Friday, September 01, 2006

AL American Libraries Column #4: Can the ALA Speak with One Voice?

Last month in this column I discussed the mission statement of the American Library Association, and among other things criticized Priority Area A, Goal 2: "ALA speaks with one voice for the profession." I opined that the "difference in priorities and experiences just between academic and public libraries sometimes seems staggering." This month I want to elaborate on this statement and consider it in relation to the ALA goal of speaking with one voice for the profession. There are many reasons why this is a silly goal, but I shall consider only one. The ALA can’t speak with one voice for the profession because there is no coherent profession to speak for. The ALA voices the concerns of public libraries and not, for example, academic libraries. Let’s consider the difference.

Public and academic libraries have very little in common. Sure, they have catalogs and computers and books (so does Borders), but they have very different priorities, goals, and clientele. The ALA has all sorts of concerns: the Patriot Act, Banned Books, Intellectual Freedom, CIPA, DOPA, increased funding, etc. Those are mainly concerns in public libraries. Obviously I’m speaking in generalities and there are exceptions, but in general, none of these are concerns in academic libraries.

Academic libraries generally don't have to worry about some book being challenged because of its politics or because it's ten feet from the children's section and has an illustrated guide to sodomy. They don’t have to filter their computers. They don't have to worry about some kids viewing porn on the library computers. If someone is in the library viewing porn, it might very well be legitimate research for a senior thesis or something. They don't have to worry about their foreign language collections being challenged because it's just "catering to illegal aliens" or something. Nothing is outside the scope of an academic library; the only restraint is money. They don't have to worry about some library board dictating what they should do. They don't have to lure teenagers into the library to justify funding.

There is the Patriot Act, you might say. Again, this issue has hardly affected academic libraries in the way it has public libraries. I haven’t seen any stories about the FBI storming into an academic library wanting to see patron records. And if anyone was using an academic library to do research on bombs or something, it would still probably be legitimate research. I also haven’t noticed any stories of perverts trying soliciting sex from minors on academic library computers, and the librarians preventing the police from examining them.

In my experience, academic libraries are just vastly different places from public libraries. I’ve worked in both, and in “public services.” But in academic libraries I’ve seldom had to deal with the random general public, so there I haven’t gotten all the irritating abuse that many receive in public libraries. Rarely have I encountered rude patrons, the technologically illiterate, the genuinely illiterate, the loud, the vulgar, the smelly, the potentially or actually violent. Or gigantically fat tatooed morons leering at me and asking where the serial killer section is. Or children running through the library screaming at everyone.

In academic libraries, I’ve worked mostly with undergraduates and professors, and they've rarely been annoying. I like undergraduates, at least the ones where I've worked. I’ve probably seen only the geeks, but the students I’ve worked with have generally been bright and engaging. They haven’t necessarily wanted to research in the library, because that's boring, but they've been polite. The professors have also been polite. Perhaps I've just been lucky.

I've noted that I'm not sure public libraries have a coherent purpose any more. Some public libraries want to be all things to all people in the community, anything to bring people in the door. But academic libraries don't have to worry so much about bringing people in.

In a lot of academic libraries, that sort of goal--bums on seats--isn't a problem. Academic libraries have a captive audience. Students have to use the library, and the collection isn't designed to draw them in, it's designed to support their research, whether it's a small liberal arts college library or a gigantic state university research library. Even if unstated, there's much more of an assumption that what the "customer" wants isn't really that important. The "customer" is seldom right. I put that in scare quotes because academic libraries don't work on the model of a retail store trying to adapt its wares to its customer base. That's what public libraries seem to do.

Academic libraries work more on the model of a consultation service. In academic reference, librarians are paid for their expertise, which they share with students. When it comes to library research the librarians know how to do it really well, the students don't. Period. It's not about making the students happy by meeting every perceived need they might have. It's about teaching them to do better what they need to do. It doesn't matter if they like it. They don't really have a choice. Anything fun or entertaining about the academic library is just icing on a very serious cake. Personally, I think library instruction can be made engaging and entertaining; it should teach and delight, as Horace might say. But if it only teaches and doesn't delight, then the job is still done, and if the students don't want the benefit they're the losers. When academic librarians try to get the students in the library, it’s from a desire to help the students do their research, not just to get the usage stats up.

So in my experience academic and public libraries are vastly different. The cultures, the concerns, the clientele, everything. The larger point is that there's really no unity among librarians beyond the title, and the ALA cannot possibly speak for all. And yet, it claims to. Sure, it's just an umbrella organization, you might say, that supports other more relevant divisions for a lot of librarians. There's ACRL, for example. Or LITA. Or LAMA. Or RUSA. You might join ALA but really focus on one of the divisions and ignore ALA proper. I can't help noticing, though, that when those dues get paid, the biggest chunk goes to the main organization, an organization that claims to speak for all librarians as professionals, but speaks only for public libraries, and, as I've noted on a number of occasions, when it does speak for public libraries I often don't like what it says anyway.


Anonymous said...

I think this whole issue about ALA speaking with "one voice" came about because the Social Responsibility Round Table was hurting ALA's public image. You have a point about public and academic libraries being very different. The issue though is that ALA's public image must not be hijacked by a particular round table or division with a political agenda. I think this is the real issue behind ALA's "one voice" policy.

AL said...

You're probably right, but it's still silly. I just used one example of differences I know something about, but the list is endless. And if the SRRT is making trouble, the solution is to eliminate them from ALA and let them form their own political propaganda unit without the ALA's name behind it.

Anonymous said...

I agree. SRRT should have been banned long ago. It is completely at odds with ALA's code of ethics & its legitimacy shows how disfunctional ALA is. Many of these same people have also developed "their own political propaganda unit without the ALA's name behind it" - it's called the Progressive Librarians Guild (PLG). As idiotic as PLG is, at least they are independent of ALA. But I disgress, I realize I'm getting off topic here.

Dances With Books said...

You caught quite a few differences between an academic and public library, however, maybe you should visit my metro inner city university where we do get a good share of "rude patrons (the ones whose sense of entitlement exceeds any sense of reason), the technologically illiterate ("how do I open my campus e-mail?"), the genuinely illiterate ("what is this book thing you speak of?" Yes, I have had similar questions), the loud, the vulgar, the smelly, the potentially or actually violent." Part of the problem is they think we are the public library, and a lot of my job is in breaking their little hearts when they learn that they can't sit at our computers for hours on end looking at porn. Then, there are the podophiliacs, but that is another story. And the faculty with too much time on their hands (apparently that teaching and publish stuff does not keep them busy enough) who complain about book displays they dislike (read go against their politics, etc.). All in all, some of it is not that different, but still, you are right, the national org in no way could speak with one voice. There is no such thing.

Melissa said...

"Rarely have I encountered rude patrons, the technologically illiterate, the genuinely illiterate, the loud, the vulgar, the smelly, the potentially or actually violent." - Wow, I want to work where YOU'VE worked! I've seen my share of all that and more at my friendly academic library--stalkers, Nazis and white supremacists harassing Jewish student workers, guys jacking off in the computer lab, screaming, throwing books, etc, etc...

AL said...

I'm getting the feeling that my particular academic library experience may not be the norm.