What was your path to librarianship/career trajectory? And how did you get involved in issues of freedom of expression and access to information?
I guess you could say my devotion to libraries began early - I grew up in rural Virginia, and as soon as I started displaying an interest in reading my mother began taking me to the library at least twice a week to load up on books. I was a ferocious reader; books were my constant companions, and I’ll never forget how blown away I was by the realisation that I could read something in a book and then somehow make use of that information to effect change in the wider world. Learning to do something, to make something, to broaden your horizons, to explain something to others - it still kind of blows my mind, to be honest. So I carried that attachment to knowledge and libraries forward through my life, until the last year of my History MA in Scotland when I was offered a job placement as an archivist in Aberdeen University’s Rare Books and Special Collections department. That got me interested in archives. I really enjoyed the work and being able to make such direct use of my training as a historian, but it wasn’t until I moved back to the States a year or so later and took a job on the reference desk of the Mount Vernon City Library that I really went “wow…this is it, this is for me”. I loved reference work, but I also realised just how much information-seeking behaviour was dominated by decisions being made out of the user’s sight - by libraries, by vendors, by search engines, or by the simple omission which takes place when important information is never made available to begin with. So I think my dedication to intellectual freedom, or to keeping the public good at the forefront of information policy, flows from the ways I myself have benefited from free access to information…and from some of the real inequities or shortcomings in access to information I’ve seen both through studying history and through reference work. My archival training is also a big influence - archivists think carefully about how issues relating to access, accountability, and evidence are tied to the ways we record and share information. Freedom of information and expression are crucial. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this century will be beset with pressing challenges for our societies and the world we live in - our ability to find creative, inclusive solutions to those problems hinges directly on the degree to which people are empowered to think for themselves and contribute to broader discourse around the difficulties that we ultimately must face together.
Could you briefly explain/describe the role of the Information Policy Committee of British Columbia Library Association? I’m assuming that it is similar to ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom and the Washington Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Interest Group.
The Information Policy Committee (IPC) are a standing committee within the wider British Columbia Library Association (BCLA). Our official mission, as it stands, is “to advance the interests of citizens and library users in gaining and maintaining affordable and equitable access to information, and to ensure that the public interest is safeguarded in any government decisions relating to information policy.” So in a way we are broadly similar to the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, but we tend to focus more on the policy side of things. That means we look closely at decisions being made by influential groups within society - especially government entities and internet or telecomms companies - with a view to understanding how those decisions will affect access to information for the public at large. Following from that analysis we do what we can to steer policy in a positive direction; one of the things I’m really proud of is the plurality of approaches the committee has been able to take in pursuing these goals. These range from sharing our own commentary and analysis with allied organisations, working with journalists to shape media coverage or raise awareness of contentious issues, working directly with politicians to advance policy goals, working with other library and archival associations to build consensus and cooperative action around matters of mutual interest, and working with allied organisations outside the traditional library field to advance important information policy issues the library community at large isn’t quite ready to tackle yet. The IPC is helped in this work by BCLA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee, which deals directly with freedom of expression and censorship issues. We are also proud of our good relations and partnerships with local and international advocacy groups - OpenMedia, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, and others, which have enabled us to be part of some really great work. The IPC is very well supported by BCLA’s leadership in our efforts, which I’m very thankful for. BCLA is a great organisation to be a part of.
What were some of the outcomes of your work speaking on behalf of librarians and archivists in Canada in regard to the code of ethics and the government locality requirements? The more specific the answer—numbers, statistics, etc—the better.
There were several major outcomes to the work around the Code of Ethics specifically, and I think they fell into two broad stages. The first centered on raising awareness: following the initial disclosure of information about the Code, I worked with journalists at both national and industry-specific media outlets - the CBC, Ottawa Citizen, Academic Matters, and others - to write or promote coverage around the issue. I managed to get hold of the training documentation which accompanied the Code, which was in some ways even more absurd than the Code itself, and share that through my blog. There was such public interest in the story that I was able to give an interview for CBC Radio’s “As it Happens” which generated a lot of attention. Alongside the media blitz, the issue was raised formally during debate in the House of Commons, which was really a watershed moment because the government ended up being quite embarrassed by the story. We were working behind the scenes with other civil society groups to encourage them to promote the issue as well. That pressure, and that embarrassment, helped contribute a few weeks later to the resignation of the Librarian and Archivist of Canada under whose leadership the the policy was developed. That’s what triggered the second phase of the effort, which involved working with other Canadian heritage and library organisations to develop a formal statement on the qualities we expected of the next Librarian and Archivist of Canada. Thanks to a lot of hard work from many people we were able to put together a statement that was endorsed by more than 24 groups including virtually all the national, provincial, and territorial library and archival associations as well as organisations representing historians, genealogists, and universities. I think it was a real achievement and a great precedent, and we’ve used that statement to keep up pressure on the government as the search for a new Librarian and Archivist of Canada continues. But really one of the best outcomes, as far as I’m concerned, is that the whole debacle has created some space for a a wider debate around freedom of expression within libraries, and I think that’s sorely needed.
It struck me as odd that librarians and archivists, who as a profession typically standing up for access to information and free intellectual discourse for others, had to defend their own right to freedom of expression. I wonder if you could comment on how that experience has impacted you personally and professionally?
I think I can say, hopefully diplomatically, that it has been an eye-opening experience. A big part of my personal mythology revolves around libraries being the good guys, in a manner of speaking, and so to see not only a library but the most important library in the country imposing these grotesque, almost Orwellian restrictions on its employees was devastating. It was more so because the nature of the restrictions meant that the people affected couldn’t even speak out about what was happening to them. My natural reaction to seeing people get bullied is to get angry, and this was no exception - I was furious. The more I worked to raise awareness about the situation at Library and Archives Canada, however, the more I realised that restrictions on librarians’ freedom to frankly discuss their work are actually quite widespread. Some are tacit, and some are formal, but really there are a lot of people in libraries who feel that they will face professional approbation if they talk critically about difficult library issues - ebook licensing, say, or approaches to income inequality - in public. I have run into a bit of this myself. So on one hand many people have embraced my work because of what it’s seeking to do, while in other circumstances I tend to be treated a bit guardedly because I’m a guy who’s frequently talking critically about uncomfortable things. Ultimately the experience has strengthened my resolve to stand up for the right of everybody in libraries - patrons and employees alike - to be treated with respect and dignity.
What advocacy work have you been involved in recently? What projects are you taking on in the next two years?
The main focus of my advocacy work recently has been around internet privacy. This is something I’ve been interested in for a long time, but the recent revelations from Edward Snowden and others regarding the sheer scale and pervasiveness of corporate and government surveillance of internet users’ private activities and communications have really added a degree of urgency to the effort. So right now I’m looking at raising awareness of small-scale, usable tools that libraries can implement to give their users a better measure of privacy and security on library computers - basically what I’d like to see is kind of a strategic framework that public libraries can look to when and if they decide to start thinking a bit more broadly about protecting user privacy. It’s not such a hard sell if there’s a concrete plan of action people can look to for an example. That’s my main focus right now - if we don’t let the government snoop into our patrons’ borrowing records, why on Earth would we be comfortable with non-consensual third-party surveillance of what users are doing on our computers? When we take away patrons’ choices about how they can access information - which we do every day through the restrictions we place on library computer use and the partnerships we cultivate with vendors - we need to be sure the decisions we are making for our patrons are ethically sound. There’s some soul-searching to be done here.
More broadly, and at least tangentially related to the above, we’re experiencing a spate of public-private partnerships between libraries and private-sector bodies here in Canada which may be detrimental to libraries and our users in the long run; some of that may need unpacking in the coming year. There are also a number of pretty unenlightened legislative moves here in Canada aiming to compromise the openness of the internet, and a number of sinister international trade treaties that aim to do the same and to impose pretty heinous new copyright strictures to boot - *cough* TPP! - so there’s a lot of work to be done there too.
There’s too much to choose from in the realm of information policy these days; there’s never a shortage of work, it’s more a matter of figuring out how best to focus one’s efforts and resources so as not to get overwhelmed or succumb to despair. Not to be too melodramatic or anything.
What’s the best thing you’ve learned from your successes? What about from the projects or efforts that didn’t turn out exactly as you’d hoped?
The best thing I’ve learned from my successes, such as they are, is that there are a whole lot of people out there who really care about libraries, about freedom of expression, about free inquiry, and that they sometimes crop up in places you wouldn’t expect. Last year I wrote a piece for the Tyee, a prominent Canadian independent news outlet, on the budget cutbacks at Library and Archives Canada and their consequences. It had almost slipped my mind when word reached me that it had ended up one of the Tyee’s top five most-read stories of the year! Tens of thousands of people read that piece, which on the face of it wasn’t exactly about the most headline-grabbing issue, and that was really encouraging to see. It’s always such a pleasure to meet other people who are interested in these issues and to hear their perspectives and the way they’re advancing advocacy in their own communities. Especially within Library and Archives Canada, I’ve met so many great people who are really struggling to do their jobs in the face of huge challenges because they believe in the work. Raising awareness about the conditions they face is a motivating factor for me. And just getting to hear the stories of people who have benefited from free access to information, especially getting to participate in those interactions myself on the reference desk…the impact of that on my life is difficult to overstate. This has all taught me to persevere by sticking to my principles - and a very important component of that effort is to never cease re-examining what those principles are and why they are important.
Failures? Too many to recount! Sometimes you win the battle and lose the war, as it were. With the Library and Archives Canada issue, for example, we kept pressure on them for so long to reform their management culture and policy directions, but when all was said and done, even though the chief architect of the institution’s worst recent decisions was forced out of office, many of those decisions and policies - including the Code of Conduct itself - have remained in place in spite of nigh-universal condemnation. So there is a lot more work to be done.
After these disappointing experiences, however, Canadian librarians are realising more and more that if things here are going to get better, we may have to build the solutions ourselves as a community and move away from our reliance on monolithic central institutions and organisations to get things done. Think about in the States - if the Library of Congress were to just stop maintaining the LoC Classification system, for example, what would you do? What if they decided they weren’t going to catalogue titles they receive through legal deposit, or that they were going to dramatically reduce the quality of their catalogue records? Those are the sorts of questions we are having to confront right now in Canada, and it’s a steep learning curve. But I’m optimistic. In the final analysis I think we’ll see that some of these “failures” have in fact contributed to us getting wiser and building better, more resilient, more distributed solutions for the future.
What sort of work do you do as a librarian at Burnaby Public Library? (I’m looking for just a brief answer, such as teen librarian, adult librarian, providing programs, such as …)
Any and all kinds; I work in every branch, on every desk that I can. The one constant is that I am always working with the public. The front lines!
Where do you go from here? Are there any issues or challenges you’re eager to take on? Will we see you as BCLA president?
I would really like to see librarians taking their place at the forefront of digital information policy advocacy, because we have invaluable perspectives to contribute to these debates and a long, proud tradition of advocacy in the public interest. Right now the bulk of the work specific to the digital realm around issues like copyright, digital rights management, internet censorship, free access to government information, and the like is being done by non-library groups like EFF and OpenMedia, and while I hugely admire their work I would love for that to change. But in order for that to happen, library advocacy needs to become more self-aware, more sure of itself, and less naive. Banned books week is great! But the really dangerous efforts at censorship right now aren’t book challenges - they’re enacted through policy changes far from libraries themselves. Too often the real threats to free expression and free inquiry pass unremarked by libraries until it’s too late. So I’d like to see library advocacy become more confident. We need to get our hands dirty - only ever talking about things that make people feel good is a strong temptation, and one that tends to be borne out in professional culture. That often leaves us at a disadvantage when we need to confront real, pressing issues. Attitudes like this are perhaps unlikely to propel me into the loftiest reaches of power, but we’ll see what happens!
Tell me something about yourself that’s not related to librarianship, such as your passions, hobbies, causes, etc.
I’m an extremely bizarre person. One of the things I really like is cycling everywhere, which is handy because I never bothered to learn to drive. I also like collecting books, but I’d really rather distract you from how out-of-control that habit is getting, so I guess I’ll draw attention to some other hobbies. The less-weird among these include cooking, anything to do with good beer, writing and playing music using my growing collection of instruments…and historical European martial arts. That’s a fancy way of saying “fighting with heavy and dangerous swords”. Helps keep things in perspective.