Should it be okay to sue librarians for saying your books are bad?

Learned about this story two days ago and by the time I could put something together it has zipped around the internet already. Long story short: blogging academic librarian (and librarian.net favorite Dale Askey) makes negative probably-factual statements about a publisher. Publisher sues librarian and his current employer (who was not his employer at the time of the blog post) for millions of dollars for libel. Not okay, right? While the suit will probably prove groundless, it’s a waste of people’s time and money and an assault on the idea of academic and intellectual freedom. Please inform yourself and spread the word about Edwin Mellen Press’ wrongheaded decision to sue a librarian for writing about his negative impressions of their products.

  1. I first read about this here. Additional links including the “notice of action” are here.
  2. Specifics at Inside Higher Ed here
  3. Read the deleted-but-archived blog post in question here.
  4. McMaster’s public statement is here.
  5. A very nice “What can be done” assessment. In short: consider removing any automatic purchases from Mellen Press
  6. Dale’s blog and his twitter feed
  7. BoingBoing and Gawker have taken notice.
  8. If you are the petition signing type, please sign this petition.

Banned Books Week as seen through its funders’ eyes

More on the Chicago Defender.
Here are my old Banned Books Weeks posts: 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. I skipped 2005.

It’s time for a review of Banned Books Week. This year most of my BBW information comes from Twitter. Amusingly BBW on Twitter can mean two very different things. This is the note I put on Twitter yesterday.

“Oh look an actual attempt at, well not book banning exactly. Weird old Pentagon. http://bit.ly/cqg9PL Happy [sort of] Banned Books Week.”

Pretty sketchy story. The Pentagon bought up the entire first printing of a book published by St Martin’s Press because it “contained information which could cause damage to national security.” The second edition has come out, heavily redacted. This is one of the closer “government is telling you what you can’t read” stories that I’ve seen this year. Here’s another look at the websites that are linked from ALA’s offical BBW website ala.org/bbooks, a page that is linked from the front page, but only as one of the six “slides” that revolve through the top of the page. So, Banned Books Week is sponsored by these organizations. Let’s see what their websites look like.

One of the interesting thigns to note about the ALA list of challenges is how many of the public library challenges seem to be centered around just a few library systems. Most of these stories are ones that hit the national news and so I’ve heard about them and you probably have also.

There are also good websites to go to to learn about censorship and the larger (to me) issue of chilling effects on people’s right to live free from fear and free from silencing. Here are a few things I’ve been reading lately

Join me in a rousing song celebrating free expression, won’t you?

what’s happening from the middle of “banned books week” websites

Here are my old Banned Books Weeks posts: 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2008. I skipped 2005.

I’ve been down with The Crud for the past few weeks. Not really sick, but not having a lot of extra energy to get involved in things outside my own library and jobs. Banned Books Week started on Saturday and runs through this week. I’ve been invited to an evening with readings from banned books tomorrow night and I think I’m staying home.

I’m not sure if I’m getting complacent, sick of this holiday, sick generally, or there really is a lot less enthusiasm this year from years previous. The ALA page is usually my starting point and it seems a little less lively than usual. Their calendar of events is Chicago based (wouldn’t it be great if they were an aggregator to BBW activity worldwide? Does such a thing exist) and indicates to me that they still haven’t learned to resize images before uploading them. The ALAOIF blog hasn’t posted yet this week though they did link to this cute video put out by ALA which I enjoyed. The main ALA BBW page doesn’t even link to the Banned Books Week page which is supposedly the “go to” page for current information — and does have a calendar of sorts — which has a broken stylesheet declaration which makes all the pages look like they were designed in 2003.

As usual, I clicked through from the ALA web page to the home pages of all the organizations who are co-sponsors of Banned Books Week. Here’s what I found.

Even ALA’s home page doesn’t mention Banned Books Week except on page six of their slide show where they tell us what we can buy to support it.

I wonder a little bit if this is what a post-Judith Krug ALA looks like? On a brighter note, let’s look at some Banned Books Week web pages that are useful and/or interesting

While I’m talking about this, I’d also like to mention the data on the PBS page.

According to the ALA there have been 3,736 challenges from 2001-2008:

* 1,225 challenges due to “sexually explicit” material
* 1,008 challenges due to “offensive language”
* 720 challenges due to material deemed “unsuited to age group”
* 458 challenges due to “violence”
* 269 challenges due to “homosexuality”
* 103 challenges due to “anti-family”
* 233 challenges due to “religious viewpoints”

I think we need to look hard at this list and draw some conclusions about what sort of people believe that restricting access to books for these reasons is both a good idea or a reasonable thing to expect to be able to get away with. And then, if we want to get serious, I think we need to hit these points directly and ask people why they’re afraid of sex, or gay people (or penguins), or swearing. It’s nice to say that “free people read freely” but it’s another to be in a situation where your institutions are getting pressured by people who are intolerant and thinking that speaking truth to power is all you need to do. I’ve talked a little more about this in the MetaFilter thread about Banned Books Week, it’s always a reflective time of year for me.

Also, ALA knows that BBW means something else, right?

a few new interpretations of the Library Bill of Rights

While I wish, as per usual, that the URL and the web page were friendlier and that I could see what changes were made, ALA has released a few more council-approved interpretations of the Library Bill of Rights, two new, two revised, one new from Midwinter. I’ll link to the new stuff individually as well.

Some discussion in the comments over at LISNews.

book burning threat makes headlines in WI challenge dispute

I read this CNN article about a group in Wisconsin who has been fighting with the West Bend Community Memorial Library over the group’s desire to have a long list of YA books moved to the adult section of the library. Their challenge failed, but there’s a lawsuit pending.

The news article has the predictable all-over-the-place approach to the issue but it seems that this is one of those fights that has everything including outraged parents, a beleaguered library board whose members don’t have their terms renewed, assertion of First Amendment rights, threats of book burning, and a lot of homophobic-sounding nastiness. The article, though on the web, also doesn’t seem to understand the usefulness of hyperlinks to telling a story that is playing out on the web so I have added them here

I really wish the library or the city had more accessible public statements about this whole ongoing mess.

Talk: Social Software & Intellectual Freedom

I gave a talk at MLA on Social Software and Intellectual Freedom. It’s hard to sum up the topic in 75 minutes. I did about an hour of talking and opened the floor up to questions which seemed to go well. If my talk had a thesis it was “Make sure your privacy policy expands to include social networking; don’t chastise people for what you know about them online; don’t be frightened.” but I think it was a little rambly. It did, howerver, come with a huge list of links which is what more and more of my talks lately have. I talk about 30 things and then give a lot of well-curated “and here’s where to go for more” sources. In case anyone is curious, the sldies and links are here

Thanks to MLA for having me down to Springfield. It was a nifty conference in a nice new building.

Judith Krug, 1940 – 2009 champion of intellectual freedom

We’re starting National Library Week on a bittersweet note with an obit in Library Journal for Judith Krug. Judith Krug was a huge personal inspiration for me since before I even started library school. She had been the head of the ALAs Office for Intellectual Freedom since before I was born. She was a no compromise defender of intellectual freedom, and a very politically minded and savvy woman who showed us all how it’s done. She had to put up with an incredible amount of nonsense and vitriol by people who did not agree with her positions and yet she kept fighting for the rights guaranteed by the Constitution includng the rights of children. Here are a few links to neat things by/about her that you might want to read and reflect on.

Her energy, humor and tireless spirit will be sorely missed.

Banned Books Week in retrospect

Banned Books Week was last week

I’m aware that I have punted on Banned Books Week this year, but I’m okay with that. Seems like a lot of people did. Here are some of my old posts just for the record: 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2007; guess I skipped it in 2005 also.

The Banned Books Week eponymous website, owned by ABFFE looks sort of the same as last year, only with new events. I really appreciate the effort they put into a nice-looking site, but in 2008 a few pages with links to other pages and one scrollable list of events worldwide seems a little flat.

ALA has been busy launching their new website and Banned Books Week didn’t even appear on the front page the last few times I looked. Their Banned Books Week pages have a slick logo (yay!) but no page titles and they’re still using our browsers to resize images which means the pages still load like crap for people in dial-up land. I know it’s picky, but I do think it’s impotant in the same way that I think ala.org/bbooks is a nicer URL to see in my address bar than any of the ones I wind up looking at. The pages I linked to on ALA.org from my 2006 post are all gone.

Additionally there’s the fact that it’s a month and change before the US elections and I’m tired of fighting with people about Sarah Palin, tired of defending the ALA against people who don’t believe in intellectual freedom for minors (when I have my own beefs with ALA, but that is not one of them) and tired, as always, of people using holiday-type events as a time when they tell me it’s okay and even patriotic to shop for things.

I worry somewhat that not wanting to have the same fights every year makes me susceptible to self-censorship, as this post by Anirvan contemplates. I also worry that nitpicking over the differences between “banned” and “challenged” books — though I think it’s real and important — obscures the real issues which to me are the continued corporatization of everything, and the shift from content owning to content renting as a librarianship model.

As an example, I have been working with tiny libraries using Overdrive for years now and I’m sorry their product is no good by any standard other than “well it’s the best we can do for now” and this hits especially hard out here in digital divide land with libraries with five-figure budgets. I’m aware that there always has to be a balance and I go to the supermarket [or the farm stand] for my food rather than grow it myself so I really do understand why labor-saving devices and services are important and possibly worth money.

So, the threats to our intellectual freedom and our freedom to read are not just people who want to harass the librarian into handing over a computer or removing a book from the shelf. They’re also people who get us to accept licenses that bind us unfairly and give away our rights, or the people who let us show movies, but not use their names in public advertising. People who make us afraid to photocopy a book chapter. People who act like we’re possibly thieves when we watch a video at home with a few people. People who flash warnings on our computer that we don’t understand that make us and our patrons feel that we’re unsafe. People who make us buy digital content twice in two different file formats. People who want us to buy an entire 10 CD set again because one of them got scratched. People who blur the line between necessary security upgrades and enhancements we don’t need. People who make us feel that filters are actually “protecting” us from anything. People who have a vested interest in us not understanding our own technology.

So I think I understand the steps for keeping books on the shelves at my local library — have a policy, make sure everyone understands it, be civil and respectful to everyone because you’re everyone’s librarian — and even how to deal with a search warrant. What I’m not sure of is who I talk to when I’m concerned about content ownership models and legislation unfavorable to libraries and ultimately to citizens. I know a few good places to start — the EFF, the ACLU, the CDT, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse — but I can always use more. Happy Last Week Was Banned Books Week Week.

VLA and VSLA pass library confidentiality bill

This is big news. The Vermont Library Association and the Vermont School Library Association have succeeded in passing “An Act Related to the Confidentiality of Library Patron Records” which tightens up some loose areas in Vermont’s current patron confidentiality laws. The governor signed the bill on Tuesday, just in time for the Vermont Library Conference.

You can read more about the process of getting the bill drafted and passed by looking at the Intellectual Freedom section of the Vermont Library Association website. Minor point of pride: I designed the VLA website, enabling just this sort of information sharing and updates and it makes me happy to see it being used to announce such good news.

loyalty, the library, and you the librarian

I’ve been sort of sitting on this story for a few weeks because I was hoping someone would do a more comprehensive “here’s what really happened” post about it, but maybe that’s not going to happen. The loose outline is this, from American Libraries. Library worker notices patron looking at material online that she suspects is not just offensive but illegal. Her supervisor tells her to give the patron (who is deaf/mute and may have developmental disabilities) a note telling him to stop, which she does. The next day she decided to alert the police who come and arrest the man and seize the library computer. The library worker revealed her part in the arrest to her supervisor. Soon thereafter, the library worker was fired right before her probationary period as a library employee was up. The county says the two events — the arrest of the patron and the firing — were unrelated. Privacy laws prevent this assertion from being tested one way or the other which is one of the things that makes this situation so vexing from a “what really happened” perspective. The library worker is suing. Here are a few more articles on the subject.

I really wish ALA had come out and made some sort of a statement on this, but I’m not sure what it would have said. For what it’s worth, I have not seen anyone leap to the defense of the library administrator/firing except in a “we don’t have all the facts” sort of way.

To me, the way this differs from the standard USA PATRIOT Act computer seizures and reporting is that in this case the assertio was that a crime was being committed. So, while going on fishing expeditions and seizing computers because you think someone might be doing something illegal is something that a library has the right to object to, saying “this patron is breaking the law in the library” is a different story altogether. I think even talking about child pornography issues online is difficult and complicated — an amusing side note is seeing which comments forms on the web people can’t type the word “porn” into — and intellectual freedom issues are tricky in a different way. I’m sorry this library assistant didn’t get better guidance and I’m sorry this is being tried in the media in sensationalist ways.