Richard Poynder, "Fiddling while Rome burns?", InformationToday (Jan. 2004).
I drafted most of these comments in January, after reading this article in the printed version of InformationToday. I didn’t post it then mainly because there was no link to the full-text of the article. I thought that maybe in a month, InformationToday would publish the full-text. But they haven’t, even though they’ve put other articles from that issue on the web. I decided to finish this response to it anyway. Most librarians will access to a print copy of InformationToday or can easily get it via Interlibrary Loan.
First, a minor quibble about how this piece was presented. I think that this is more of an opinion piece than an investigative report. Yes, Mr Poynder has research behind his opinions, but the thrust of the article is very opinionated. The premise is that librarians have lost the plot and need to mend their ways. According to Richard Poynder, we need to cease fighting windmills like the USAPATRIOT Act and CIPA, and save our strength for true fight.
Mr Poynder does make some valid points. I agree with one of his major arguments that in practical terms, media consolidation and expanding and oppressive copyright laws are a greater threat to what libraries are about. I also agree that the way that the ALA has handled Cuba has been a complete debacle.
I disagree with the way that Mr Poynder belittles the role of librarians as protectors of intellectual freedom. I disagree with the logic which says that because a few librarians have been hypocritical about this issue, that we have all failed and must give it up.
I wonder if Mr Poynder would have written anything different had he wrote his article after the "almanac scare". He uses John Ashcroft's and the FBI's words that the FBI has no interest in tracking the reading habits of ordinary Americans. Then we learn that something as innocent and neutral as an almanac is viewed with suspicion by law enforcement.
My strongest criticism of his article is when he mentions that the word "library" does not appear once in the USAPATRIOT Act. This comes right out of the FBI's talking points. It doesn't matter if libraries, or booksellers or whatever is actually specified in the language of the Act. The wording is broad enough that it will apply to libraries and a lot of other organizations. Maybe the drafters of the legislation preferred the broad language so libraries could be the concealed target, allowing apologists like Poynder to play down its effect on libraries. Maybe the drafters wanted to be able to use the USAPATRIOT Act against anyone with any personal information that might be useful. Neither explanation is reassuring.
Mr Poynder says that librarians have been politicized to the extent that they are unable to differentiate between library issues and civil rights issues. I agree that not every library issue is a civil rights issue, and not every civil rights issue is a library issue. As a reference law librarian, I often had to help people who were fighting "on the wrong side" of a civil rights issue. I appreciate that sometimes professional ethics as a librarian will diverge from my own personal values. But Mr Poynder seems to be suggesting that there should be a dichotomy between the two.
I certainly don’t agree with the way that this article seems to deride librarians for conveniently and hypocritically latching onto the cause of intellectual freedom. This an insult to those of us who do view librarianship as more than just a comparatively low-paid job with low-prestige, but almost as a calling.
I view the current threats to libraries and open access to information as two-fold in nature. The threat of media consolidation and expanded copyright is like a physical threat. If we lose this fight, it will become more and more difficult to do our jobs and our patrons will eventually go elsewhere - if they can afford to. The USAPATRIOT Act is a different kind of threat. If we lose the fight for intellectual freedom, libraries will continue to function but they will have been corrupted. I say that we can't afford to lose either struggle.