Thursday, July 06, 2006

Freedom and Rules

In my last post, I said “freedom for all” does not mean “rules for none.” Off-hand, I usually mean that with reference to the argument to allow ‘porninators’ full access to public (and publicly viewable) terminals. But in libraries we can apply it in many forms.

In my library, I’m lucky enough to have a policy and chain-of-command to go to in the case that law enforcement officials need information. ALA and the ACLU are notorious for defending the freedom to do anything, anywhere, particularly in publicly funded bastions of democracy like libraries. With all of the hysteria over the Patriot Act, librarians and administrators have gone over to breaking the law in favor of pursuing personal agendas. Simply disregarding government authority on the pretext that the Patriot Act violates someone’s privacy is not just dumb, it makes librarians as a whole look foolish, and I heartily resent that. There are systems in place where you can challenge (legally) the request. There’s no need to tie yourself to the staff terminal and have your librarians march outside the library. Make the public aware, yes, but while maintaining some sort of professional integrity, please! For every ACLU member who sleeps peacefully, dreaming of your protest, fifty regular old moderate Americans sniff and call you a radical. And quit saying librarians are against the Patriot Act, for goodness’ sake. I am a librarian. I approve the Patriot Act. The point? Even freedom-lovers like us need to follow the law. Don’t agree with it? Get it changed. The populace of the US didn’t manage to change it when you demanded? Then maybe you’re not as much of a majority as you thought you were.

That’s right. “I am Spartacus.” For folks who are supposed to believe in diversity and breadth of viewpoints, the ultraliberal librarians at ALA sure do seem to have a tough time acknowledging that they let folks like me into LIS programs. (We’re everywhere….be afraid. Be very afraid.)

Back to freedom and rules. I have had the experience, multiple times at this point, that administrators deciding to promote ‘library as place’ find pesky policies like “No Food and Drink” and “Quiet Study Area” to be a hindrance in their plans to develop new, exciting, and gadget-filled “information commons” areas, complete with vending machines. So much so, in fact, that it was suggested that since folks sneak food and drink into our academic library anyway, we should just do away with said policies. (Our preservation librarians were not at that particular meeting; I am quite sure they would have had simultaneous coronaries.) After working in Circulation for two years and seeing everything under the sun, from dog-chewed books to those that were sticky, snotty, cola-ed, TacoBell-ed, rained on, run over, peed on (no, not kidding) and just about everything in between, I find it hard to exaggerate what a travesty that would be. Certainly we should not restrict patron service unduly in the pursuit of collection maintenance (and salvation), but I would argue that neither should we allow the argument for ‘library as cultural and recreation center’ to dictate policies that will lead, inevitably, to the destruction of the collection we are responsible for preserving.

Some quick math – a library of 2.5 million volumes. A University of 27,000 students and nearly 10,000 staff. A few Coke spills that ruin a few books, surreptitiously slipped back into the stacks. It’s not just those’s the ones affected by the mold, insects and chemistry resulting from the spills and crumbs. Talk about librarian nightmares.

My argument is that, in general, we restrict behavior for the greater good. This does not necessarily mean that we are fascist, Nazi, communist, or any other term that usually gets thrown at the rulemakers. Yes, as librarians, we stand at the forefront of intellectual freedom issues, censorship issues, privacy rights, and various other political and moral flashpoints. We are tasked with both making the library more inviting, AND ensuring the survivability of the collection. However, it is important to remember that we’re not supposed to be anarchists, refusing to follow any laws or guidelines at all. We are supposed to be trustees of the public. Yes, we support your right to read whatever you want, whenever you want. However, I hardly see that translating into supporting the right to masturbate in my library, get drunk in my library, hold political rallies in my quiet area, or use library books as dinnerplates or snowshoes.

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