Musings of an archivist / librarian.
Possibly deranged; definitely political.
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The importance and problems of intellectual freedom (guest post)

The following is a guest post from my colleague Ryan Vernon (find him on Twitter here). It originally appeared on the BCLA listserv; with Ryan’s kind permission I am sharing it here in the interests of making it more widely available.

I really appreciate [colleagues who have affirmed] the importance of debate here, especially because earlier in the conversation there seemed to be moves to shut down or invalidate some points of view.

And there are two different points of view being expressed in the conversations happening on this listserv, on blogs, and elsewhere, two different opinions that point to a paradox with libraries: on one hand libraries purport to uphold the democratic virtues of intellectual freedom and unrestricted access to information for everyone; on the other hand many libraries are extremely hierarchical, and therefore internally undemocratic.  So while it’s orthodox to claim that (public) libraries are for everyone, and that debate is good, there is a contrary direction of discourse that seeks to curtail intellectual freedom and normalize dominant power structures.

As uncomfortable as it may be, if libraries are to commit to intellectual freedom they need to genuinely engage in debate and open themselves to criticism, they need to encourage debate from within their workforce, and they need to be democratic in practice in taking steps to fill citizens’ information needs, regardless of whether those needs make library workers uncomfortable.


Policy, Politics, Porn: VPL’s Public Internet Problem

Over the last several days, a report amending Vancouver Public Library’s “Public Internet Use Policy” to restrict patrons’ browsing rights has been the subject of much discussion in professional circles here in British Columbia and beyond. To many, myself included, this report - and the policy it articulates - represent a grave tactical error for VPL from a service-delivery standpoint and a brazen affront to intellectual freedom in the broader philosophical context of librarianship. Selected critiques follow - they are by no means exhaustive.


This is unclear. As written, the policy contains no definitions, no stated rationale, no enforcement mechanism, and no guidelines as to interpretation. The crux of it, however, is that VPL users are advised that they are no longer permitted to view “explicit sexual images” on library terminals (not moving pictures?) and that staff now possess the blanket power to designate any browsing activity, indeed any computer-related activity, “inappropriate” and restrict or revoke library priveleges accordingly. The notion of what constitutes “inappropriate” content is also not defined, apparently deliberately.


There are a number of words which appear repeatedly throughout the policy which should be immediately worrisome to us and which give us a clear indicator of what this document is really about - as my colleague Catelynne has pointed out, these mostly revolve around making moral value judgements about the content and/or information users are accessing in the library. Content is variously described as “inappropriate” (which appears an astonishing 21 times in the document), “explicit”, “overtly sexualized”, and “unacceptable” (including the delightfully mysterious phrase “Unacceptable Images” which sounds like it could be the name of a Pythonesque government ministry).

What do these terms have in common? Two things.

First, they are all tied up with moral judgements about the information patrons are accessing. Moral, not ethical – the distinction is important. Ethical judgements are, at their best, pragmatic – concerned with how we should behave in order to optimise human life. They’re about how people live, not who people are, and this is the premise from which all good library policies flow. Library policy is concerned with shared space, after all, and mitigating friction between users comes with the territory. It’s no great thing to say, as many libraries do, “if we receive complaints about what you’re looking at on the computer, we reserve the right to come talk to you and communicate these principles around shared space and work out a compromise that leaves you feeling validated in using the library”.

Moral judgements, however - like the ones which form the crux of this policy - are ontological statements about the nature of reality. Indeed the very words “inappropriate” and “unacceptable” redirect automatically to Wikipedia’s article on “Morality”. Moral precepts are held to be fixed, innate, immutable, concerned with an external conception of what is inherently “good” or “bad” in the human character. This is territory where libraries have no right to tread - and doing so invites disaster. Once a library willingly gets into value judgements as to the moral rightness or wrongness of the content contained in its information resources - and VPL acknowledges outright that “Vancouver Public Library considers Internet resources an extension of our material collections for library users and one of the richest resources available to the public” - it has set itself up as an arbiter of public morality, and that is not just dangerous. It is wrong. Making value judgements about people’s sexuality, or even tangentially seeming to do so, should be assiduously avoided. I’m surprised a library as well-resourced as VPL would fall into this incredibly stupid rhetorical trap, the more so since they explicitly link their provision of internet resources to their collection development policies, which permitting a quite natural “what goes for one goes for the other” conflation in users’ minds. This is a whirlwind no library wants to reap.

There is a clear pragmatic case for avoiding moralism in library policy, as well. The political context of the 21st century has seen the idea of the “slippery slope” – ordinarily a logical fallacy – become a daily reality for many libraries. In the United States, extreme right-wing groups have a history of going through library statutes and policy with a fine-toothed comb, looking for inconsistencies which allow them to attack library funding, more vigourously pursue book challenges, and increase other attempts to censor or control libraries’ collection development policies. Ironically, when a library invokes a supposed right to dictate morality, it vastly undermines whatever moral authority it possesses.

And the second thing these terms have in common?

None of them – “unacceptable”, “inappropriate”, “explicit”, “sexual”, or “sexualize” - is defined at any point in this document or elsewhere in VPL’s internet policy. To carry this to an absurd conclusion, if I knew or suspected that a patron had a shoe fetish and repeatedly observed the patron viewing images of shoes on the public terminals, I could meaningfully invoke this policy saying that because the patron’s psyche has “sexualized” the images they have become “inappropriate” (and perhaps even “explicit”, heaven forbid!)

Even if we leave any discussion of morality aside (which I obviously do not concede) these omissions alone render this policy completely unfit for purpose. Policy is concerned with the meaning of words – it stands or falls on their interpretation. This is why laws contain such painfully lengthy lists of definitions, even for seemingly trivial terms. What we understand words to mean is important, especially when we are wading into fraught territory where the safety of staff is at least nominally on the line. The closest this policy ever comes is saying that patrons may be offended by “appropriate or offensive material may be legal pornography, sexually explicit images, or other offensive content or images.”

Maybe just a tad of a broad brush, there, and this handily takes us to the next issue.


The rhetorical tradition of invoking a non-specific notion of “safety” as a blanket justification for suppressing of non-conformity has a long, ugly history. Indeed, along with ideas of hygiene and “uncleanliness”, ill-defined threats to “community safety” are among the most leaned-on strawman for excusing or even encouraging persecution of a real or imagined “other”. So when we see “safety” given as a policy justification within the first paragraph, it should make our metaphorical ears perk up and give us pause.

In a policy context, we should look for a clear enumeration of what constitutes the threat and how the proposed policy seeks to mitigate that threat. The word root “safe” (safe, safety, unsafe) appears 15 more times in the document, but almost all of these references relate to the premise that “ensuring staff feel safe in the performance of their duties” makes it imperative to ban sexually explicit imagery on the internet. We have to wait until the fifth page until we finally get an encapsulation of what this “threat to safety” actually is:

"…not all staff are comfortable in the role of asking people to stop viewing material or do not feel safe doing so"

And then, a paragraph later:

"Some staff and VPL security coordinators have stated that it would assist them in ensuring a welcoming, safe space for all if policy stated that viewing inappropriate material was not acceptable or allowed"

I’m not in the business of telling people what should make them feel safe, and I understand that as a white male my boundaries are different and my perception of threat in the workplace is highly conditioned by that. What I think I can safely emphasise, however, is that frontline public librarianship is public-facing work. Long may it remain so! That necessarily implies, for all public workers, situations where you will have to deal with things that make you feel uncomfortable, sordid, even threatened. As other social services steadily succumb to funding and political pressure, these points of friction in libraries are increasing and will continue to increase. Part of being a professional, part of being a public servant, is being able to work with the public even when it is difficult.

I can maybe talk a bit about a few situations I have encountered around personal safety in the library, lest people think I’m heartless or unaware of the challenges library staff face. I have seen weapons pulled in the library in anger. I have had my life directly threatened, and seen the lives of other patrons directly threatened. I have seen fights in the library resulting in serious injury. I have been in tense situations where I have waited hours for a police response that never comes. I have dealt with overdoses, unexplained concussions, and sudden seizures. I’ve had to provide support as other staff attempt to deal with convicted sex offenders in the children’s area. These situations all made me feel very, very unsafe. But they were part of my job. Are we seriously advocating a vision of librarianship where we treat policy as a tool for precluding our having to deal with people who might offend us or freak us out? Libraries are for everyone, and the only person I’ve ever caught actually masturbating in the library had perfected a remarkable no-hands technique…and was using an art book, not the internet, as inspiration.

This is not to say there are not legitimate concerns with people’s comfort levels in the library, especially those of staff. The problem is that this policy seems to have started from a premise of seeing safety through the lens of moral hygiene and then working backwards to justify it from that point.

And this is where, unfortunately, we must discuss:


The stated justifications for this policy, such as they are, are truly baffling. The report actually lacks a “rationale” section, which is certainly a novelty, and so (again, as Catelynne has pointed out) you really have to trawl through the document to get at why. We’ve seen that “safety” is invoked, in the context of staff not enjoying having to confront patrons about objectionable content or behaviour at public internet terminals, and that notion of “safety” is expanded in a lengthy and profoundly troubling section on harassment which I’ll quote from at length because it bears looking at a bit more closely:

Behaviour does not need to be intentional in order to be considered harassment. Some examples of harassment listed in the policy include, but are not limited to:

“Displaying or distributing derogatory or offensive pictures, graffiti or other materials related to any of the Prohibited Grounds, including but not limited to racist, sexist, or homophobic materials;”

Unwelcome, offensive behaviour related to a Prohibited Ground, where tolerance of the behaviour is explicitly or implicitly made a term of employment or a consideration in job-related decisions;”

Further, the library has a primary responsibility to establish and maintain a work environment free of harassment. The library and staff responsible for supervision must:

“Ensure staff is provided with information about and access to policies and procedures related to harassment; and, intervene promptly and appropriately when they know, or ought reasonably to know, that harassment is occurring.”

The Prohibited Grounds are from the BC Human Rights Code. They are:

Family Status
Marital Status
Physical and Mental Disability
Place of Origin
Political Belief
Sex (including gender and pregnancy)
Sexual orientation
Unrelated criminal conviction

I don’t think it takes any particularly strenuous mental acrobatics to add these two sections together and realise that this adds up to carte blanche for declaring virtually anything a patron might want to read or look at offensive and therefore constituting discrimination and/or harassment. Looking at I’m vehemently left of centre; you’re discriminating by seeking information on a political perspective which does indeed offend me violently. Looking at the Bible? Maybe, let’s say, you’re reading Mark 10. What if I have a non-cis gender expression? This verse discriminates against me. What if I’m a divorcee? This verse discriminates against me - pretty much says I’m an ontological abomination. You can run with this line of reasoning forever, and that’s exactly why it does not belong in this policy without clearer enumeration of where lines are to be drawn or where a degree of equanimity in interpretation is expected from staff.

Are there problems around harassment in the workplace, or internet behaviour being used to terrify staff? Absolutely. Does this address those problems in any meaningful way? Absolutely not. A catapult is not a flyswatter and doesn’t work well as one.

Then we have a bizarre section on “technology impacts” which says:

"High resolution 19” computer monitors have been the norm for public workstations for the past 5 years and in the regular cycle are being replaced by 22” monitors. While bandwidth capacity is an issue for the library, patrons are able to stream web content. The advent of YouTube and similar adult websites means that streaming of adult movies is easily done and is more noticeable to patrons and staff. While content is more visible, most Internet users will have several browser tabs open at one time and move between them. Someone may be observed viewing inappropriate content and a different screen may be visible minutes or seconds later"

What the actual fuck is this? Forgive me for waxing sweary, but this is straight up alarmist bullshit and doesn’t deserve the time of day - it certainly doesn’t belong within a hundred yards of a library policy. Youtube is a porn site? 22” monitors cause impure thoughts in today’s youth? Tabbed browsing is a tool of the Devil? And hasn’t VPL ever heard of those privacy filters for LCD screens? They’re not cheap as chips, but they’re cheaper than a new monitor and they’re CERTAINLY cheaper than betraying the values that set you apart and give you purpose.

The closest the document comes to discussing a pragmatic rationale for the policy is in a bewildering section where VPL acknowledges up front that “the number of formal complaints via email, letter, or telephone concerning pornography or inappropriate material has historically been quite low.” The only substantive patron complaints that VPL felt the need to acknowledge - of all the 31 incidences documented over 2 years - were the following:

Patrons express a variety of reasons for objecting to others using library workstations to view offensive material. In most cases, patrons state they are offended by the material that they see and some express that they feel intimidated when they sit near someone who is viewing this material. Patrons express concern that libraries are public spaces where children and women can see screens with objectionable material.

Again, what is “offensive material”? We have no idea whatsoever. I’ve fielded a fairly high volume of patron complaints in my day and I have to say that in many or most cases what people complain about as “offensive” often boils down to “I don’t agree with this”. I have had staunch Republicans complain that the person next to them is viewing MSNBC, and Democrats complain that children shouldn’t be reading Mark Twain because of the N-word. If you contend that these types of complaints are not what this policy is intended to address, I contend that it could be interpreted to do so owing to its incautious language and moralistic approach. That is a problem.

And as I have said elsewhere, if it even needs to be said: a phrase about the hysterical sensibilities of “women and children” categorically does not belong in a policy written by a library which regularly styles itself as among the world’s best and which is situated in a political context which pays great public lip service to progressivism (but which itself is alarmingly prone to policing the sexuality of its representatives).

The only other justification we see in the policy (I’m not sure the above deserve to be invoked as justifications, but they seem to fulfil that functional role in this policy so we have to roll with it) is probably the most weaselly of all. That dubious distinction belongs, of course, to the “Review of Public Internet and Computer Usage Policy at Other Libraries” section. It reads, in part:

A review of computer use policies from 12 other BC and Canadian libraries shows that most of the libraries’ policies have statements that are clearer and more directive than VPL’s policy. These policies offer some alternatives for strengthening VPL’s policy.

Greater Victoria, Edmonton and Hamilton public libraries all state that library computers and wireless may not be used to display overt or explicit sexual images. Ottawa and Richmond public libraries both note in their policy that that it is the library’s “responsibility to provide an environment that is free from sexual harassment and discourages Internet use that denies other a safe environment”

Halifax Public Library’s policy states; “There are sites on the Internet inappropriate for viewing in a public setting. Library staff reserve the right to end Internet sessions when such material is displayed.”

Like the Halifax policy, all policies reviewed referenced loss of library privileges or suspending Internet use if there is an infraction of the policy. Staff from other libraries note that inclusion of consequences for infractions help enforce the policy. Each of these libraries shares the same values of intellectual freedom as VPL, but have implemented more direct language with regards to the use of shared public computing resources and conduct in a shared space”

Hoo boy. They invoke 12 libraries - which 12? They name a few, not others. They say the thing they admire about these policies is that they “have implemented more direct language with regards to the use of shared public computing resources and conduct in a shared space”, but we’ve already seen this policy isn’t about public space (behaviour) as much as it is about public morality (proscribed content) - and the one thing this policy certainly does NOT contain is “direct language”.

This is one of the most influential library systems in the country - and we as libraries are supposed to be bastions of frank analysis and critical thinking - neglecting to even cite its own sources in a public policy document. Nor is that the only suspicious evidentiary tactic at play here, for why does the report cite only libraries which allegedly police content in this way? What of, I don’t know, Burnaby Public Library, right next door? Their policy takes as its foundational premise the notion that:

"In accord with the CLA Statement on Intellectual Freedom, the library does not control, and assumes no responsibility for, information accessed on the Internet. Library users are responsible for the sites they visit and any text or images they print.”

And yet the idea that this attitude might exist, even as a counterpoint, is never mentioned at all. In light of all this - weasel words, deliberate avoidance of definitions, sweeping statutory invocations, sloppy citations, and painful evidence of extremely limited research on alternatives, it’s hard not to get the impression that this policy started with a premise and reverse-engineered its rationale. That’s not something I want to see from a library. Even if that’s not actually the case, writing a document where someone can legitimately draw the conclusion that your research was stymied and your justification is weak is the opposite of what we look for in good policy. Poor show, sloppy work.


The closest thing we’ve come to as an actual rationale for this policy is the notion that staff feel uncomfortable when required to confront patrons about viewing content they (staff) feel is objectionable. What does the policy do to address this? Nothing whatsoever. The onus is still on staff to seek out “problem users” and confront them - it’s just that now they have a couple lines of policy they can invoke. As anybody knows, pointing to a sign in a public library that’s more complex than a cellphone with a bar through it is much like farting in a drafty room - odious, but ineffective for clearing a space. Since the decision of whether to confront users is left with staff, we can only conclude that this policy is inherently unenforceable and is not intended to be enforced. What is it, then?

It’s basically the Ban of Damocles. It hovers over users’ heads at all times, providing a universal context for summary revocation of browsing privileges or even the right to use library space. This is made abundantly clear by the two new clauses actually added to the public internet policy, to wit:

"Users must not use any workstation or the public wireless network to display explicit sexual images"

And the far more worrisome:

Staff will advise users of inappropriate conduct as required and will ask that any behaviour deemed to be inappropriate cease immediately. Violations may result in loss of privileges for both the user and the card(s) used.

No warning, no negotiation, no explanation, no compromise, nothing. If I don’t like what you’re looking at on the computer, for any reason, I can deny your access to all library services at all branches. That’s what this policy really says. Don’t like this interpretation? Tighten up the language which makes it possible. That’s what policy is all about.

Oh, and another thing bears saying about policy - my very first library boss told me something that has stuck with me my entire career. “Policy is always an acknowledgement of defeat,” she said, “because it means you’ve failed to address a problem through service delivery or design.” The way you deliver service and treat your community - your patrons, both in person and in the abstract - is the first and best step for promoting good behaviour in the library. If you’re messing that up, you will have more and more behavioural problems. If you can’t correct for these through design - placement of terminals, adequate staffing, and lines of sight in this case - then you go to the policy table and try to come up with something that isn’t completely horrible. Sounds like maybe this library is having problems with all three, which is a very sad state of affairs.


It’s unfortunate that an individual’s name is appended to this report, because reports like this are a product of collective effort, often with unclear origins, and have to be approved by many many people before they find their way into writing. I would strongly caution against singling out individuals for criticism over the writing of this report and instead suggest that it be treated as a collective effort embodying the corporate will of a large, influential public library system. It should be critiqued in that context.


"A series of tubes"

So Vancouver Public Library have a truly awful new “internet use policy" out that prohibits…well, I’m not sure what, exactly. Something to do with pornography? I don’t think the people who wrote it were very clear on that either, so they didn’t really say. It definitely prohibits something. Apparently it was motivated by a "…concern that libraries are public spaces where children and women can see screens with objectionable material.”

Progressive stuff.

Anyway, one of the outstanding quotes in the policy is “…the advent of YouTube and similar adult websites means that streaming of adult movies is easily done”. 2014, ladies and gentlemen! This led me to speculate about what we could do to get more wholesome content in the library.

"Maybe we could start a service called PewTube," I mused, "to live-stream church services". And the ideas just wouldn’t stop! Here’s what I came up with as alternatives to the moral cesspool that is YouTube:

HewTube (for lumberjacks)
BrewTube (beer people)
CooTube (bird fanciers)
DewTube (gardeners)
LooTube (less said the better)
JewTube (Jewish equiv. of PewTube)
MooTube (dairy farmers)
QueueTube (the UK)
Tube 2.0 (thinkfluencers)
RouxTube (French cooking)
SaultTube (local interest channel)
TuqueTube (hipsters)
EwTube (VPL policies)

I think I’m on to something here, folks. Is the internet not, after all, merely a series of tubes?


Quo Vadis? UBC and the future of LIS education in Canada

UBC’s School of Library, Archival and Information Studies (or iSchool, as I believe it prefers to style itself) finds itself in an unenviable position at present. Its ALA accreditation - a vital criterion for issuing the MLIS degree - was reduced to “Conditional” earlier this year owing to numerous concerns on the part of the committee; UBC will lose its ALA accreditation entirely if these problems are not addressed within two years.

Meanwhile, the MAS program - one of the best, and indeed one of the only, postgraduate archival education programs in the world - faces an uncertain future in spite of the consistently excellent theoretical and practical contributions of its students and alumni and its relatively strong support from Canada’s archival community. What Canadian archivist has not heard of Luciana Duranti or Heather MacNeil? What archival student has not read Reto Tschan’s seminal comparison of Jenkinson and Schellenberg? SLAIS students so consistently win ARMA scholarships - often several in any given year - that it almost seems unfair.

In the midst of all this upheaval, the School is soliciting feedback from the community on its proposed criteria for new graduates across all its programs - I strongly encourage all Canadian information professionals to participate, as Canada has comparatively few centers of higher education for information professionals, and what befalls one has significant implications for the future of all. This is especially true with regard to archives. The survey itself closes tomorrow, but I encourage interested groups and individuals to write to the school, if so inclined, with comments.

I don’t want to editorialise too much about the criteria themselves, except insofar as I can’t resist pointing out that the emphasis on foundational ethics is so slim as to be non-existent - a major concern for me. I encourage you all to head over to the survey and share your own thoughts - a few words in support of libraries, and archives in particular, might go a long way.


CLA Great Debate - My Closing Remarks

My opponents have talked a lot about the need for the library to re-envision itself, to reshape its image for the 21st century so people don’t think we’re dusty dead old spaces filled with books anymore. Newsflash: people dig books! That’s gonna persist. It would be a shame if they became the domain of hipsters, like vinyl has - and I say this out of the purest sense of altruism, because my personal book collection is, like, majestic. First crack at the sale table has its advantages, amirite? I directly benefit from library discards. Full disclosure. And while we’re on the subject of full disclosure, I’d remind you that one of my opponents thinks that reading and writing are doomed and that literacy is actually already dead…but that’s kind of puzzling because I definitely am reading these words right now. So maybe take what he has to say with a grain of salt.

But seriously. Collections are a tangible part of our aesthetic. Our brand.  As much as it pains me to speak in terms of marketing, the concept of “brand” is important and will continue to be so in our society. Whether we like it or not, collections are a big part of the reason we exist in the consciousness of the general public at all. That alone is certainly not inconsequential. The aesthetic of the library has a powerful mystique, a comfort to offer, and we interfere with that at our peril. Let’s remember the words of one of our greatest poets, Maya Angelou, who passed away this week. Speaking of the shelter libraries had given her as a child, she said:

"I read every book. I read every one. I always knew…from the time I found myself at home in that little segregated library in the South, all the way up until I walked up the steps of the New York City library, I always felt, in any town, if I can get to a library, I’ll be OK. It really helped me as a child, and that never left me. So I have a special place for every library, in my heart of hearts."

That sentiment is shared by so many people. So many. Those kids are still coming to the library today, reading those books, goofing around on our xboxes or our recording equipment or our 3D printers or whatever other zany and ingenious things we’ve managed to shoehorn into our big, brawling, rough-and-tumble idea of what a library collection can be.

That’s not to say the frustration we experience in feeling constrained by our brand isn’t real, or that it doesn’t have anything to teach us. I know people who rail furiously about the indelible association of books with the concept of the library - and they are worth listening to! - but to me this frustration speaks to a need for diversification, not the abandonment of what is, at its core, a remarkably successful social experiment in trust, community, and sharing. What could be more radical than the idea of a place where you just hand people valuable things to walk out the door with and everybody just expects they’ll be brought back and that’s accepted and normal? Are you kidding me? That is awesome. And I’m not ready to tell people facilitating that it’s inconsequential.

But all this prating on my part is sounding pretty defensive, when of course collections don’t actually really need defending. It’s already the 21st century. 2014. Let’s look back one hundred years, to 1914 - events were taking place then which gave shape to the whole rest of the century. Let us not dare make the make of believing our own days are inconsequential. We will be sorely tested in this century - as indeed so many of us are already sorely tested - and it is my fervent hope that libraries will be there to help. More than that, I hope we will continue to tailor the services we provide the communities we serve and their needs rather than hurtful, unhelpful maximalist ideas about what is and isn’t worthy of libraries. Collections matter, however we decide they’re going to look over the course of this century. Acknowledging that costs us nothing, while denying it does both ourselves and our patrons great harm.


CLA Great Debate 2014

A few weeks ago, I was a participant in the CLA Great Debate, the moderation of which has justly occasioned so much comment. I will not contribute further to that worthy discourse here; instead, I would like to share some remarks from the debate itself—the resolution was given as “Be it resolved: collections are inconsequential to the libraries of the 21st century”.

I was debating in the negative alongside Jane Schmidt (Ryerson University); opposed, in the affirmative, were Mike Ridley (University of Guelph) and Jennifer Burns (YBP Library Services). Below you will find Jane’s and my first negative constructive arguments—this is where we lay out the reasons collections aren’t inconsequential.*

Jane’s remarks:

According to the UKOLN (UK online learning network) A collection is an aggregation of physical and/or electronic items. e.g. library collections; museum collections; archives; library, museum and archival catalogues; digital archives; Internet directories; Internet subject gateways; collections of text; images; sounds; datasets; software etc. A collection may be made up of any number of items from one to many. Libraries are deeply invested in their collections.

Some would say that they are our bread and butter. The notion that their consequence is in question is likely quite shocking to many of you in this room as many of your livelihoods are deeply invested in collections. Last year, for example, CRKN licensed $88million worth of journal literature alone! I’m sure that the funding bodies of those participating organizations would be keen to hear more about this notion that we are throwing incredible sums of money at content that is apparently irrelevant. Of course, the conservative government would agree with our opponents, perhaps we’ve misjudged them and rather than being the librarians they claim to be, they are moles for Tony Clement.

Ranganathan, in his discussion of the 5th law of library science (the library is a growing organism), states that we shall assume that the library must and does grow. He refers to the Quincy plan, which is to equalize the rate of weeding out and the rate of accessioning after the size of the collection reaches an arbitrary norm. Our opponents would have the audience believe that we have reached that arbitrary norm, that in Quincy’s time and place was 40,000 books. Indeed, we can confirm that the growth of human knowledge and its need to be packaged, organized, and for the time being, sold, has not, and will not peter out any time soon. Indeed, even though the aforementioned book has been in existence for over 80 years, the only original and complete copy I was able to find online was in a (you guessed it) library. Thanks to University of Arizona’s Digital Library of Information and Science Technology for, you know, doing that.

Two minutes in, library collections 1, no library collections, 0.

Libraries do not merely collect books. Indeed, I agree that most quick facts, and even some in-depth knowledge can be found through relatively idle browsing. I even hear that the internet is on computers now to facilitate this phenomenon. Collection development as it exists in libraries is a multi-faceted entity unto itself, and thus far has not been duplicated by commonly available tools such as Google or Amazon. Have you ever really looked at some of the titles that Amazon recommends for you? Have you ever had to wish that you could un-see an image after a particularly poorly worded Google Image search? That, my friends, is what a collection development librarian can do for you … minimize your exposure to Occupational Hazard: The Ultimate Workplace Romance Box Set when you were searching for organizational behavior.

Scenarios that persist in extolling the decline of the library are usually grounded in technological determinism. The big guys are doing it better, so why should we even try? Except, clearly they are not. Hell hath no fury like the engineering prof who is informed that a core journal in their field will no longer be available via the library. How many times has a student asked you if the library had their textbook? And, let me tell you about the time that we tried to cancel the Alternative Press Index due to low use during a budget cut scenario. When we informed the poli-sci faculty, they practically demanded our heads on a stake. One was actually quoted as saying “I had no idea that even existed! We must have it”. Simply put, if we don’t have collections, faculty will be lost at sea with nothing but paywalls everywhere they paddle.

The pessimist (cough, Rick Anderson) may interpret this as the library solely acting as a purchasing agent, while the optimist (Barb Fister) insists that “our history and future are in the promotion of our shared resources and spaces for idea creation that can flow from this atmosphere”.  Slate recently posted about the desire students have to be surrounded by books. “Collections are the biggest thing that separate libraries from Jamba Juice”, the article insists, “Libraries have a problem with shiny things”. To abandon collections in favour of “every 3D printer it’s giddy user” and “Every giddy user their latest in hot tech trends” is to abandon our very foundations. Ranganathan would not be impressed.

Myron’s remarks:

So Jane has done an admirable job of showing us why simply dismissing the notion of ‘collections’ is a lot more complicated and problematic than it might seem—databases, journals, books, computers, even 3d printers, all are part of collections. My colleagues on the other side have recounted a lot of anecdotes about books, which were weird, and sort of talked about the wonderful happy pony land we’ll all inhabit when we bail on collections and gallivant free and naked into the brave book-free new future. I’d like to add to all that by talking a little bit about the real world that we actually inhabit right now.

First of all I’d like to remind you that in the real world, the word inconsequential means “not important” or “not worthy of thinking about”. My colleagues are supposed to be defending the notion that collections are beneath our consideration, that they’re already so passé they don’t bear talking about. In other words, the only way for them to win this debate would be not to participate in it, so I’d like to thank them for being game enough to come out anyway.

Now before I get too far into gear, I’d like to point out that I am a public librarian. I am, in point of fact, the only public librarian sitting up here today, which of course means I actually work for a living. I work directly with members of the public every day, trying to help them meet their information needs, and I I hope you’ll forgive me if it colours my perceptions somewhat.

I also hope you’ll believe me when I say that the idea that our user base would be OK with us abandoning collections is completely absurd. I work in two of the largest cities in the province—one of which also happens to be among the fastest-growing cities in Canada—and our patrons hugely value our collections; they routinely tell us so. That feedback is not inconsequential to me, and neither are the people it comes from. We frequently hear that we’re the only way patrons have of accessing the internet, reading the newspaper, getting a good book to curl up with—all of which fall under the remit of collections. I am not prepared to dismiss those needs as unimportant.

Jane talked a bit about technological determinism—our innate tendency to let our excitement over the potential of new technology cloud our judgement, to skew our thinking about who is and isn’t left out of the new paradigm we so gleefully envisage. Libraries are as guilty of this as anyone. We have to be careful that in our genuine, well-meaning desire to implement transformative technologies we don’t lose sight of the fact we’re not all on a level playing field.

And the playing field is not level. Away from the ivory tower, income inequality and poverty are proliferating at a remarkable rate in this country. Just a few weeks ago, the OECD published a report showing that Canada has one of the fastest-growing rates of income inequality in the developed world; that is a decades-long trend that shows no sign of reversing but is in fact increasing in severity. This province has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the developed world. For many communities, access to library resources is still a much-needed lifeline.

Here in BC, for example, we have a program called Write to Read which helps to establish libraries in first nations communities, and that program deals exclusively with books at this stage. Good old-fashioned books. And those books, those “collections”, are greeted in those communities with joy when they arrive. They are loved to death, because the people know how precious they are—something like ⅔ of Ontario’s first nations communities don’t have public libraries at all.

So when you see a program like Write to Read, before you dismiss it out of hand please remember that those are the only books a lot of kids in those communities to have access to. My opponents would have you believe that is inconsequential, that work of that sort is not the proper province of libraries because collections are so yesterday. I dare you to go tell that to the people who benefit from these programs.

Of course it isn’t only socioeconomically less fortunate people or those living in remote communities who benefit from access to library collections—everyone benefits. Library collections unite us, giving us access to a shared body of knowledge that is inherently democratic and curated specifically to enrich the cultural and intellectual life of our communities.

Nor should we ignore or abandon our role as advocates for the rights of people who use our materials. The fact we are so invested in collections gives us whatever credibility we have with publishers, with licensers, Amazon, and the rest. If you think we do a shitty job now, wait and see how much pull we have when we get out of the business of resource sharing.

Wait and see how much Elsevier listens to you when you aren’t a potential stakeholder in the protection racket anymore. Look at what Amazon is doing to Hachette right now—that is insane. Our voice is sorely needed in these debates. Look at the open access movement, or the concept of institutional repositories. Those successes stem directly from our thinking about collections and how we can re-contextualise them for a new era.

And I’ll tell you another thing - I have university students coming to me on the public library ref-desk almost every day, looking for copies of textbooks they can’t afford and that their academic libraries don’t provide in sufficient quantity. Oops! Maybe the reason people can feel justified in abandoning collections is because they’ve done such a poor job with them that their users have despaired. Just throwing that out there.

Perhaps I can wrap up my evisceration of this fatuous proposition with a few words on the subject of predictions in general: “Predictions are a mug’s game. If they come true, you likely didn’t push your thinking hard enough. If they don’t come true, you risk looking like an idiot” - which, of course, was said by Stephen Abram.

* NB: I was mildly put out not to have been in the affirmative on this—I had planned to portray a truly villainous, mustache-twirling library futurist of the most smarmy and vile sort, but as it happened we were not in short supply for this caricature even without my intervention.


Library Thesis Ideas: Eschatology Edition

Recent mutterings about the “Future of Libraries” - much of which would tend to suggest that libraries are heading for a swift and violent demise which can only be staved off by forking over huge sums of money to library planning consultants - has been a source of much mirth to me. In honour of Good Friday, I propose some potential Ph.D. thesis topics which situate themselves at this confluence of librarianship and eschatology:

  • No One Knows the Day or Hour”: Eschatological Literature and the Prophetic Tradition in Library and Information Studies

  • "It Shall Fall, and Not Rise Again": Millenarian Trends in Early 21st-Century Library Discourse

  • "I Saw a New Heaven and a New Earth": Vision and Vicissitude in Library Futurism, 2004-2014

  • "The Beast that Ascendeth": The Rise of External Consultants in Library Strategic Planning

  • "The Time is Come for Thee to Reap": A Critical Exploration of Motivation in Library Consultancy Firms

  • "His Head and His Hairs Were White Like Wool": Charting the "Grey Man Group" Phenomenon in Canadian Library Consulting

  • Blessed is He That Readeth”: Flattery, Fraud, and Client Retention in Library-Vendor Relations

  • "As Soon As I Had Eaten It, My Belly Was Bitter": Fiscal Impropriety and Buyer’s Remorse in Strategic Planning

I should probably stop there - for everyone’s sake. These practically write themselves. All the above quotes are from the Book of Revelation, with the exception of the first two, which are from Matthew 24:36 and Isaiah 24:20 respectively. And since we’re on Isaiahand since it is Easter, after allI can’t resist a Parthian shot: “Now Will I Rise, Saith the Lord”: Augury, Authority, and Arrogance in Post-Recession Library Consulting


"The Future of Libraries"

That is not dead which due dates can deny / and with strange aeons e’en fines do not apply

This eldritch couplet derives from an obscure prophesy titled only “The Five Years" which blasphemously hints at the dread "future of Libraries" foretold elsewhere in the awful Biblionomicon. Although that most famous of grimoires makes frequent allusions to this cataclysmic event, this verse represents the most direct extant description of the horrors that will be visited upon creation when the mysterious “Five Years” have passed.


"Life in a Glass House" - my presentation from BC Library Conference 2014

Here’s my full notes from our BCLA Conference session on Wednesday; combined notes from Justin Unrau (Librarianaut) and myself can be found - for a limited time only! - at this link.

Justin and I are going to do a split session today, and our theme is “Life in a glass house”. The “glass house” is kind of a visual metaphor for a phenomenon that I think we’re all increasingly familiar with. We’re getting used to being spied on. The spying is driven by technologies that we use every day that are increasingly ingrained in the functioning of our societies. This spying has become pervasive, insidious, it seeks to watch us even in what should be the safest and most private of settings – like a library.
And the feeling is that there’s something wrong with this state of affairs - duh!

Instead of safety and privacy,  your phone is spying on you, your tablet is spying on you, your computer is spying on you, and now we talk more and more about the “internet of things” in which appliances have gone berserk and your fridge is spying on you, your toaster is spying on you, your nose hair clippers are spying on you – if they could only talk, right? - and so on and so forth.

As far as library users are concerned, we – library workers - facilitate or hinder this surveillance by the ways we administer our networks and our public computers. For many of our users we are a primary point of access to the internet – this is something people depend on to undertake necessary tasks that they might not otherwise be able to accomplish. And not only that; library computers are there for education, entertainment, and recreation. The fact that we undertake to provide these services is to our credit. But under our noses, external interests are picking up every last crumb of data about our internet users for reference, for re-use, for re-sale.

So who are these spies? Who’s the wolf at the door? We can point to some broadly identifiable groups. We might talk about government agencies, at home and abroad, who are surveilling us for political reasons. This has been in the news a lot in the last year with Edward Snowden’s ongoing work.

We might talk about corporate interests who want to know what we think and how we like to look at things so they can sell us products, or sell us as products. We might talk about criminals, malicious third parties who want to steal our personal information to perpetrate fraud with it or sell it on to the highest bidder.

And there’s no reason these categories – y’know spies, criminals, corporations - are mutually exclusive either. Throwing that out there.

Now some types of spying are easier to evade, some more difficult, but to throw up our hands and say “I don’t wanna hear it, I don’t wanna know!” is not an option. Especially for libraries. We can’t tell our patrons, “Move along, there’s nothing left to see”, however much we might want to. It
is tempting to look at problems of this magnitude and say “…what the hell am I doing here, I don’t belong here?” but the question we need to be asking ourselves is “where do we go from here”.

And you know what? Again, to our credit, I really think we
are saying that. We implement deepfreeze on our computers and protect our users’ data where we can through our licensing agreements, privacy policies, and so on. But we can do more, especially in a climate of pervasive digital surveillance. Deepfreeze doesn’t prevent tech companies and advertising firms from tracking our users’ every move online. How would we feel if external interests were proposing similar surveillance of other library services and facilities? Let’s consider some analogies.

  • The library washrooms are getting a little long in the tooth. A vendor offers to replace all the fixtures in the bathroom for a vastly discounted rate. To do so, however, they want to install monitoring devices in each stall so they can conduct market research, which they then sell on to waste treatment companies. They assure you that there is no significant risk to your health and that the cameras will be totally surreptitious.

  • Publishers are concerned about declining sales; they ask you for access to patrons’ borrowing records so they can aggregate that information and use it to decide what to publish, and how to market it, in the future. They assure you the data will be anonymised.

  • A local company approaches the library and offers to subsidise your collections budget; in exchange, however, they want to place prominent advertising on the spine of every book. Favors for favors.
Now the biggest difference between these outlandish scenarios and what’s actually happening on our computers? In all the above examples, somebody asked the library’s permission first - and of course the second one was a trick, because that’s already happening with ebooks. In any case, I don’t think any of us would expect our patrons to learn about those situations and say “well…no one gets hurt, you’ve done nothing wrong” (So there’s a clear case for taking a more active approach to promoting privacy on our computers; we don’t allow third parties access to our patrons’ borrowing records, the very idea is obscene. Why should we be comfortable with allowing third parties access to every transaction our users make on our computers? Over my dead body…right?

The way we administer our networks represents choices we are making on behalf of our users. We understand that. Many libraries practise internet filtering, so the concept of somehow censoring or controlling what users can and can’t see on our computers is not foreign to us. And there is, of course, the intellectual freedom aspect. I remember during the opening keynote Ivan Coyote was saying “what you look at in the library is private” as a reason to cherish and value what we do. Well, that needs to be true. People’s minds don’t expand in a climate where they’re fearful of surveillance.

And I think we get that. We’re not saying “I don’t want to talk about it”, a lot of us are basically saying “privacy’s great - I want it but I don’t know how”. Fortunately, there are a lot of excellent tools out there we can use to help protect our patrons’ privacy. I’d like to just talk briefly about a few of these. Now, the tools I’m going to be talking about today are all browser extensions – these are components you add on to an internet browser to affect the way it handles traffic. I use all these at home and I would
love to see similar technologies in use on library computers. I’m going to be using firefox in my demo.


First, most basic, let’s take a look at an extension called HTTPS Everywhere. This add-on was developed by the Electronic Frontier Federation – a big name in internet security and policy – in conjunction with Tor, which is pretty much the granddaddy of privacy technologies online. What this add-on does is force, where available, a secure HTTP connection between the user and the website they’re connecting to. This is a pretty big deal – it provides a degree of encryption for web traffic and gives you a reasonable degree of certainty that you’re connecting to the right website, that the site you’re visiting is what it says it is. It’s far from perfect – the 2013 surveillance revelations threw focus on some vulnerabilities of the technology – but it’s still an excellent place to start. So we can see here from the lock icon in our browser that we have a secure connection – and here, HTTPS everywhere is telling us that it’s working for at least one connection. But what if we go check out another website - hold on, no lock icon! But https everywhere is still telling us we have one or more secure connections? Let’s take a look…wait, our only secure connection is to Google APIs? What happens if we try to make a secure connection to this website? (type https…) OK, so we can see from this that a secure connection to the site isn’t actually possible. So you still need to keep any eye on the icon, because a lot of sites will not permit secure connections. Now why the heck are we connected to Google APIs as well?


Well, that gives us a great opportunity to look at the second tool I want to show you today. This is an extension called Disconnect, and I really love it because it does two things. First, it uses a filter list to block over 2000 known trackers from accessing information about your browsing habits, which is awesome. These include some of the biggest names in the business, so the usefulness of this tool for protecting your privacy from the worst offenders really can’t be overstated. The second thing Disconnect does is that it actually shows you what connections it’s blocking, so you can get a handy visual representation of just how many people are trying to eavesdrop on your browsing. Let’s take a look here at a website near and dear to all of our hearts: Buzzfeed. Wow, that’s, like 20 trackers just on the front page. Yikes. OK, let’s visit a website that’s a little less spammy and see if that’s an improvement - let’s check out the Guardian. Whoa! Same thing. So you get why an extension like this is not only a valuable privacy tool, but a valuable teaching tool. I highly recommend it. As an added bonus, it’s been shown to speed up page load times by quite a bit because it’s blocking so many superfluous connections.


Now have you noticed anything a little unusual about the websites we’ve been looking at? A sense of something missing? Well, that brings us around to the third add-on I’d like to show you today, which is probably my personal favourite. That’s Adblock Plus. Adblock does what it says on the box: it blocks ads. Like Disconnect, Adblock Plus also uses filter lists to block content - not unlike we do, as a matter of fact, when we censor the internet for “inappropriate” material. Adblock also has anti-tracking and anti-malware lists you can subscribe to, which I use to give an added layer of protection. Let’s take a look at something pretty innocuous - the BBC website - without adblock. Even on this bad-boy, we have this giant banner ad, we have this little side panel guy, and down at the bottom a handful of contextual Google ads. I don’t want to see that! And I don’t have to - let’s load the same page with AdBlock. Amazing! I’ve been using Adblock for years, and I’m not going back. Once you get used to it, you’ll wonder how you managed before.

Now these technologies are all really easy to use. You can have all three up and running on your machine within ten minutes, and I encourage you all to do so. Getting these to work on library computers is completely manageable if we decide it’s something we want to pursue. Unfortunately, these tools aren’t enough. I have barely scratched the surface in the time we have today, and there is far more we could be doing and should be doing in defense of patron privacy. Tools like these, however, are a great place to start. Anybody can use them - it gives you empowerment, a sense that there’s something you can do right now towards papering the windowpanes of your own glass house. I hope that’s encouraging to you; if you’d like to learn more about this stuff, which I highly recommend, Justin and I have put together a list of resources to help you do that. Feel free to shoot me an e-mail or hit me up on Twitter, as well - there are a growing number of really smart library folk who are working to address the problem of the glass house, and I’m more than happy to put you in touch with them and their work. Thank you.


Article: “Ew, Malware! Why public library computers are dirty in more ways than one” (Ruth Collings)

Slide deck: “Protecting patron privacy on library computers” (Dorothea Salo)

Prezi: “Defense Against the Digital Dark Arts” (Eric Stroshane)


Info: “HTTPS Everywhere FAQ

Info: “About Disconnect

Info: “About Adblock Plus

Interactive tool: “Tor and HTTPS” (EFF)

Article: “How to harden your browser against malware and privacy concerns” (Tech Support Alert)

Article: “4 simple changes to protect your privacy online” (EFF)

New Order Papers shed further light on DFO library crisis

Two Order Papers released this week paint a bleak picture of library closures at the department of Fisheries and Oceans - a process euphemistically termed “consolidation”.

Order Paper Q-266, a 37-point inquiry worth reading in full, delves into the specifics of consolidation with precise questions about the DFO’s digitisation programme. The Department has argued that this is an ongoing, intensive effort which will revolutionise service delivery while offsetting the loss of redundant materials from its collections. Instead, the figures show that digital titles comprise less than one per cent of the DFO’s collections.

And what of the digitisation programme itself, whereby unique DFO materials are to be made remotely accessible to the public? It sounds like an austere process; staff are described as using “multi-function office equipment” to digitise materials “as part of their tasks”.

These tasks, in recent years, have also included overseeing the closure of 7 of the DFO’s 11 branches while negotiating to discard tens of thousands of items from their collections. It all amounts to a near-impossible undertaking for a library system with fewer than 30 full-time staff and only one dedicated digitisation specialist.

Only four of the 11 libraries were granted any additional resources to support digitisation in 2012/2013, when consolidation efforts were at their peak. These additional funds comprised only $168,318. Another question asks how many staff have been specifically trained for digitisation every year over the last ten. The DFO declines to give numbers, saying only that:

"a set of digitization best practices for the libraries of the Department is provided to the staff, who receives on-the-job training on applying them."

The shorter Order Paper, Q-238, asks a fairly simple question: 

(a) was the general public given the opportunity to salvage or obtain library materials which would otherwise have been discarded during the consolidation process;

(b) if so, through what media or methods, and when was this opportunity communicated to the public; and

(c) on what dates and times did the public, or will the public, have that opportunity?

For each of the eleven libraries, the answer is substantially the same:

While there was no formal outreach to the general public, opportunity was provided to universities, libraries and other local partners. When items are being integrated into the library at the [name of receiving institution] there is an opportunity to identify surplus material, which is put on display and available to the general public.

I must admit I’m not quite sure what that means.