ALA is just some mythical faraway and mostly out of touch organization we pay dues so we get a bunch of journals. In a way, it's probably not that much different than a Mafia raquet where you pay them protection money. While I have an interest in the profession, I have learned ALA is just not the place for it. The day the divisions I have an interest in actually splinter off and go do their own thing, it will be the day I may become active. While I do have some interest in librarians having an active role in society, pursuing the "impossible dream" is not my idea of librarianship. So, I guess that makes me as actively disengaged as the next person. But, life will go, the resolutions will keep on getting passed, you will keep mocking, and things will stay the same. So, what else is new?

Anonymous said...

Okay I responded ;) - Greg at SHUSH

Annoyed Librarian said...

Those are some good arguments, Greg. If you keep arguing like that, I may have to give up my cynical detachment.

Bruce Jensen said...

Call me dense, but I'm wondering in what way Michelle Malkin is "luminous"--?

Annoyed Librarian said...

In the grand scheme of things, she's about as luminous as the Annoyed Librarian. I'm not sure that's saying much!

Anonymous said...

It's funny to see you call SRRT "rude." Whatever one thinks of your views, you have to admit that your blog and other beligerant conservative blogs like it is pretty rude stuff. I think a few decades ago conservatives tended to be polite and liberals, who were the wild youth, tended to be rude, but I don't see how anyone can miss the fact that the situation now is the reverse. Liberals are pretty mild, asking people to be reasonable, and conservatives are bellicose and rude. It started with talk radio in the 80s, moved to TV in the 90s and now it's hit the blogs with rude people like you.

Annoyed Librarian said...

That's an interesting criticism, "Anonymous at 7:37pm." I'm not sure what alternative universe you're living in where the "liberals" are all reasonable and polite and the "conservatives" are all rude, but it must be a lovely one. I'll ask Michael Moore about that next time I see him.

It must be very comforting to see what you believe rather than believe what you see. It also must be rather comforting to let political labels take the place of political thought.

"Liberal." "Conservative." What exactly do these labels mean? By liberal, do you mean a supporter of constitutional, representative government; the rule of law; the individual right to life, liberty, property, freedom of speech, religion, assembly; free markets, that sort of thing? You know--liberalism?

Or are you a victim of the paucity of American political discourse and include as "liberal" such radical left ideologies as socialism, communism, anarchism, "progressivism," etc.? Ideologies generally hostile to the proposed definition of liberalism above. Or do they all just blend together into a happy stew called liberalism?

And do you want a good example of a "belligerent conservative"? Joseph de Maistre. Now there was a conservative! You're probably intimately familiar with his work. He defended the things conservatives have been defending since there was such a thing as conservatism: the monarchy and the established church. Oh, wait, I guess that's probably not what you mean.

You mean American conservatism, right? What exactly is that? Can you define it for me?

What exactly is a conservative then? What are conservatives in American conserving? Is is liberalism? Are we historicizing at all, or are we depending upon the usual vague political discourse one finds in America? The political universe seems more complicated to me than that, but if you'd like to unpack these loaded but vague political terms for me, I'm sure I would benefit from your wisdom.

Turns out the further I explore these labels the less coherent they become. That could possibly be why the Annoyed Librarian never defends or attacks anyone by calling them a liberal or a conservative. In fact, there's almost no specific political criticism of anyone's politics qua politics.

Did you really want to talk about political labels, or were you just making chit-chat? I usually find it more intellectually fruitful to discuss specific issues rather than make sweeping statements about liberals and conservatives. The political folks I poke fun of on this blog have a very specific agenda related to librarianship and the ALA.

Oh, and belligerent? Meaning carrying on a war? Am I carrying on a war? If so, what is the war about? Do you know? Does it seem like the Annoyed Librarian carries on a political war unconcerned with librarianship?

And rude? Well, perhaps I am rude, but what exactly am I being rude about? Which is ruder--trying to use an apolitical professional organization to further your own personal unrelated political agenda and foist your irrelevant politcs on others, or trying to stop such a nefarious scheme by ridiculing it? There's no moral equivalence there, and if you think there is, it's just because you don't mind the former.

If you really want to debate political theory and practice, I'd be more than happy to. Turns out that's somthing I know a little bit about. But you might save your shallow political analysis for your drinking buddies.