Free Speech and Patron Privacy are Corequisites for Intellectual Freedom

The book

So you’ve probably heard about this library assistant (Sally Stern-Hamilton, aka Ann Miketa) in small-town Michigan (Luddington) who wrote a fiction book (“Library Diaries”) based upon her accounts of library patrons, and published it under her maiden surname at a vanity press. The book doesn’t sound all that original or like it’s anything that should garner international attention. However, the scandal that has ensured over the book has brought the book, author, and little town in the Midwestern US, into the spotlight.

n.b. I was hesitant to write about this kerfuffle at first, as I think the attention only serves the author’s book sales and it’s not a book I personally care to promote, but on balance I decided that discussion of the issues of free speech and privacy that underlie the news are worth it.

The disciplinary action

After the book came out, the author was suspended from her job, with a letter that stated, (presumably among other things):

“The cover of your book includes a picture of the Ludington Library. Each chapter is devoted to a specific library patron or patrons. Your book portrays these people in a very unflattering manner. You describe individual patrons as mentally ill, mentally incompetent, unintelligent, and unattractive. You label several as ‘perverts.’ While you stop short of naming the individuals you targeted in your book, your detailed descriptions of their unique characteristics and mannerisms make them easily identifiable in our small community.”

The author response

The author has gone public, with such statements as,

The absolute irony is that the public library is a pillar of free speech and leads me to wonder why the administration is so upset.”

It should be noted that at the same time, this author is railing against

instances of known sex offenders using library computers to view pornography.

indicating that she perhaps disagrees with the notion that the library should be “a pillar of free speech” at all. Or maybe she thinks intellectual freedom can be a one-way street, push-only, and not inclusive of access to informationHold that thought.

The public response

Varies greatly.

Local newspaper comments calling the author a “loose cannon” and saying that the book’s characters are easily identifiable community members, are mixed in with someone who thinks there is a Muslim running for President of the US.

Conservative viewpoints are defending the author’s whistleblowing about libraries giving sex offenders access to the Internet, in the name of protecting our children.

The Annoyed Librarian theorized that the author was fired not for betraying patron privacy but for criticizing her superiors.

The issues

Leaving aside questions of literary merit, this situation highlights some oft-confused aspects of free expression and intellectual freedom: namely that free speech is but one element of intellectual freedom, and that library organizations – for instance the ALA – tend to try to strike a balance between privacy, access and free expression in order to promote the package we call Intellectual Freedom.

Patron privacy and confidentiality is an essential element of ensuring access to information. Privacy is as essential as anti-censorship in assuring intellectual freedom. (Hmm…why hasn’t a “Privacy Week” caught on the same way as “Banned Books Week” or “Freedom to Read Week”? I would say something about USA PATRIOT but this really goes back much farther than that…something for me to ponder)

If a library user fears ridicule, exposure or public humiliation due to his question, mannerisms, health history, or criminal record, that patron is not actually being provided with the access to information we hold. The beginning of that ALA Library Bill of Rights reads:

Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves.

It later states that:

Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.

clearly indicating that resistance of censorship, and promotion of free expression, are one facet of the great goal of providing access to information (and nirvana).

By threatening patron privacy – be it by complying with a warrentless library search,  or by writing a thinly veiled exposé of the “perverts” in your library, a library worker is eroding intellectual freedom, no matter how loudly she may insist that the privacy threat was made in the name of “free speech” (or national security, “for the children,” etc.).

The “Library Diaries” author has posted an online rant:

“Whats going on in this world? I have not been able to find one lawyer to make a First Amendment (Freedom of Speech, Press) case or even a whistleblower case.”

I suspect this is because the lawyers she has consulted have a stronger grasp on the concept of free speech than she does. In addition to free speech being one part of the intellectual freedom balancing act in the information world, there are legal limits on free speech as well. Defamation (for example libel, which may or may not have occurred in this book) is a legal restriction on freedom of speech in the US.

Many professional codes of ethics restrict professionals’ free speech, but this is not a constitutional violation because employment in that field is voluntary. Would a doctor being fired from a hospital after publishing thinly veiled accounts of her patients’ weird and embarrassing health issues cry “free speech”? I suppose she could try, but I doubt she would she get as much support as this library worker is getting.

Lori Basiewicz has written an interesting and useful USAmerican take on what free speech and censorship are and are not. Basiewicz blogs that while it is possible that the author may find a lawyer to take on a wrongful termination suit (depending on what the exact reasons for her termination were), the library has done nothing to prevent publication or dissemination of the book (which could be considered censorship, although probably would not technically infringe on the author’s First Amendment right to free speech), and her claims that the book is fiction make the whistleblower argument pretty weak. I tend to agree.

The Profession

Some of this muddle relates to our confusion as to the role of libraries. Are library workers trusted professionals or information waitresses? Is our job to check books in and out, or is it to build and protect free information infrastructure for the public? The profession cannot fully resolve these questions internally, so it should come as little surprise that the public doesn’t know how to regard us either.

You don’t have to be a MLIS-type librarian to run a library, and you don’t have to believe in the ALA Code of Ethics to be a librarian. Library assistants and other “para-professional” or non-MLIS library staff are integrated and accepted in a very spotty manner, into the ALA-type library world. These are core professional issue that we seem thus far to have been unable to resolve, despite being a fairly ancient profession.

That said, the ALA Code of Ethics is generally seen as setting best practices and standards for libraries in the US, and it seems pretty clearly violated by the book at the centre of this current storm. The first three items are clear enough:

· We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.

· We uphold the principles of intellectual freedom and resist all efforts to censor library resources.

· We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted.

that it seems almost unnecessary for me to also add in item #6:

· We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.

So…

For me the question is one of our profession and coordinated messages. Maybe the author involved in this brouhaha knew she would likely get fired for the book, and didn’t care. Maybe she saw her mission to expose the “characters you never dreamt were housed at your public library” as important enough to risk the job. If so, that’s her choice to make (much as some might wish she would not make it), and all choices in life have consequences. However, if she is really as uninformed about free speech and the library’s role as she appears in the sound bytes, I have a concern about our profession.

After working in a library for 15 years one would expect a better grasp of the concept of intellectual freedom. Some might argue that she was “only” a library assistant, but that’s who most of the public has the most interaction with, in many libraries – it is essential that such library workers are educated in core professional ethics. We need to act on two things if we want to reduce such confusion:

  1. Hit more clearly on our core value messages; make sure all library workers understand and can teach the public what intellectual freedom is, and
  2. Better integrate non-MLIS library workers into our professional organizations

– Greyson

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8 Comments

Filed under censorship, Intellectual freedom, LIS education, Other blogs, privacy, public libraries, The Profession

8 responses to “Free Speech and Patron Privacy are Corequisites for Intellectual Freedom

  1. Pete Tzinski

    A very fine and intelligent article. My compliments. 🙂

    My own theory about the silly woman and her book is that probably, there were problems between her and her employer on previous occasions, and I suspect there were more, coinciding with her book coming out that led to termination. (Of course, I don’t actually know; it’s just an idea, based on how the working world generally seems to work).

    Mostly, it’s not even an issue. I mean, it’s not like throngs of people are going to read the book. It was ‘released’ through PublishAmerica, for heaven’s sake. That’s about as useful and far-reaching a book publisher as writing your book on matchbooks and leaving them in hotel rooms.

    Right. Anyway. Very good article!

  2. Excellent analysis of the situation — you’ve brought up two factors that the newspaper articles didn’t: (1) the exact nature of free speech and its relationship to “rights,” and (2) the fact that PublishAmerica is a vanity press (something that a librarian should have known?)

  3. anonymous

    http://www.wzzm13.com:80/news/news_article.aspx?storyid=97603

    The author of her self-published book is totally wacked! Not much different then the library patrons. Take a look at this interview with a local TV station and some of her comments. I thought the book was fiction, but the writer speaks of real life!

  4. Great post! Loved the inclusion of the ethics material.

    I posted the following and more on my own blog that you linked, but I wasn’t really defending the author’s whistleblowing. Instead I was saying what she has written about (known sex offenders using library computers to view p-rn near children) is likely much more prevalent than anyone really knows. My interest is only in exposing the illegal activity going on in public libraries.

  5. Anonymous, I tried that link, and it looks like the right page, but I couldn’t figure out (on any browser) how to get the video to pay. Can you help?

  6. greyson

    The linked video used to work, but does seem to no longer be actively streaming. What I watched of it was not terribly different from the statements Stern-Hamilton has been making other places, though.

    SafeLibraries, from your introduction to the articles you reprinted (presumably with permissions), I did assume you were applauding Mekita’s “whistleblowing.” You introduced an article titled “Librarian Writes Tell-All Book, Gets Fired; ‘The Absolute Irony is that the Public Library is a Pillar of Free Speech,” by saying “Here is what happens when a librarian exposes the big secret.”

    I don’t claim to know the general Michigan public’s ideas about how often they think they are in contact with “known sex offenders.” However, I don’t think it’s any big secret that public libraries generally aim to treat patrons with criminal records in a way that is as fair and equitable as possible.

    Having a record as a sex offender does not generally strip a person of their rights to privacy and access to library materials and services. Unless the offender is under a legal order to stay away from children, they are also within their rights to read whatever they want in any public place, even one with children nearby.

  7. Booklovr

    I am from Ludington and while I haven’t posted in the local blogs about this issue, I’ve been following the comments about it. This is about as balanced an article that I’ve seen about the entire brouhaha. Many people who calling the library’s firing of Sally Stern-Hamilton a violation of her freedom of speech clearly do not understand that concept. That’s evident from reading the messages about it on the Ludington Daily News website and the various blogs and articles on the internet.

    I’ve read the Library Diaries. It is filled with unsubstantiated and defamatory remarks loosely masked under the guise of fiction. Or was she actually whistleblowing? It’s hard to know because she has maintained both stances.

    This book and its ramifications are definitely an issue in my small neck of the world—Ludington, Michigan. Sally has every right to think whatever she wants about the patrons of the library; however, she doesn’t have the right to defame them. People have every right to use the public library, regardless of their IQ, their weight, educational level, annoying personal habits and interests, economic resources, and, yes, even their past criminal activities.

    The “absolute irony” to me is that Sally is reported as saying that she didn’t understand what the problem was, after all, the people that she wrote about “don’t have the capacity to understand” what was written about them. Apparently, in Sally’s world view, many of the people who frequent the library fail to pass her standard of humaness. I am glad that she won’t be working there any longer because now I won’t have to wonder whether or not I’m human enough to be in my public library–borrowing a book, reading a newspaper, or researching something on one of the public computes.

    I might even stop in at the library this afternoon and pick up a Daniele Steele novel (which was one of the problems that Sally cited in her book).

    I’ve never read one before. But, it’s my right to do s0—and it’s your responsibility as librarians to lend it to me–without comment and without censure.

  8. Kathi Gardner

    Having been a library assistant for 36 years, I am absolutely appalled by An Miketa’s spiteful, rude, insensitive, supercilious attitude toward the public. Anyone with the sort of negative attitude she possesses should never have been allowed anywhere near a public service desk.
    I will grant you that dealing with the public can be difficult at times, but a sense of humor, which AM obviously lacks, helps a great deal. Also, it’s fairly obvious that Mom never told her running to tattle continuously isn’t the sign of a competent adult – her director must have been a saint.
    In short – badly written complainathon by someone who was probably a wretched patron herself.

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