Saturday, May 23, 2015

Free Speech Should be for Librarians Too

Librarians and Self-censorship
Free Speech Mural
Free speech for librarians comes with unspoken conditions

I encounter many (often young) librarians in real life and online.  One of the most frequent things people tell me is, "How come you are so free with your speech?  I could never talk about those things--I would get fired." or more often, "...I would never land a job!"  

It is striking that librarians consider themselves defenders of free speech and intellectual freedom, but that the above sentiment is held by so many librarians.  

Why are librarians scared to speak about important issues?

I understand about library constituencies, but I'm not talking about library directors here--I'm speaking about regular librarians, or librarians searching for a job.

Last month, I had a session at the Oregon Library Association Conference.  My session was on cannabis resources for librarians.  The session consisted of a panel.  I had invited another knowledgeable librarian to be on the panel.  However, the librarian's director told them that they could not be part of the session.  I found this interesting--especially since the state of Oregon has legalized cannabis for recreational and medical consumption.

Censored and Self-censored 

Anyway, the fact the librarians are scared to speak about certain issues, or to let their staff speak about certain issues because if might offend their constituencies is incredibly offensive to the notion of free speech AND intellectual freedom.  It would be wiser to create a campaign on intellectual freedom and free speech than to censor librarians, or to self-censor--which is the most usual case.  

Librarians should never be scared to talk about issues.  We should never be wary of pointing users to legitimate information sources, not matter what the subject and we should never self-censor.

It is chilling to me to hear so many people who are fearful of speaking out, speaking up or bringing up topics that might make others feel uncomfortable.  One of the main issues with our country is that it avoids issues that are uncomfortable.  This leads to anger, violence and other social issues.  

As librarians, we should feel free to speak our minds, be ready to defend our free speech rights and use, be ready to defend free speech for others and access to information that some may feel should be restricted.  

I have suffered the ramifications of free speech.  In fact, one of the heads of an academic diversity in libraries program recently told me to,  "Never contact me again.  Your rhetoric is weak, and your arguments are unconvincing."

If he doesn't like my arguments, then attack the arguments--don't cut me off from you and your program.  

When things like this happen, and even worse--when they happen in public, these ramifications serve as a model of punishment.  This model informs others of what can happen to them if they speak out, or don't reinforce the status quo.

If we self-censor, how can we ever hope to achieve promote free access to materials, and the free speech of ourselves and others?


Mary Rayme said...

I think there is a void of library and librarian leadership in our country. Combined with libraries losing funding, this has created an atmosphere of fear, fear of job loss, fear of not getting a pay raise, fear of not being hired. The ALA loves to tout Intellectual Freedom and Ethics in the workplaces but has no forum or mechanism for enforcement or protest. Librarians should not live in fear like our stereotyped dopplegangers, the bun-wearing, shushing librarian went out with Leave it To Beaver. In my opinion, we need to be fierce literacy warriors and information artists (my undergrad degree is a BFA) that are able to challenge the library status quo.I love your attitude Max. We need more of you, who are not afraid to speak your mind and be who you are within the library and literacy world. Awesome post.

Max Macias said...

Thanks so much for your insightful comments Mary! I very strongly agree with what you say. Thank you for reading and commenting!

David Lubar said...

Great post. The problem is also institutional. Several years ago, when there was talk of some sort boycott being discussed on YALSA-bk (the details escape me) or possibly some statements in support of a political candidate, the powers that be stopped it cold by stating that they could be fined by the government for allowing this sort of talk on the forum. But the rules in question (having been written far before the dawn f the Internet) might not have applied to a listserve. It wasn't clear. I suggested that rather than shutting down the discussion, ALA's lawyers look into whether the laws applied to YALSA-bk. Nobody bothered to do that. On the positive side, when I've traveled to harshly conservative parts of the country, it was the librarians I met who were trying their best to champion freedom of speech and information.

Max Macias said...

Thanks so much for some background information David.

I'm sure not ALL librarians experience this, and I honor and value those who champion free speech for others and themselves.

Thank you for reading and for taking the time to comment!

Anonymous said...

I would start with the premise that most librarians are liberals, career oriented, don't tell, etc., etc. (Frantz Fanon the author of "The Wretched of the Earth", talks about the ambivalence of liberals when they have to confront critical, uncomfortable, issues, becoming, thus, closer to, if not, fascists).
Then there are librarians who are conservatives and they tend to be more upfront. Finally, those who have not a technocratic mind but a critical one. Of course, a lot of this last group is afraid. Critical minds don't have a place in the labor market and we got our masters degrees in universities -think about the Latin word universitas!

Bob said...

Max - thanks for your interesting post!

It made me think of where I work in a university. Even though I'm in a university where the librarians are members of a union (AAUP) I often find a lot of nervousness about their participating or being associated in any way with the union. Hanging posters on their door, meeting with union members, marching in rallies etc - all legal forms of expression. Many of them don't yet have tenure, and even some that do are nervous about retaliation.

And what's ironic is that AAUP is the institution that helped to enshrine "academic freedom" into the university's structure, and hence into the whole university system! (see )

I've always been proud of being a worker, as I was born in Detroit with farming grandparents (one of whom worked to organize miners in PA before WWI, and was blacklisted for it.) I find it amazing that in this bastion of privilege, the university, we find out voices stifled - often by our own hands.

Max Macias said...

@ Anonymous The conservative voice is needed in libraries just as much as the radical voice is needed. Certain discussions have been banned by people who don't like to make others feel uncomfortable. We should never allow that. Thanks so much for reading and for your great comments.

Max Macias said...

@ Bob,

Wow--that is chilling. Government unions are the last stronghold too. How strong of a hold does a union have if people are afraid to express themselves about their union?

The AAUP is vital to the University and it is terrifying that the union's voice is so weak.

The AAUP should be like the police Unions--who always do such an outstanding job representing their workers.

Thanks for reading and commenting!

Anonymous said...

My own college president demanded that I rewrite reports that said things she thought were unflattering, when all they said was things like the fact that the budget cuts were hampering us, and we hadn't been able to convince our fundraising office to work with us to date. I didn't rewrite them. We'll see what happens. Since I'm looking for another job (along with half the people who work there, even many with tenure), I'm not signing my name ...

Steve Silver said...

Thanks for your courageous words, Max. I agree with everything you say.
Recognizing that we live in the tension between ideals and reality. In an ideal world we would be able to speak our minds freely without threat of retaliation. But we do not live in an ideal world; hence the need to defend and promote intellectual freedom in the first place. I do believe there is an ideological disconnect in some circles of librarianship where we promote intellectual freedom and free speech, as long as your speech is equally tolerant or generally in line with librarianships' liberal viewpoints. These issues need to be brought into the open and addressed, as you are attempting to do here.
There is also the reality that some would speak out but for the very real fear of retaliation, and maintaining employment in a competitive market can trump ideology for many legitimate reasons (sole household income, for instance). It is a tension we all live within and must address.
But we need to find courage to say what must be said--even if uncomfortable--where we can say it with reasonable security or willingness to accept the potential consequences.

msedano said...

That person who mouthed the words about weak rhetoric and unconvincing argument clearly does not understand rhetoric, nor argumentation. Rhetoric is finding the available means of persuasion on a given subject for a given audience, where proof--argument--is located in the character of the speaker, the logic and evidence presented, and the feelings elicited in the audience. Someone with such weak qualifications doesn't deserve to call oneself "librarian."

Ben said...

Sometimes I think you’re wrong, Max, but I always appreciate you speaking your mind. Librarians are often smack in the middle of genuinely contentious political and social issues, and heated—but respectful—discussion just shows that they truly understand their situation. Nobody and no organization is neutral, and we’re constantly negotiating our positions as information professionals. The debate is what defines us as people that matter.

Debbie Reese said...


Last year, moderators of an ALA listserv wrote to tell me they were deleting my post to the listserv (it had already been read by subscribers and because I used trump's name to describe some of what I see happening), it was deemed a "political" message that was not allowed. So, it was deleted from the archives.

I don't remember David Lubar's emails in that discussion. Maybe he was reading but not commenting. Maybe it was a different conversation. For me personally there's been more than one round of that "don't get into politics" warnings. I think it is ridiculous.

Max Macias said...

“Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral. ”
― Paulo Freire

When it comes down to it--ALA reinforces colonialism, whiteness and racism by maintaining a false sense of neutrality.

It is criminal that your comments were erased and it makes me wonder how many other great comments have been removed from their 'archive.'



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