Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Being good advocates

Between the U.S. presidential election in November and Donald Trump's inauguration in January, both of my favorite funny library blogs, Love the Liberry and I Work at a Public Library, have stopped posting. I suspect it's the result of disappointment and frustration on the part of the people who run them. As is probably not a surprise, library workers tend to lean liberal in the first place, and the policies of the current Republican administration are hostile to library values by historical standards.

For example, the White House wants to:

1. Completely eliminate the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which is the primary source of federal funding for public libraries.

2. Revise the FCC's pro-net neutrality stance, allowing internet service providers to discriminate among different internet content providers by delivering their product at different speeds.

3. Move the Copyright Office out of the Library of Congress and create a separate agency under the executive branch.

And this doesn't address all of the issues that indirectly affect libraries, library staff, and library patrons such as the proposed travel ban from Muslim countries, the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, etc.

Since the election, librarians and other library workers have become open and vocal about their antagonism with the president to an unprecedented degree. People are looking at ways to get involved externally by lobbying Congress, attending protests, etc., but the political climate has also encouraged people to look more critically within their own libraries and see how they could do better at being accessible, inclusive, and open. The latter is what I'm more interested in because I think there is more scope for action. Not that political action on the national stage isn't important, but as far as making immediate changes that are within our power, investing in improving ourselves internally could pay quick and significant dividends.

Specifically, I'd like the places I work to be less vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy than we currently are. If we want to present ourselves as models of socially just, intellectually free places, most of us have a ways to go. Here are a few things I would like to see at the libraries where I work that I know are possible (because other libraries have implemented them):

1. Preferred name: Right now the library card "applications" at both my libraries let you check M or F for gender. I see no reason why we need to collect this information. We don't use it for research purposes, so I assume it's used as a clue for how to address a patron. I know some libraries have patrons indicate their preferred pronouns instead, which is cool, but I do think knowing how someone wants to be addressed is valuable, and there are no gender-neutral honorifics (like Mr. or Ms.) so what I'd really like to see is a field in the patron record for preferred name.  If your driver's license says your name is Adam Ant, I want to know whether to call you Mr. Ant, Adam, or Ada (I've talked to one or two trans people who have their birth name on their IDs but don't use it), or whatever.

2. Less copyright infringement: I shudder to think how little would be left if someone looked through my libraries' websites and print marketing materials and took down everything that included an unlicensed use of an image. It's common practice for staff to search Google Images and pull the first thing they like for a display sign, event photo, etc. This despite the fact that Google Images offers a simple search filter for reusable images. If we want to be advocates for reasonable intellectual property law, maybe we could start by following existing law or, if not that, by formally and intelligently articulating why we don't and sticking to those principles, instead of violating it out of convenience.

3. Taking privacy more seriously: Most librarians are privacy advocates, and we certainly do a better job that private businesses, but we have a long way to go. I know I for one am guilty of sharing information about patrons' questions with colleagues when there is no need for that colleague to know, and coworkers do this too ("Can you guess what Ms. Opp wanted today?"). We could do better in a lot of small ways as far as equipment and technology, too. For instance, Small Town Library has a privacy screen on every public PC, but at Downtown Library they keep a couple behind the desk and patrons must request them. To be evenhanded, I should also say that Small Town Library doesn't do a very good job getting rid of patrons' files and internet history after their public computer session ends, but even Downtown Library could do better, for example by using the Tor browser or at least having the mainstream web browsers they offer default to in-private browsing on startup.

 Whether you are a library worker or a library user, what do you think libraries could do better in this respect? What would you add to this list?

(I think soon I'll do post about some good practices at both of my libraries, because I don't want you to only hear the failures.)


  1. This is a good post! But I think librarians are sometimes too cautious about fair use, rather than too reckless. There's such a push from corporations to narrow fair use, I think it's good for everyone including librarians to push back. Make it acceptable to use images for non-profit, temporary use like signs, flyers, etc. Just my two cents worth.

    1. This is a good point. I think I agree to some extent, but how it happens in practice bothers me because I feel like it is NOT done as a deliberate effort to push back against overly-restrictive copyright laws, but instead out of convenience. Who knows, though. Maybe people are thinking it and just don't talk about it.

  2. Our library gave up the M _ F _ checkbox a couple of years ago when we were updating our form (putting in cellphone number blank, etc.) No problems.

  3. Does library privacy really require that we don't tell our coworkers what patrons are looking for? Does it matter that the info might help our coworkers serve them later (or it might avoid a problem)?

    1. I think it does matter. If you're telling someone for the purpose of helping them provide better service later, I'd say that's legitimate, but if you're telling someone for the purpose of telling a funny story or complaining, I think you probably shouldn't do it, or at least you shouldn't identify the patron. I know I still do it, though.

    2. All the librarians at my library do it....

  4. I agree we should improve things at our own library but we have to keep plugging away on national level too!