Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Did the ALA Just Betray School Librarians?

 Yes, I'll go there.

I admit that headline could have come from the National Enquirer, but it's a question I've been pondering this morning after reading a Facebook post by Buffy Hamilton, and her related Unquiet Librarian blog post.

As usual, I'm a bit late in coming to this controversy (Mongolian lag time), but it stems from Fran Bullington's protest on Informania to a NYT article describing the FCC's plans to establish a digital literacy corps, since the public school system fails to address the digital divide (my interpretation!)

More specifically, in an attempt to address the backlash, the SLJ published this jaw-on-the-floor article.

If you haven't yet, you should definitely read Buffy's post.  In her usual cogent and heart-of-the-matter style, she addresses key issues, so I'll try to do more than repeat her points.  Just know that whatever Buffy said--times two!

So here are my thoughts.

1)  The FCC is under-informed.  Of course, given government attitudes towards education and educators these days,  and their general approach to net neutrality (for example), that was a given.
Yes, there is a digital divide. I even agree that  schools on the whole are doing a poor job of addressing that, though the causes are another blog post.  But to bring in a corps of "experts" for "after school" lessons instead of utilizing (and funding!) the experts already in place is exactly the kind of government waste people get so angry about.

Librarians, of course, are (or should be) exactly the kinds of trained experts the FCC needs, and they know how to teach.  Funnel that money into funding libraries, sponsoring library-based  workshops for parents and the general public, and to mandating documented results of library/technology integration into the school's general curriculum.  The attitude that technology is a set of discrete skills learned after school, like a chess club, shows the extent of their pedagogical disconnect.  The skills must be learned as part of real learning and real assessment, integrated into the regular classroom. Moreover, any librarian technologically not up to the task needs either intense professional development or to find another job, because s/he is an anachronism and causing serious harm to the rest of the profession.

2) Just what the heck is the ALA up to?  That Digital Shift article reads like a Machiavellian piece of propaganda and crowd control.  They need to be much more transparent about a) exactly how they were involved in the decision-making process, and b) the ideas/information they contributed to that process.  What am I paying hundreds of dollars in dues for if  not for them to educate the powers-that-be and advocate for the profession? Never mind the unfortunate word choice about "quell"-ing concerns, with its connotation of silencing controversy.

3)  Where I do disagree with Buffy is her comment "it was never about thinking our jobs were being 'usurped.'"  I'm not that high-minded.  It may not have been my first thought, and this shouldn't be a turf war, but in this day of unprecedented attacks on education in general and libraries in specific,  the profession does need to be vigilant at large-scale attempts to outsource areas of our job for which we more than qualified, or we will find ourselves more thoroughly "weeded" than we already are.

Unfortunately, I can see this as just the kind of program schools would leap into, ever eager for a government dollar, and looking to prove to the public at large that they are 21st Century-ready. Who hasn't attended a school PD workshop at the hands of an expensively-hired expert that you were more than able to lead yourself?

To be honest, I already think librarianship is a dying profession.  Despite our best attempts at advocacy, people just don't get it.  I mean, is there a library program in the country that you would think is more secure than Buffy Hamilton's?  Her program (and documentation) reach a level I can only gaze at from a distance, yet even she faced personnel cuts this year.  And it's only going to get worse, if certain government officials have their way.  So, yeah, I do think that, within a larger context, we also need to be aware of ill-planned encroachments on our expertise and prepared to offer better solutions.

4)  There's the rub.  Solutions.  Why oh why is this even an issue?  Why, despite years of promotion and government lobbying by the ALA, does the country at large still not get it?  Why is it still so hard to convince some teachers of our usefulness?  That we can make their jobs easier?  Obviously, whatever we're doing isn't working, and we need new ideas, but I'm at a loss.   More worrisome, here's what a spokesperson for the ALA said in regards to this controversy:  We’re now alerted to the fact that we have to get a cultural change so people understand what school, public, and academic librarians do,” she says. “So we have some work to do, and immediately.”

EXCUSE ME!?!?   We are NOW alerted??  You're the leaders of a profession experiencing seismic shifts for at least a decade, and you only now realize that?  Pardon the profanity, but what the hell have you been doing the last ten years?  Obviously, the ALA was part of this process--why weren't they in there swinging for us? Advocating for our inclusion? Educating government in the ways we could be used. Equally important, why didn't we KNOW?  If they were being ignored by the powers-that-be, why weren't the rank and file notified and mobilized to petition, write emails, call the right people and protest?  

And so I ask again: Did the ALA just betray school librarians?


  1. Love the way you've framed it Jeri! But let's face it...it seems ALA is being political. In politics we hear all the time about secretive initiatives exposed that we only get a superficial look at as the offenders measure out damage control. For this reason I've been hesitant to respond. The backlash I will get will point fingers and say Im not doing my part as an ALA member. Then I'll once again walk away feeling guilty because despite my best efforts in the profession, it's not enough. Sigh. This issue truly reflects all politics, not just libraries and ALA.

  2. Hey, Cathy. Yeah, you're probably right. Politics is all-pervasive these days, but one would hope the ALA wasn't wallowing down there with the rest of them. A certain amount is necessary, obviously, but this just seemed on the slimy side. Grin--if I can mix my metaphors!