Category Archives: labour issues

Olympic sponsorships & Vancouver Public Library: Conflict of Interest?

Vancouver Public Library (VPL) in British Columbia, where the 2010 Winter Olympic Games are about to begin in a matter of weeks, has been in the news this past week. At issue are the instructions given to staff on how to handle branding, logos and sponsorship for events related to the Olympics.

In the biblioblogosphere, Jessamyn noted it “without comment”,  Rory thinks it’s “just too much,” noting that VPL was the site of history’s largest librarian’s strike in 2007, and LIS news quotes the union president speaking against the memo on the grounds of intellectual freedom. Tara, over at We Read banned Books, posts the memo in question, and highlights the irony of the instructions to put “a little piece of tape” over non-sponsor logos on electronic equipment.

A lot of people seem uncomfortable with this memo, but few seem willing or able to name exactly what the problem is, what rules or principles have been violated. What is it about this memo that strikes so many of us as “just too much?”

I’ve been talking with folks and thinking about it and I think it feels to many like a potential conflict of interest with our “basic responsibility for the development and maintenance of intellectual freedom.”

Conflict of Interest

In medical publishing, Conflict of Interest (COI) is a Big Thing, but I don’t think it’s as much discussed in the lower-financial-stakes world of public libraries. Bear with me for a moment while I call up some references from health information sources, and then discuss application to this public library/Olympic sponsor situation.

The World Association of Medical Editors’ (WAME) recently updated (July 2009) policy on “Conflict of Interest in Peer-Reviewed Medical Journals” states in part that:

Everyone has COIs of some sort.  Having a competing interest does not, in itself, imply wrongdoing.  However, it constitutes a problem when competing interests could unduly influence (or be reasonably seen to do so) one’s responsibilities

Okay, so if everyone has one or more COI, and they’re not necessarily a problem, what’s the big deal? Well, the devil is in the “unduly influence” part here, right? Having a COI can make it more difficult to prioritize your primary mission.

Notably, even if there is no actual COI, the mere appearance of COI can undermine credibility of an institution. On this point, WAME states:

In addition, the appearance of COI, even where none actually exists, can also erode trust in a journal by damaging its reputation and credibility.

The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) – the people who created the “Uniform requirements” and related “Vancouver” referencing style – also have considerations regarding COI. This document leads off with what I think is a very helpful description/definition of COI:

Public trust in the peer-review process and the credibility of published articles depend in part on how well conflict of interest is handled during writing, peer review, and editorial decision making. Conflict of interest exists when an author (or the author’s institution), reviewer, or editor has financial or personal relationships that inappropriately influence (bias) his or her actions (such relationships are also known as dual commitments, competing interests, or competing loyalties). These relationships vary from negligible to great potential for influencing judgment. Not all relationships represent true conflict of interest. On the other hand, the potential for conflict of interest can exist regardless of whether an individual believes that the relationship affects his or her scientific judgment. (emphasis mine)

As a third and final example, the Institute of Medicine has a consensus report on COI, the abstract of which begins:

Financial conflicts of interest pose many challenges to health care professionals. They raise concerns about the objectivity and trustworthiness of research conduct and publications, the prudent management of scientific investigations and other activities in the public interest, and the commitment of health care professionals to the best interests of patients. In recent years the media has highlighted failures of individuals and institutions to disclose and appropriately manage financial ties with industry (including pharmaceutical, medical device, medical supply, and insurance companies). These failures contribute to questions about whether industry has undue influence in research and other activities. (emphasis mine)

Just to flog a dead horse here, COI raises concerns about objectivity, good management practices, and whether the user group is the true priority. Additionally, past COI management failures cause the public to be more suspicious about current COIs.

COI and the Public Library

I thing all the quotes excerpted above could be applied to a library setting with little modification.

For example:

Financial conflicts of interest pose many challenges to library managers. They raise concerns about the objectivity and trustworthiness of library programs and collections, the prudent management of information services and other activities in the public interest, and the commitment of librarians to the best interests of patrons.

I don’t think that’s a stretch at all, do you?

Speaking specifically about the VPL/Olympics situation, I think it’s been difficult for external library-world folk to comment upon because we don’t really know whether there is an actual COI at play here.

I’m willing to give Jean Kavanaugh, VPL’s marketing & communications manager (n.b. a PR manager, NOT a librarian, as some commenters have alleged) the benefit of the doubt and assume that she issued memo(s) about Olympic sponsorships and branding in an effort to keep VPL employees from accidentally acting in a way that would raise the ire of VANOC (the Vancouver Olympic organizing committee, which has shown itself to be quite vicious when defending branding or sponsor affiliations). I’m willing to assume that Kavanaugh just got overzealous with the instructions in (ironically) an attempt to keep VPL out of the media and out of the courtroom. Kavanaugh herself  “said neither the city nor VANOC asked her to send the memo,” and both the city of Vancouver and VANOC appear baffled at her apparent need to send such a memo at all. I could be wrong here, but I’m willing to assume this was just a well-intentioned but botched communication on the part of Kavanaugh. Admit it here: we’ve all made messaging errors; we just don’t all have the pleasure of the Olympic spotlight on them!

That said, even if the intentions behind the memo(s) to VPL staff were perfect in integrity; even if no actual financial COI exists between VPL and VANOC/Olympic sponsors, there remains the problem of the appearance of COI that these rules have created – both within library staff and now with the public at large.

VPL could be completely conflict-free here, but in absence of an official statement from the library, the following remains the case:

  1. It’s unclear what the relationship (financial or otherwise) is between VPL and VANOC
  2. The leaked memo information instructing library staff on appropriate sponsorship behaviour creates the appearance of COI
  3. The potential COI in question is the hypothetical conflict between the interests of Olympic corporate sponsors and the intellectual freedom of the population.

What a Public Library can learn from Medical Publishing

If VPL were run like a reputable medical journal, we would see a disclosure statement as to the funding of the library, and whether the library or any of the trustees or top library management had in the past or will in the future stand to benefit financially from the success of VANOC and/or the Olympic sponsor companies. We would also have information as to which decisions were more and less likely to be influenced by such relationships. The analogue to the way medical journals send research articles out for blinded peer review in order to attempt at objective review of the paper’s merits might be a description of what does the library do to ensure balanced collection management and reference service.

VPL already has the building blocks from which it could create a cohesive response that would go a long way toward restoring the public’s faith in the library’s role as a protector and promoter or intellectual freedom (rather than a promoter of selective corporate interests). To begin with, there is the Collection Development Policy.

Additionally, as Tara points out, VPL has a sponsorship policy, which clearly states that “Sponsorships must not undermine the integrity of the non-commercial public space that the Library provides.” (Of course the same policy also does “not allow direct marketing of products to children”…which is interesting given the leaked memo’s instructions as to which fast food outlets to approach for sponsorship of kids’ activities.) Clearly, a memo about sponsorship and Olympic programs should have referenced the existing organizational sponsorship policy!

All to say that while it appears that VPL is hunkering down, not “dignifying” the media hubbub with a response, and hoping all of this brouhaha dies down under the desperate situation in Haiti and the frenzy over the actual Olympics, I wish the library would stand up and make an official public statement clarifying what, if any, COI exits here, and how it will be managed.

To paraphrase the ICMJE, Public trust in the library and the credibility of librarians depend in part on how well conflict of interest is handled. Ignoring allegations of COI are not, in my opinion, handling them especially well.



Filed under censorship, ethics, funding, labour issues, public libraries

Victoria Library Lockout resolved

To make this a weekend foll of follow-up, let me note that the six week Victoria Library Lockout in BC has been resolved, and the libraries are well on their way to being open to the public once more.

And while I’m not sure the “pay equity issue” is once and for all resolved and put to rest, the way the Globe and Mail seems to be, it does sound like this resolution was a great victory for the library staff, and a big step toward pay equity.

The nuts & bolts are a 4 year contract (meaning, I believe, that this contract will end the same time as several other CUPE library locals in BC…namely the others that were on strike this past autumn), some new FT positions, wages increasing over the contract, and a larger pay increase for those terribly underpaid pages at the bottom of the payscale. For those of us who believe the devil is usually in the details, here’s the Memorandum of Settlement so you can scour the details.

As CUPE spokesman Ed Seedhouse told Library Journal this agreement was a compromise. Isn’t it always. But, to paraphrase Seedhouse again, this agreement really is a milestone.

Congratulations CUPE 410!

And thanks to the local Greater Victoria community for all your support of your libraries. I especially enjoyed and appreciated the video footage of the storytime sit-in at the Labour Relations Board! (link via Union Librarian)

And BC public library staff, I will be among the many interested watchers and supporters in 2012 when all these current, hard-won contracts are up. Hopefully in the post-Olympics era, we will have an easier time with our priorities, such as a living wage and gender equity.


Previous posts on the lockout here and here.

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Victoria Library Lockout & the Lazy Doctor’s approach to Pay Equity

Last week’s Victoria Times Colonist featured an update on the library lockout, “As library lockout drags on, employer’s side says it will examine wages paid elsewhere.

The management says they’re going to take a few weeks to gather data on payscales for similar jobs in other library systems around the province, such as Vancouver, Richmond, and Burnaby, in order to determine whether what they are offering CUPE 410 members is reasonable. (Not sure why they’re not just asking CUPE for the data, since it appears the union collected it all last summer anyway for this report…but a number of contracts *have* been renegotiated since July, so I’ll give them that.)

Sounds fair, right?


Comparing wages in one municipality riddled with labour disputes, situated within one of the minority provinces with no pay equity legislation, to another municipality in the same boat will only serve to maintain the status quo. Matching undervalued jobs in City A with the same undervalued jobs in City B will not achieve pay equity. To say it will is, frankly, a ridiculous proposition!

The Lazy Doctor: Defining down the standard

I asked one of my best friends,who also happens to be someone with experience with labour unions and gender equity stuff, what he thought of the situation, and he likened it to a lazy doctor. As in, you go to the doctor because you have some problem — say you’ve had a migraine for a month now and it’s really affecting your life. And rather than examining you, ordering diagnostic tests, and trying to treat your ailment, the doctor says,

“Well, listen guy, you think you’re the only one? This headache you have, it’s not a problem. You only think it’s a problem. There are lots of other people out there with headaches, and they’re mostly still alive. You think you have it bad? I see patients nearly every day who are practically bleeding to death on my floor! What you have is not a problem; it’s pretty normal. Just ignore it and you’ll (probably) be fine.”

Said friend called this “actively defining down that standard,” and when I went “?!?!?” in response he explained that, basically, instead of acknowledging that you have a problem and helping you get better, the doctor is redefining your problem as a perfectly acceptable norm.

Sounds like a pretty reasonable description of what’s going on here in libraryland to me.

Why isn’t the Victoria Public Library board comparing their staff wages with those in a region with actual pay equity?

For that matter, why have they apparently given up on their within-municipality equity comparison?

Oh, right… those type of comparisons would probably necessitate actual change. Such as meeting over the bargaining table, an activity I am given to understand hasn’t happened in a while.

From the numbers readily available, the pay for, say, an “L1” type position (entry level professional Librarian: far from the bottom of the payscale, but not exactly the top either) in Victoria doesn’t look worse than Vancouver, and looks perhaps a bit nicer than some smaller, suburban library systems in the region. Does this mean that Victoria is doing a good job, if they pay as well as Vancouver?


Vancouver, quite possibly the highest-paying of the listed comparator systems, is still recovering from a several-month strike in which the main issue was pay equity.

The Difference Legislation Appears to Make

And oh, those greedy Vancouver librarians! If they indeed *are* the most highly paid in this comparison (which I really can’t say – I only took a quick peek at recent job postings I could find, which in no way resembles a thorough or comprehensive comparison), are they just terribly greedy to have the gall have been on strike for more? Should they have stopped their snivelling and just put up with making >$7 an hour less than librarians at the Toronto Public Library (According to CUPE 391)?

Wait, why do those Toronto librarians make such a darned decent-seeming wage? Oh, riiight. Ontario has pay equity legislation….

As the Ontario Pay Equity Commission clearly states in their “Overview of the Pay Equity Act,”

Pay Equity is “equal pay for work of equal value”. The Pay Equity Act requires that jobs be evaluated and work mostly or traditionally done by women be compared to work mostly or traditionally done by men….
If jobs are of comparable value, then female jobs must be paid at least the same as male jobs. Female jobs are mostly or traditionally done by women such as librarian, childcare worker or secretary. Male jobs are mostly or traditionally done by men such as truck driver, firefighter or shipper.

The same overview states that two of the general principles on which the Pay Equity Act is based are:

“Female job classes”, or jobs performed mainly by women, are compared to “male job classes”, or jobs performed mainly by men. These jobs may be quite different.


Where a female job class is found to be of equal or comparable value to a male job class, the female job class must be provided with at least the same compensation as the male job class.

“Female job classes” are to be compared to “male job classes”…hmm…do you think it could be stated more clearly? Comparing undervalued feminized jobs with undervalued feminized jobs is an exercise in maintaining the status quo, not a move of any sort toward pay equity!

BC Library folk, maybe it’s time to really think about joining forces with some other groups for a new push for pay equity legislation similar to that in other provinces. Because if the past year is any indication, library staff are going to keep getting brushed off, ignored and underpaid until the province has something along the lines of what others do: pay equity legislation. (I’m sure there’s some BC labour history here of which I as a relatively recent immigrant am woefully ignorant, so feel free to comment and fill me in…)


Previous post on the lockout can be found here.

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Filed under gender, labour issues, The Profession

Greater Victoria Library Lockout

This type of library website might be an all too familiar sight for residents of British Columbia, one of four Canadian provinces without pay equity legislation.

Just a few months after Vancouver librarians returned to the job after a strike, Greater Victoria’s nine public library branches are now closed indefinitely, leaving the public without services thanks to the lockout of almost 300 unionized workers.

It all began on September 7, when, after contract negotiations that had already been dragging on for eight months stalled, the union began escalating strike actions: rotating strikes, lunch hour closures, and waiving fines and fees for patrons.

No, on second thought, scratch that. It began over a decade ago, when, as part of an agreement that ended a 1992 strike, the GVPL board and CUPE 410 agreed to compare library jobs with comparable other city jobs and reclassify them to achieve pay (gender) equity between equivalent jobs. The “due date” on this agreement was extended from 1994 to 1996…and today in 2008 still has not been completed.

Oh, well, but really, it goes back waaay farther than that…to the concurrent feminization of the profession and market uptake of the Ford Motor Company’s $5/day “family wage” ideology — for male workers only. But that’s a topic expansion for another post, I suppose (the to-do list for the SJL blog just keeps growing…).

Back to 2008: Key issues in the current labour dispute in Victoria are…wait for it…treatment of auxiliaries and pay equity! Shocked aren’t you? Is it just me, or is this almost deja va all over again?

Weighing on my mind, also, is the issue of the Labour Relations Board telling library staff they cannot waive fines for patrons. Waiving fines when appropriate is important autonomy for library workers to have, in terms of institutional accessibility to poor, young, and other socially marginalized members of the community. While it could be argued that a campaign of mass fine-waiving to the tune of ~$50,000/month is a different issue from considering individual cases, I could say we are in slippery-slope territory with this one.

The CUPE local 410 website is keeping us posted. Today is day 415 without a contract, day 166 since strike actions began, and day 3 since the lockout began. The website has a bunch of background info on the pay equity promise in Victoria, including a comparison study done in 2000 that shows the disparity between library jobs and comparable city hall jobs. Unsurprisingly, it’s the lowest paid/lowest status jobs (pages) that get screwed the most.

Let’s speak in solidarity with our library sistren.*
*Yes, sistren is a word, albeit an archaic one. Brethren just didn’t sound right when talking about pay equity, you know, and according to, sistren was the Middle English equivalent of brethren that has been “revived” by some feminists, so have at it.
Follow-up post can be found here.


Filed under gender, labour issues, The Profession