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My problem with library conference codes of conduct

Yes, I continue writing blog posts to procrastinate on this code of conduct I agreed to write. I’ve come to realize, the reason for my procrastination isn’t so much that I’ve lost faith in codes of conduct—although they are insufficient, they are absolutely necessary (yes, a weak logic joke)—rather, discussions so far have led me to believe that I am not going to be allowed to write a really good one. Or, I can write it, but it’ll be voted down altogether or horribly nerfed; so, why not just avoid the pain and try to write something that will pass?

An unreasonable dichotomy is being drawn.

Here’s the thing: librarians often* insist on a much weaker code of conduct than you’d see in other geek and geek-adjacent communities. We place “intellectual freedom” on an untouchable pedestal, using it as an argument against making our conferences truly safe and inclusive.

I want you to understand, I’m not coming at this from an anti-freedom angle, and I’m not naive about the stakes, when it comes to free speech and the government. I have supported the ACLU’s defense of some really horrible organizations’ constitutional rights, because they have had to defend some really fantastic organizations’ rights in the same way. Censorship cuts both ways; I get it, really.

However, like most librarians (I think), I can see the line between government censorship and organizations making good ethical decisions.

We already draw lines!

Think for a moment about the difference between a book being outright banned or burned, versus just not having been purchased because it doesn’t fit into a particular library’s collection development policy.

I’m not a collection development expert, but I think we can agree that no one library can or should buy every book, right? You have to make choices. You pick books that you believe will circulate within your community, that your users will find interesting and useful.

OK, so can we also agree that some books just aren’t worth having, or might even be problematic to have on hand? I know some people find that idea upsetting, but here’s an obvious example: out of 18+ libraries in this shared catalog, only one has The Anarchist’s Cookbook, and it’s a recent acquisition. I think we can agree that it wasn’t accidentally overlooked, or avoided because it wouldn’t circulate; lots of these libraries serve teenagers. No, clearly, reasonable people have decided it is not ethical to have it on hand in most of these libraries.

I’ve seen collection developers argue about whether LGBT-hate books, racist books, etc. should be included in their libraries’ collections. Opinions differ, but it seems to me that most people fall on the side of not spending their limited collection money on actively hateful and harmful materials.

We’re still talking about libraries, many of which are part of their local governments. We might argue specifics, but we can all agree that libraries should have collection development policies.

So let’s talk about library associations. Specifically, let’s talk about library conferences. Again, there’s limited time and money available; it isn’t possible to give every person or idea a platform. So we agree: conferences have to make choices about speakers and about topics. Therefore, the idea of a policy, outlining 1) who gets to speak and 2) about what, is pretty reasonable, for reasons of practicality and fairness.

Furthermore, library associations are not the government. Choosing not to give a platform to certain topics within the confines of an association’s conference is not censorship.


I’m going to make a pretty bold statement, here: by and large, hate speech is not particularly intellectual—most of what comes from the mouths of MRAs and white supremacists is fairly easily disproven—so, using “intellectual freedom” arguments to suggest that we should provide platforms for all speech seems, to me, to fall somewhere between “simplistic” and “dishonest.” But let’s go with it. Let’s treat it as a given that true intellectual freedom encompasses all views.

I still believe the rights of people in marginalized groups trump this particular concern over intellectual freedom.

Certain viewpoints carry a credible threat, when they are allowed to be shared, in many contexts, including events put on by a membership-driven association. All of us carry around with us the baggage of a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist society, no matter how open-minded we might be (or think we are). Being alone, or nearly alone, in a room where almost everyone belongs to a group that traditionally has power over a group you are a part of—a room full of straight people, if you are gay; white people, if you are a person of color; or men, if you are a woman—this is already hard. Imagine if, on top of that, someone has been given a platform to talk about how that group that you belong to is inferior. How could you possibly feel safe in that room, in that organization?

When our [non-governmental!] organizations condone hate speech—and failing to prevent it absolutely is condoning it—we send a clear message that we are not safe spaces for people in marginalized groups.

If someone doesn’t feel safe, will they speak out? In my experience, no. So, if we’re allowing all speech, even hate speech, and thereby making groups of our peers feel unsafe, I argue we’re hurting intellectual freedom a lot more than we’re helping it.

In the case of libraries, I would argue that, by holding “protecting intellectual freedom” as a more important value than preventing hate speech, we also further institutionalize existing inequalities in our profession. When we allow sexists on our podia, we reaffirm women’s lower status and probably speed up our profession’s well-documented glass escalator. When we give a platform to racists, homophobes, transphobes, etc., we drive away the very people our mostly white, mostly straight, mostly cisgender profession needs. (Our communities are diverse. We need to be diverse to serve those communities. We are not currently very diverse.)

So what do I propose?

I think there’s a reasonable balance to be struck. I think ALA’s Statement of Appropriate Conduct is insufficient—obviously, right? Yes, I helped write it, and I’m glad that we have this beginning. But it’s just a beginning. It isn’t enough to “ask” speakers to “think about” being inclusive. I believe we must insist.

The Geek Feminism Wiki has this suggested language, to allow for discussion of concepts that might otherwise not be allowed under a strict code of conduct:

Exception: Discussion or images related to sex, pornography, discriminatory language, or similar is welcome if it meets all of the following criteria: (a) the organizers have specifically granted permission in writing, (b) it is necessary to the topic of discussion and no alternative exists, (c) it is presented in a respectful manner, especially towards women and LGBTQIA people, (d) attendees are warned in advance in the program and respectfully given ample warning and opportunity to leave beforehand. This exception specifically does not allow use of gratuitous sexual images as attention-getting devices or unnecessary examples.

[If some topics are going to be the subject of general discussion, add a blanket approval for those topics from the conference organizers here, which counts as “the organizers have specifically granted permission in writing” and is subject to the rest of the requirements.]

I don’t think that’s unreasonable (provided language is added about race and ability and other protected statuses). It still allows room to discuss topics, including hate speech and the like, without allowing for speech that is, itself, hateful. It protects actual intellectual freedom, without making our spaces less safe for marginalized voices.

But, somehow, I don’t think it will fly with librarians, and I find that upsetting. I think an insistence on allowing speakers completely free reign shows a lack of empathy and a simplistic, knee-jerk approach to this issue. I think it is a failure to prioritize appropriately and ethically. And it upsets me very much.

For my part, I don’t think I am willing to be complicit in creating another incomplete code of conduct. (I don’t regret working on ALA’s, but I acknowledge that my thinking has changed over time.) I think I will give this association’s board a draft, based more on Code4Lib and Geek Feminism’s version than on ALA’s, and if the board takes a hard line, maybe someone else on the committee will be willing to write the second draft. I am just not sure I’m willing to do it, anymore.


* Not all library conferences. I love Code4Lib’s code of conduct. But groups that span the library/technology border seem to mostly (pointed stare at ER&L) fall on the side of “more protection.” (back)

Published in#ALACoC#libtechgenderalacodes of conductcommunicationdiversitysocial justice

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