Tuesday, January 02, 2007

AL American Libraries Column #8: Politics and the Purpose of the ALA

This column almost didn't get written. The total relaxation of the Christmas holidays sapped my will for blogging, and I'm just now recovering from my New Year's Eve celebration. My New Year's resolution is to remember that once everyone has been sipping champagne from your shoe, it's probably time to give up dancing. I can get the dress cleaned, but I don't think the shoes will ever be the same again.

Anyway, when I make a mistake, I admit it! Well, usually, at least to everyone else except myself. I was very foolish last month to connect my arguments about the SRRT to arguments about videogaming and such in public libraries. Someone privately suggested that I was using the SRRT as a small stick to beat public libraries. It's more like I was using public libraries as a big stick to beat the SRRT. Either way the argument was confused.

The argument was confused because the two notions of public libraries--as SRRT indoctrination centers and as entertainment centers--are irreconcilable, and the promotion of one undercuts the promotion of the other. If I have to choose, I choose the library as entertainment center, and later this week I'll comment on ways that public libraries can be even more popular.

I noted that the SRRT was never a liberal group. The SRRT has always been illiberal, because the SRRT folk don't really want to give people the means to choose their own ends; no, the SRRT folk want to choose everyone's ends themselves. Their notion of "social responsibility" consists of forcing their illiberal, confused, progressivistical politics on everyone else. And if you don't agree with their illiberal, confused, progressivistical politics, then it's because you're evil and stupid and socially irresponsible. You can always spot the anti-liberals because they cannot refrain from putting scare quotes around "liberal neutrality." They don't like liberal neutrality because they don't like people to make choices. The anti-liberals want to make all the choices for everyone else.

They especially don't like the idea of libraries as popular entertainment centers. You see, that just confirms the "status quo," and is thus inherently conservative. It doesn't really matter if the status quo is good or bad, what matters is that exists and is by definition popular. If something exists and is stable and popular, then it's not moving us toward the ill-conceived revolution that the radical ideologues long for with all their self-righteous hearts.

The anti-liberals argue, somewhat justifiably, that libraries have never really been neutral because they never actually collect all information on a subject, but instead choose materials that support the status quo (i.e., are popular and what most people actually want), and haven't traditionally chosen materials that represent all the fringe ideas of the radical ideologues (i.e., the progressivistical propaganda that almost no one wants). I doubt that argument is as strong now as it no doubt once was, especially with the rise of the Internet. If the library is a popular entertainment center--with trashy novels and pop CDs and videogames--then it's less likely to be a center for progressivistical political action. You can't use the library to foster the revolution and create your incoherent utopia if everyone's busy having fun and amusing themselves to death.

The SRRT folk have been known in the past to argue that while libraries should perhaps be neutral liberal institutions, the ALA should not, since it's not a library. While libraries should provide information on all sides of an issue, the ALA can take one-sided political stances on whatever issues it wants regardless of their relevance to libraries. This argument is acceptable if you believe that whatever a small group of fanatical ideologues manage to get through a confused ALA Council should have the name of the ALA behind it, and that the ALA has no defining purpose other than to speak out on whatever issues the folks on the Council feel like speaking out about.

If you don't accept those two claims, especially the second one, then you'll probably have a problem with the ALA making political pronouncements on issues having nothing to do with libraries. Either the American Library Association exists to promote and support libraries and librarianship, or it exists to make proclamations on any issue anyone can get passed through the ALA Council. If the first is true, then resolutions about non-library related politics are foolish and wrong. If the second is true, then there is no coherent purpose for the ALA and it becomes just a large organization extracting dues from members to support anything and everything that the whim of a few political thugs deems important.

The political thugs would argue that just about anything can be related to libraries or intellectual freedom. Possibly, though if the reasonings behind some of the sillier ALA Council Resolutions is any indication, some things can obviously be related more easily than others. Only if you strain the meanings of libraries and intellectual freedom to breaking point is that true, though. The only way for everything to come under the aegis of the ALA is for words like "library" and "intellectual freedom" to mean nothing at all. When you've reached the point where you no longer understand that language is a common endeavor and words don't just mean what you want them to mean, and when your political ideology requires you to strip language of meaning because you desire victory and obedience more than truth and reason, then you're prepared for the doublespeak of the totalitarians.

And when you reach that point, then it seems increasingly clear to any non-ideologue that the American Library Association has no coherent purpose or reason for being at all. Maybe it can just become a political party and run Cranky Marxist Dude for President.


Privateer6 said...

First off, HAPPY NEW YEAR and g;lad to have you blogging again as I was going through AL withdrawl.

Second, in reference to this quote:
"...then there is no coherent purpose for the ALA and it becomes just a large organization extracting dues from members to support anything and everything that the whim of a few political thugs deems important."

Unfortunately this IS the current situation with the ALA. Dues are how much? I know about the $55 for brand new members, but am I as a newly minted, ALA certified librarian who is just out of school and currently unemployed getting my monies worth out of the membership? My answer is NO. Unlike other professional organizations: ABA, NEA, AMA, AHA, etc there are really no benefits to the membership.

Does ALA give out stats, info on securing a job, long term employemnt trends, etc like the other organizations as part of their dues. NO you have to pay extra for the reports IF they were even conducted. Does ALA set rigorous standards, works with local, state, and national polictians to lobby on behalf of libraries and librarians. NO they go out and make petitions about topics unrelated to the needs of librarians and libraries. Finally does the ALA follow its own principles: freedom of speech and expression, support those who are fighting oppressive regimes, etc. HECK NO, if you are an ALA member and disagree with SRRT ot the ALA Council, you are ostracized and demonized as an unenlightened Neanderthal. Also look at ALA's disgraceful stance on the Cuban Libraries situation supporting the communist government's imprisonment of those who promote the free access of information. And let's not forget that Cuba restricts and and monitors internet access of its "professional" librarians.

As far as both my wife and I are concerened, ALA is a black hole sucking in itsa members dues for no purpose whatsoever.

Dances With Books said...

Oh goodness, don't get me started on the dues. If it were only the 55 bucks, but then add the divisions and the alphabet soup, and it gets pricey. Heck, I am employed (luckily given the market), but the dues still make a bite for me every year. They should be giving out that salary survey and other information out for free, or as a member benefit at the very least. I mean, if they were interested in transparency and all.

contrarian librarian said...

Dear AL,

Happy New Year and welcome back. You are at your very best when you write about the realities of the Socially Ridiculous Round Table and the ALA. Thank you for your voice.

The Bronx Born Librarian said...

The SRRT is an absolute blight on the profession. Librarians who value democracy need to better organize in order to oppose the tyrannical and socially irresponsible SRRT.

Anonymous said...

Again with the shoe fetish--we want a sitemeter report on the words in the searches that lead to the AL!


AL said...

But Taupey, it's other people's fetish with MY shoes, not MY shoe fetish!