Librarians have a reputation for being flaming liberals. Left of Left. I’ve met more than one who wears the label “pinko” with pride.
So that makes one of the latest discussions to pop up on library listservs an interesting one. Yesterday, a subscriber to the American Library Association’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered Round Table listserv posted links for YouTube archives of the speeches given at the Democratic National Convention. Immediately another subscriber reminded people that the listserv was not to be used for “partisan purposes” and warned against “pushing the envelope” — which, the subscriber said, could lead to the ALA’s losing its nonprofit status. Other subscribers responded by saying that they were merely passing around information, and they posted links to other candidates’ YouTube speeches, including John McCain’s.
The debate might seem odd, especially for librarians and the GLBT Round Table, a group that advocates improving the “quality, quantity, and accessibility of library materials and service of particular interest or usefulness to lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgendered people of all ages” and works for “eliminating job discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered employees of libraries, archives, and information centers,” according to the round table’s mission statement. Those goals seem to be part of the current political debate. How do you avoid politics in passing around information about such topics?
In recent years, the ALA itself has taken on some tough political fights for the sake of free expression and privacy. The group was one of the first to hammer the Bush Administration over the USA Patriot Act, which it saw as unnecessarily invasive. (Remember when John Ashcroft, then the U.S. Attorney General, complained about “hysterical” librarians?)
But officials at ALA also seemed a little nervous about posting links to political speeches on the listserv. Satia M. Orange, the director for ALA’s literacy and outreach services, is a staff liaison to the GLBT round table. She recently sent a letter to the round table’s co-chair asking people to “reconsider” posting references and links to political speeches. “Added list subscribers will continue to bring up new reminders and recommendations for their preferred sites and presentations, and possibly reflect their personal political preferences,” she wrote. Sharing such information could slide into political ranting. “The line is too thin to jeopardize the Association’s, and therefore, the round table’s non-profit protection.”
The debate has spread to other library listservs — in particular, Collib, the college-library listserv. “Notices like this have a chilling effect,” wrote Barbara Fister, library director at Gustavus Adolphus College. “And they’re simply inaccurate. The IRS doesn’t revoke the tax status of churches because members talk about personal opinions in the vestibule.”
She added in a follow-up message: “I’m fine with this this list staying focused on library issues. But some of them are political. And sometimes political issues have an impact on library issues. I don’t want those discussions shut down because of what seem to me to be false fears of the IRS.” —Scott Carlson