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)
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.
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:
- It’s unclear what the relationship (financial or otherwise) is between VPL and VANOC
- The leaked memo information instructing library staff on appropriate sponsorship behaviour creates the appearance of COI
- 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.