Category Archives: LIS education

Toughening ourselves up as librarian-researchers: Follow up Post #1

I wasn’t aware that I posted my bit about disappointment with LIS conference research presentations smack dab in between the EBLIP6 conference and the launch of the UK-based Developing Research Excellence and Methods (DREaM) project. Serendipity at it’s finest! Thanks for the attention, and for helping me feel less like an isolated downer, folks.

A few interesting things that have come to my attention via links, twitter and the like

In the UK, there’s this Library and Information Science Research Coalition that’s been around for a couple of years now, although I hadn’t heard of it over here in Canada. It was started by the British Library, and CILIP and JISC and a few other partner organizations. The member orgs get together to influence the LIS research agenda. These folks are behind the new DREaM project I referred to above, which is funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and looks cool:

A key goal of the project is to build capacity and capability in the development and implementation of innovative methods and techniques in undertaking LIS research.

Someone also pointed to an article in the journal Library & Information Science Research, which I was vaguely aware of as a journal of LIS research but wasn’t really on my radar as a publishing stuff about LIS research. The article was a commentary bt Ray Lyons on sloppy survey research (that I don’t see openly archived anywhere yet, but hopefully Lyons will do something about that soon), which included the following gem of a statement:

…we in the library and information profession sometimes prefer convenience and expedience over accuracy and thoroughness. Like the most impatient of information seekers, we ignore the fact that inadequate information gathering techniques will lead us quite expediently to the wrong answers.

So true! The same rushed sloppiness we bemoan in information seekers, we too often embody. I mean, I know I do – one of the things I love about being a librarian is that I can beat any of my coworkers in an information duel. I am Quick Draw McInformationist. My “google-fu” is strong and my prowess with controlled vocabularies is stronger. But that’s not the way I should conduct empirical research.

To be continued…Next post will have some thoughts on how we can improve things here/now

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Filed under academic libraries, LIS education, research, The Profession

Niceness, Helpfulness & Ethics: Feedback edition

The Canadian Health Libraries Association/Association des bibliothèques de la santé du Canada has a mentorship interest group. While I can be skeptical about institutional “leadership training” and am in that awkward adolescent phase of my career in which I’m not exactly new anymore but not quite senior enough to be a mentor, the idea of being connected with an experienced Canadian health librarian seemed low-risk and potentially positive, so I signed up. Turns out that it’s actually been quite nice to be sent profession-related conversation topics on a monthly basis, and it’s been quite enjoyable to get to know my assigned mentor better (someone I might not have really connected strongly with otherwise, but with whom I have a surprising amount in common).

This month’s “check in” from the mentorship interest group is about “Compliments and criticism,” and refers readers to the recent Harvard Business Review blog post: “Don’t Be Nice; Be Helpful.” The jist of the article is that withholding constructive criticism may be “nice,” but it’s certainly not helpful to your colleagues.

I’ve written about “the dreaded librarian niceness” here before, and the email conversation with my CHLA/ABSC mentor brought up some points regarding criticism and niceness that I thought were worth copying to this blog.

There are two experiences, both of which I feel very fortunate to have had, strongly inform my approach to feedback giving/getting. The first is my classical music training, and the second is anti-racism organizing.

Classical Music Studies

The couple years before I trained in conservatory, when I was a high school student taking music lessons, I had an amazing music teacher who paired me with another student for double lessons. Not only did this give us extra lesson time, and create a bond between the two of us (who were necessarily also competitors at auditions all the time), but he taught us how to teach by having us constantly give constructive feedback to each other. I remember him early on telling us to think of 3 things the other person did well in the piece she just played, and then 3 suggestions you have to make it better. He modelled this type of feedback, and I still use this style with regularity.

What does this mean in practice? I try always to give positive feedback in at least as large a quantity as the negative, and to always lead with the positive, whether it’s giving feedback on a colleague’s grant proposal draft or student term paper comments. I don’t mean being disingenuous about how great something is; in my experience there are always some positive elements in any performance if you just look for them – and retaining the good parts is as important as improving the weak parts. When I went to conservatory and was exposed to the big bad world of the classical music industry, in which cutting, negative comments were depressingly the norm (one adjudicator’s comments on my first recital were, in totality, “The Beethoven was better [then the preceding piece], but still not good.” !!) I gained a deeper appreciation for the “civilized” and constructive way I had been taught to provide critique.

Anti-oppression Activism

Later on, I became very involved with anti-racism organizing, something I carry on to this day in various ways. This was yet another forum in which criticism could be very nasty. There are a lot of people dealing with a lot of hurt and anger and also guilt when you’re talking about societal structures of privilege and oppression.

As a person with white-skin privilege, it was really important for me to learn to self-criticize in a humane way (productively, not merely berating myself for past wrongs) and to learn to accept anger and negativity from people of colour about things I could not “fix.” Trying to be a white ally to people of colour in various contexts sometimes means hearing awful things, or being excluded for very good reasons that might nonetheless hurt my ego.

Learning to listen to people’s criticism, and even anger, toward me and the groups to which I belong, without immediately reacting, was a big thing for me. Even if I think the accusations hurled at me are unfair, I owe it to a member of a group I oppress (even if just by default, by being a member of a more privileged group) to really listen to what they say. And then consider later how I might respond.

This means suppressing the urge to immediately defend myself or my family or my school/work/co-op/etc., and the desire to “fight back.” Because the accusations weren’t really what I wanted to be fighting. Even if they were based in a misunderstanding or incorrect rumour, there was something important in them that could teach me about oppression and how to untangle it.

This is harder to explain, and to quantify, than the “3 positive + 3 negative comments” rule, but also really important and influential with regard to how I handle criticism. Even if a critique feels like an unfair attack, I try to listen to it and figure out what it’s really about, and what in the criticism is useful for my learning.

In my Current Work

I should note that both of these lessons about criticism are lessons I try to pass along in my classroom when I am teaching. At my current librarian-job workplace, the research team with which I am primarily affiliated works hard to create a constructive environment in which to workshop each other’s work. It’s not perfect – I think most of us are still a bit too hesitant to throw really rough ideas out there, which is likely a side-effect of the hierarchical structure of supervision (i.e. not wanting to look dumb in front of your boss), and a challenge of the interdisciplinary nature of the team (i.e. those from other disciplines might not understand my half-formed idea). But we do also have a fair bit of informal collegial workshopping and feedback as well – we edit each other’s papers all the time, for example.

The interdisciplinary nature of the team really highlights the different approaches to criticism. Economists, for example, can apparently be very nasty in criticism (not our economists, but ours are renegade economists who swap war stories of econ conference presentations)! In my experience, librarians (especially public librarians) tend toward being overly “nice,” but niceness is not the same as respecting a person’s rights and behaving in a just and equitable manner.

In a conversation with another blogger, Katie, here a few years ago, I wrote, “Nice is culturally based and thus culturally biased. Nice to me means exclusive to others who don’t share our cultural norms. Nice to my colleague means not challenging her when she says something racist in a meeting. Sometimes being ethical means having to be not-nice to people.” This still pretty much sums up  my problem with “the dreaded librarian niceness” and hits on some of our disciplinary challenges with constructive criticism.


recent Harvard Business Review blog post: “Don’t Be Nice; Be Helpful

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Filed under ethics, inclusion/exclusion, LIS education

Evaluation, assessment, research & impact

Around the same time I noticed that a number of academic libraries were posting for new (or newish) “assessment librarians,” I went to a cool lecture by Dr. Eliza Dresang about a project teaming LIS researchers with children’s librarians to investigate impact of early literacy programming.

After the lecture, a local children’s librarian extraordinaire and I began a conversation – still ongoing – about assessment & impact research in public libraries. I’m a firm believer that in order to a) provide the best possible service to the community, and b) justify funding, libraries ought to be doing assessment beyond mere program evaluation.

Unfortunately, library school “research methods” courses seem generally weak, and there is limited professional development on research methods for professional librarians. Even excellent library programs often result in needlessly-biased evaluation reports that could have provided more valid evidence if only the methods have been stronger. Even senior librarians in public libraries confuse evaluation with assessment with research (yes there is ample grey area in there, but the terms are not synonymous), and fall into the trap of trying to demonstrate impact & value by counting things/measuring productivity.*

Adding to the challenge, few public libraries are intimately connected with professional academic researchers, and few librarians have the time to learn how to conduct unbiased program evaluations, let alone develop high-quality impact assessment skills.

In my mind, large public library systems should consider taking a page out of academic libraries’ new book and hiring internal research staff to demonstrate value and investigate impact. What’s more, government bodies that oversee libraries (e.g., the BC Public Libraries Services Branch) should be hiring staff to a) support library-based assessment & research, and b) coordinate, liaise with & conduct research on the value and impact of public library services.

I know that asking more more staff seems expensive, and there have been a couple of years of belt-tightening in a row at this point, but some of the best things the library sector could do to improve our ability to advocate for funding are to

  1. provide evidence of impact and
  2. ensure that services are relevant to the community


*To those nodding along with my concerns but unsure of how to move beyond these common problems, I recommend Markless & Streatfield’s Evaluating the Impact of Your Library, published by CILIP’s Facet Press. It does a great job of walking one through that process of mid-level assessment between basic program eval/library stats and full-fledged long-term impact research.


Filed under academic libraries, funding, government, inclusion/exclusion, LIS education, public libraries, The Profession

Library Schools: Developing Librarians of the Future – Moving beyond Professionalism

As a recent graduate of a MLIS program, and based on discussions with classmates/recent graduates from across Canada, I am a little distressed by the sense of confusion recent graduates have regarding what it means to be a librarian.  There seems to be a lack of clarity regarding a unified vision or mission of librarianship.

Over the past few decades university based library programs (for librarians) and community colleges (for library assistants) focus most of their attention on creating professional skill sets and identities.  While there is debate surrounding the concept of librarians as professionals, others are moving the discussion beyond professionalization.  Instead of the focus being solely on librarians, it is expanded to the communities librarians are meant to serve.

As discussed by John Vincent from the Network in the UK “unless one puts some values at the core of librarianship (such as fighting for social justice), then it’s just an empty box of gadgets – which is why, I think, people get so het up about challenges to their “usual” role – if you aren’t clear what your role is, so you construct one based on professional identity”.

As more and more public library systems across Canada are recognizing and  beginning to shift program and service development from internal processes to needs based library service and community led library service planning (e.g. Edmonton and Halifax) – library schools need to begin viewing these developments as fundamental shifts in the way that library systems are working with community.

For library schools, this shift should not be viewed as an add on, or an additional course – instead it should be viewed as a mainstream approach: impacting the way public libraries and their staff across job classifications do their work.  There is a huge potential for library schools to prepare future librarians and library assistants to do this work.  This gap needs to be filled.  It will either be filled by library schools or by library systems hiring staff.  Discussion in universities or community colleges on this approach will ensure that library staff can work with community to determine the role library staff can play when meeting community identified needs.

Ample literature has been developed, and one of the key outcomes from the Working Together project was the development of a university course – with content – which can be adapted by each library school to prepare students for the new realities of library work.  In addition, there are a number of publications – either publically accessible or soon to be published – which should become part of the core curriculum.  Some quick examples can be found here.

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Filed under community development, LIS education, public libraries, The Profession

Sex, Gender & Librarianship

This is likely just a brain-dump of a teaser post, as it’s a topic I’ve just gotten started on, which could really grow into multiple posts as I explore it further in the future.

I ran into Dean at my favourite local coffeeshop the other day and we got talking a bit about gender issues and librarianship. Given that I’m a gender studies teacher, and a librarian, it didn’t take much prodding on his part to get my head spinning in that direction. It’s actually more surprising that – while certainly I talk about gender isues, pay equity, library cultures, and the like a lot – I hadn’t sat down and seriously thought about the intersections in a methodical way before. And wow, once you start thinking there’s a lot of interesting stuff to explore in terms of sex, gender and LIS, isn’t there?

Here’s my brainstorm list of topics to play with, as of this morning. All of these thoughts are themes to explore with an eye to sex & gender, race & ethnicity, socio-economic class, and ideally also attributes such as age, dis/ability, sexuality, etc.

I’m super interested in poking my mind down these paths, so if you’re reading and thought on these bullet points, or other suggestions for related topics, I’d love to hear them:

  1. Pre-Dewey librarianship, and the historical Western masculinity of literacy
  2. Melvil Dewey& the feminization of library education & professions
  3. Modern (past 100 yrs) images & protrayals of librarians
  4. Studies of library cultures/subcultures (including “guybrarian” “gaybrarian,” the systems vs public services great divide, corporate librarianship vs non-profit, school teacher-librarians, IT in libraries, etc.)
  5. LIS research and gender/race/class assumptions and approaches
  6. Information behaviour & user groups
  7. Technology uptake & influence among user groups
  8. Social issues in design of info & communications systems
  9. Techie & g33k culture(s) and accompanying masculinities and semi-masculinities (this can probably be divided up into eras, like the library bullet points above, but I’m not yet knowledgable enough to brainstorm how – other than to say that:
  10. OSS and other “open” movements should probably be their own bullet point here

Dean suggested this topic area might make an interesting grad course, and I have to completely agree. With the right framing (including critical sex/gender 101 for LIS folks and LIS 101 for non-LIS folk), it could be cross-listed between LIS and gender studies at any given institution with both grad programs, as a “sex, gender and information issues” or “gendered aspects of information” or some such.

Why would this be important? Well, to me it’s clear that diversifying LIS work is essential. I don’t mean “attract more men to librarianship” because if that was the only goal, we could probably do it by raising salaries and changing language. I mean real change, that will make libraries representative of the populations we serve, and help information services or various types understand user needs as well as employee strengths and needs.

And in order to make change we have to understand what’s going on now and how we got here. Anyone who supervises other workers can really benefit from a critical analysis of race/class/gender issues in their profession. Anyone who is setting the agenda for the future of a profession must understand such issues, or their agendas will lead down the path of diminshing returns.

More on this topic after I’ve had time to explore further. Feedback is welcome.



Filed under gender, LIS education, The Profession

New Librarian and Archivist of Canada…an Economist?

What does it mean that the new Librarian and Archivist of Canada is neither a librarian nor an archivist; not even an author, but rather an economist?

Daniel J Caron has been with Library & Archives Canada since 2003, in high level corporate management branch-type jobs.

Prior to that he was in various Ottawa jobs including for the Treasury Board Secretariat, Human Resources Development Canada, and the Economic Development Agency of Canada for the Regions of Quebec.

The outgoing Librarian and Archivist of Canada, Ian E. Wilson, was the National Archivist of Canada to Roch Carrier’s National Librarian until the positions merged, and has been involved with archives in Canada and internationally for ~30 years.

Am I the only one who is a little freaked out about this change?

I pulled Caron’s 1994 thesis record from the U Montreal catalogue, and according to Google Translate it seems to be something like “Land and political autonomy: emerging configurations of relations between Aboriginal people and the French, British and Canadian governments.” No abstract on the record so I’m not sure what his politics are, but sure doesn’t seem to be much related to libraries or archives.

I’ve tried to find some of his publications that might mention libraries or archives…looked on his publications list at the Université du Québec École nationale d’administration publique, for example.  Caron seems to have published quite a bit on human resources management, project evaluation, and in earlier years Aboriginal-government negotiations.

Yeah, I’m kinda concerned.

To figure out exactly what the Librarian and Archivist of Canada’s powers were, and what s/he is supposed to do, I went to the Library and Archives of Canada Act ( 2004, c. 11 )



7. The objects of the Library and Archives of Canada are

(a) to acquire and preserve the documentary heritage;

(b) to make that heritage known to Canadians and to anyone with an interest in Canada and to facilitate access to it;

(c) to be the permanent repository of publications of the Government of Canada and of government and ministerial records that are of historical or archival value;

(d) to facilitate the management of information by government institutions;

(e) to coordinate the library services of government institutions; and

(f) to support the development of the library and archival communities.

Powers of Librarian and Archivist

8. (1) The Librarian and Archivist may do anything that is conducive to the attainment of the objects of the Library and Archives of Canada, including

(a) acquire publications and records or obtain the care, custody or control of them;

(b) take measures to catalogue, classify, identify, preserve and restore publications and records;

(c) compile and maintain information resources such as a national bibliography and a national union catalogue;

(d) provide information, consultation, research or lending services, as well as any other services for the purpose of facilitating access to the documentary heritage;

(e) establish programs and encourage or organize any activities, including exhibitions, publications and performances, to make known and interpret the documentary heritage;

(f) enter into agreements with other libraries, archives or institutions in and outside Canada;

(g) advise government institutions concerning the management of information produced or used by them and provide services for that purpose;

(h) provide leadership and direction for library services of government institutions;

(i) provide professional, technical and financial support to those involved in the preservation and promotion of the documentary heritage and in providing access to it; and

(j) carry out such other functions as the Governor in Council may specify.

Sampling from Internet

(2) In exercising the powers referred to in paragraph (1)(a) and for the purpose of preservation, the Librarian and Archivist may take, at the times and in the manner that he or she considers appropriate, a representative sample of the documentary material of interest to Canada that is accessible to the public without restriction through the Internet or any similar medium.

Destruction or disposal

9. (1) The Librarian and Archivist may dispose of any publication or record under his or her control, including by destruction, if he or she considers that it is no longer necessary to retain it.


(2) Any such disposition is subject to the terms and conditions under which the publication or record has been acquired or obtained.

After reading that, I’m still concerned. I get that a director needs to be a manager, have strong management skills. However, I want the person charged with leading the preservation of documentary heritage of the country, facilitating access to that heritage, coordinating government library and information services and supporting library and archival development across the country to, well, demonstrate some evidence of caring about preserving and providing access to this documentary heritage, and some connection with the library and archival communities.

I’m concerned that access to information will take a backseat, that documents may be disposed of under principles other than those of the archival or library communities, and that library and archival communities in the public sector will be neglected rather than developed.

Is a professional administrator really the person we want as our national librarian and archivist?

Is it too much to, at very least, hope that the person installed as the figurehead and visionary for our library and archives sector at *minimum* have some literacy or heritage focus, if not actually be a librarian or archivist?


postscript: Oh, look! Unsurprisingly, the CLA agrees with me.  Or probably I should have stated that vice versa…


Filed under government, government information, LIS education, preservation, The Profession

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.


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


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

Warrentless library computer searches – what affects librarian response, and what can we learn from the news?

There have been a couple of high-profile cases this summer involving US law enforcement seeking library computers as evidence, and showing up without a warrant in hand:

  1. In Maryland, FBI agents took two computers from a Frederick County Library. The library director granted them permission, although they came without a warrant.
  2. In Vermont, state police detectives were told by a librarian that they had to go back and get a warrant before seizing Kimball Public Library’s public access computers to investigate a child’s disappearance.

I want to discuss these cases, because I’ve been mulling over the similarities and differences between them, and trying to figure out what we can learn from the two situations.

First of all, what are the differences between these two cases? I’m sure there are several, and here are some of the major ones I’ve identified thus far:

  • Vermont vs Maryland cultural variances – VT is known for liberalism, independence, cows, white people and lots of libraries.  The state also has a new law that went into effect a couple weeks after the Kimball incident, which requires libraries to demand court orders before turning over records to law enforcement. Frederick MD is very close to Washington DC, very military and politics influenced, and semi-Southern.  The biggest employer in the country, by a large margin, is US Army base Fort Detrick.
  • Type of law enforcement officers – A FBI request seems to me to be more intimidating, commanding, carry more weight than one from the state police.
  • Type of case – This could work both ways.  A federal case (MD) might be more compelling than a local case (VT), but on the other hand the VT case was about a missing 12-year old girl, which seems to be both very time sensitive and heartstring-tugging.  The case of the MD case has not officially been stated, but is generally assumed to have to do with the 2001 anthrax mailings in the US, the major suspect of which recently died of an apparent suicide, which seems less time sensitive or pressing, but does hark back to the post- 9/11 patriotism that may be a bigger cultural factor in Frederick MD than in some other regions.
  • Responding librarian – in VT it was a librarian doing storytime who responded to the police request.  In MD it was the library director, whom I assume was called by other staff to come out and deal with the FBI agents in the library.  Did the library director feel he had more discretion to make a judgment call in this type of matter, rather than blindly following policy?  Had he not developed a policy for his libraries?  I don’t know, but he is likely the person responsible for the “bottom line” in privacy policy, as opposed to a non-directorial librarian who may be more likely to feel bound to follow written policy.

Listing these out, and pondering their influence on the responding librarians’ decisions, I was reminded of when I used to work in domestic violence response services.  I know that if we had someone, particularly a child, go missing, and someone was withholding a computer that might contain evidence that might lead to locating that child I would have been livid. My mission in such a circumstance would be to do anything and everything possible to find that child and bring her home as safely as possible.

On the other hand, one of the things I learned from working in domestic violence and sexual assault agencies is the value of multiple advocates representing different interests. The shelters I staffed worked best for a family when mom had one advocate looking out for her interests and her child had a different advocate looking out for his best interests.  When advocates were free to fully focus on the needs of one facet of the family, their various perspectives could then be heard, weighed and combined for the best possible outcomes.

Similarly, I think it’s important for libraries to demand warrants from law enforcement, because it’s too easy for someone whose main focus is law enforcement to lose perspective on general civil rights outside of the current case.

So while (in the above hypothetical situation) I might have been livid at a librarian for withholding a computer for a couple of hours – hours in which a child might be being assaulted! – on balance I am glad the librarians would be there to demand the proper paw enforcement procedures be followed.  Because their holding that line would free me to fully advocate for the child’s welfare without worrying about stopping and trying to weigh the general public’s privacy rights against my current mission.

Let’s go back to the Kimball and Frederick library computer seizures now.  I think it’s clear that I favour the Kimball type response.  I don’t want librarians to be weighing the merits of privacy rights vs an individual legal investigation in the heat of the moment. I don’t want the culture of the local environment to sway decisions librarians are pressured into making on the spot, with cops staring them down. I see libraries as advocates for the privacy rights of the public, and I’m obviously not alone in this perspective. The ALA, among other library associations, has long been a staunch advocate of privacy rights, stating that:

Confidentiality of library records is a core value of librarianship

I want the well-pondered leadership of professional standards and guidelines to outweigh any sudden freaked-out librarian split-second judgment calls. I believe this frees law enforcement to do their job – trying to properly solve a crime – the best they can as well.

I do want to say that, while I don’t necessarily agree with both librarian responses above, I think it’s important to support both the librarians involved in these two cases as people who were doing their best on the job. Having the cops, let alone the feds, show up and demand something from you is pretty shocking, if not downright scary. It’s not a typical event in the day-to-day life of a public librarian. (My own experience in public libraries was far more focused on pointing people to those damned Rainbow Fairy books, the latest Maeve Binchy novel in large print, or the bathroom, than overtly defending citizens’ rights on a daily basis. On a really exciting day I’d have a high school student doing a report on astronomy, you know?)

If a librarian is really lucky, they had a class on intellectual freedom way back in library school.  More likely they had a discussion somewhere along the line, perhaps in a collection development course, about book challenges.  And very possibly they had no academic background on the topic at all – just whatever they had gleaned from on the job trainings or conference sessions.  I consider myself lucky to have had a full class on IF in my library school (it’s one of the reasons I selected that particular school, in fact), but thinking back to my job orientation at the public library I don’t think any protocol regarding police requests was included.

Had I been the only librarian holding down a branch when the cops walked in and demanded it, it’s entirely possible that I would have freaked out and had no idea what to do.  Of course this is Canada where the PATRIOT Act is more of an arm’s length threat, but I digress…My point is that we don’t know what type of background, training or support from their library administration these two librarians had, but that the variance in librarian response to similar seizure requests – despite clear guidelines from the ALA – indicates a need for more discussion of and training on privacy issues.

– Greyson

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

Real Parents and Ideal Patrons

I`ve had several people ask me to expand on my third point from my Why I`m not a children`s librarian post. Here`s a little bit more on the topic of our frequent shortfalls in achieving social justice orientation in youth services, and my personal experiences with librarians shaming me without realising it.

“If their kid is at daycare all day, the daycare provider is really the parent anyway.”

My blood ran cold when she said that.

I thought of my son, in daycare at that very moment so I could be there in that library meeting, and held my breath as well as my tongue.

Not that I hadn’t heard statements like that before. Not that I considered myself especially vulnerable to such judgments.

I just wasn’t expecting it there – from a “friend” and colleague of mine, at a meeting of a team of children’s librarians specifically dedicated to providing culturally appropriate and accessible outreach programming for socially excluded children and families. The topic of discussion was how to extend outreach library services to go past the child to influence the whole family, so that parents might, say, bring their kids to the library.

And what I really didn’t expect, from that group in particular, was the fact that when one member said something outrageous like the above statement, no one else in the room spoke up. To the day I don’t really know if it was the dreaded librarian “niceness” striking again (inhibiting our ability to hold ourselves/each other accountable), or whether no one else thought she was being offensive.

I was a student intern. They were allowing me to sit in on their meeting, so I could learn. I didn’t feel like I could interrupt and intervene at that time. But I certainly did learn.


The dominant library paradigm holds very particular cultural conceptions of the ownership/belonging/responsibility of children. These notions are largely based in euro-colonial and neo-liberal values of the family as isolated, self-sufficient unit.

Even in our progressive and outreach programs, are we really listening to our communities, parents, families, and empowering them to make our services their own?


“The best library users, the ones we love to work with, are the parents who already bring their children to storytime. They are the ideal. I love to work with them.”

A library school instructor, one whom I sincerely like and respect, said this in front of a class I took.

Again, I was floored.

My child has never been to a library storytime. I have been a working parent since he was 2 weeks old, first lugging him on my back to my office, and then, too soon for my liking, sending him to daycare. My local library branch does not hold weekend storytimes for working parents. Even the summer reading club events are during weekday workdays, much to my child’s dismay.

I always garnered compliments from my library supervisors, but they don’t know my dirty secret – that I am The Non-Ideal Parent as a patron.

Shh…don`t tell!


We are beginning to acknowledge that “the ideal patron” is a problem – that this notion is culturally biased and exclusive; that we should be questioning it. I say this because we as a discipline have published papers to this effect, bestowed honours upon some individuals who have championed this message, and sometimes even committed funding to novel projects that work toward a more just community ownership of libraries.

But trickle down takes a long time, when it works. Will the status quo for plain old regular librarians – ones not leading special programs or “moving and shaking” their institutions – ever change?


Oh, but I didn’t mean you. Your son is wonderful, so smart.

Yes, and I don’t “look Jewish,” right? Let me guess, some of your best friends are black and gay?

Putting down who I am, my history and identity, and then telling me I am better than everyone else like me is not a complement.

I am not an exception.

Or rather, we are all exceptions.

I am a bit uncommon, in that I was a low-income single parent who went back to school and became a librarian. But I was certainly not the only one who met that profile in my library school intake of 40 people.

Really, it is highly likely that I am only unusual in following this path because of my privilege. Coming from a family with higher education and economic privilege, It was relatively easy to make the decision to go to grad school and change my situation. I was able to see that option and take the necessary path to get there, yes. However, the important part of this story is not so much how I got where I am now, but what I know of where I was a few years ago.

I know, I know, I’m different from all the other Black/Jewish/queer/Asian/poor/Latina/whatever people. The other daycare parents. You didn’t mean that slur to apply to me.

Isn’t that line getting old by now? Isn’t it one libraries shouldn’t be using anyway?



Filed under community development, LIS education, public libraries, racism, The Profession, youth

A summer workshop on Black Studies and Information Technology

I had the privilege of meeting Abdul Alkalimat at the annual iConference, a gathering of faculty and students from schools that are part of the “iSchool movement.”* Abdul is a professor with a joint appointment in Information Studies and Black Studies at the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). He is organizing a four-day workshop on Black Studies and Information Technology this summer and is looking for applicants. More details here:

I believe the workshop funds its participants, with the main events will be limited to a small number of people – for those working in this area, it looks like a really interesting opportunity.


*Most (though not all) formerly known as library schools. Fodder for a different post.

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Filed under LIS education, The Profession