Alchemical Thoughts

So, throw them out the side?

Posted on: February 24, 2007

Usually, I stay out of any discussions dealing with involvement in ALA. ALA's dirty well known secret is that involvement is pretty much based on those who can afford all the travel and/or have extremely good institutional support. In other words, you work at a place that pays for all your travel expenses, you get to play. Most librarians in small universities, in rural towns, and other marginal areas can barely afford to pay the ALA dues, let alone do anything further on the ALA Council or any other part of the organization. I make no bones about the fact that for me, working at a metropolitan campus that is severely underfunded, working at any level for the national organization is pretty much a myth. I am more likely to be hit by one of the local METRO buses than to afford travel to an ALA event.

So, this morning, while I am waiting to go teach a Saturday class, I am looking over the discussion list for new librarians. Veterans, and I use the term on the loose side, tend to look at the new librarians as whiny, yet the new folks often make some valid points. What disturbed me, and what drove me to finally write this, is a certain library administrator made a remark to those who either refuse to be involved or can't be involved but complain about their national organization. You see, Mr. Administrator has been involved in many of ALA's organizations. So, in his view, no one who has not been involved has a right to criticize. It's the old flaming argument of "you can't know if you have not been there." It does not quite work that way. You see, while having involvement may give said administrator some additional insights, it does not follow that others cannot criticize. ALA's actions are clearly evident. The status quo is visible. Many people who could probably make a good contribution are not able to, often due to financial reasons, or maybe they simply would rather devote their efforts to other causes in librarianship. So, when said administrator says that back in his day in the Navy the people who complained without offering solutions were thrown off the side of ship with the chicken bones, it struck me as rude to say the least. This was a person who had an opportunity to educate others, to maybe gain some new allies who instead chooses to alienate other professionals who simply question the "business as usual" attitude of the professional organization that claims to represent them but does nothing more than take an expensive membership check in exchange for some resolutions and feel-good proposals that do not get far. This was a person who has a position that others look up to, and basically, because he feels the need to save us from embarrassment, he gives a rant and tells others that if they don't like it, they can get out.

Now, librarian pay is low. This is not a secret either. Many of us do this job because we believe in the mission of good service to others that librarianship offers. You see, while some high heeled librarians like to play organizational politics, some of us silently toil in the trenches for low pay with poor facilities. Usually we move on because we realize we are there for those we serve. Does it mean we have to accept the low pay and bad conditions? No, it does not. It does not mean we have to be martyrs. And it does not mean that we forfeit the right to question a professional organization that is supposed to be representing us but instead spends time in national conferences passing resolutions about Iraq of all things (go ahead and look up the records for ALA Midwinter in Seattle. Greg McClay of the blog SHUSH has summary, for instance. Regardless of your stance on the war, this is not exactly effective use of the organization's time). Good for him if he can spend his days traveling around the country working for ALA at his expense. I am sure he can afford it. Those of us who have to choose between providing day care for our children and putting new tires on a car that has worn tires certainly appreciate his desire that those of us who raise questions should be thrown out like used chicken bones. That was the point one of the librarians on the discussion list made: the librarian really can't afford the repairs on the car that are so desperately needed. Bitter over the low pay? Sure, but I am willing to bet that person would make the choice again because it is about something higher. I am not mentioning this administrator's name nor linking to the discussion list because I don't think it is worth giving such a person a link. But such an attitude demeans our profession. And, unlike many of those he complains about, I am not anonymous nor hiding in the list. My name is clear on the page, and I am not about to be silent or be thrown off the side. I expected more from that administrator. But it seems a few of those on the ALA committees, council, etc. like to play martyrs: "we do all this for you, and you complain." Guess what? You are volunteers. You don't get to play martyr because at the end of the day, you can quit. You chose to put yourselves in a public position, and as such, you are in a position that should be scrutinized. You choose to be in a leadership position, you are expected to be one, and you are expected to be held accountable. If you can't handle that, then you better get out. Then again, given that for many of those volunteers, ALA sinecures are lifetime appointments, it must not be so bad. Must be nice work, if you can afford to get it.

But at the end of the day it bothers me that I feel a need to write about this. With so many other issues facing our profession and our libraries, this seems like small potatoes. But I hate rudeness, and I hate people who try to intimidate so as to silence others. Such people need to be called out and exposed. Those of us who are fairly new to the profession look up to those who came before us for advice, insight, and even mentoring. When someone who has been around for a while behaves in a way that, well, does not seem dignified, it's disappointing. And maybe more tragic, simply sends the message that other voices are not welcome. And here I thought librarians were dedicated to letting diverse voices be heard. Well, I still believe in that.

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