Thursday, October 16, 2003

Why Aren't You Worried?
I want to ask my conservative friends one question: when you read things like this, why aren't you worried?

Is it because you truly believe that free speech should be limited in American society? Or is it because, hey, you are a Republican and anything they do to muzzle liberals is ok by you?

Or am I doing you a disservice, and you are indeed worried and asking your congressman what is going on?

You should be. Removing the right to protest is the first act of a totalitarian government. And don't bother pointing out that this isn't technically suppression; I won't even dignify that with a rebuttal. You know the political meaning of "out of sight, out of mind". And don't trot out the hoary old security excuse. Anyone wanting to get close to a public figure would just simply mingle with his wellwishers. Indeed, I think we can remember tragic times when they did.

Or it is ok because this particular brand of totalitarianism would be to your liking?

I don't want to believe it. I have met enough conservatives and libertarians since I started blogging to know that there are many as committed to the constitutional rights of the individual as I am. I want to believe that these people would protest the suppression of free speech in America. I want to believe that you would consider the introduction of the concept of a "free speech zone" as offensive as I would.

If you are one of these, it's time to get worried.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

My Issues with the American Library Association
(full disclosure: I am a member of ALA; I have served on and chaired ALA committees: I am a Cuban refugee, having been in the United States since 1970 and an American citizen since 1976).

A conservative correspondent challenges me to write about my "issues" with the American Library Association, which I mentioned in passing here. He assumes they are related to the asinine stand one of its offices took in regard to the Free Cuban Libraries. One of them certainly, but my issues with ALA are more complicated than that.

Let me start with a little explanation.

The American Library Association is an advocacy group for libraries and librarians, much as the AMA is for doctors and the ABA is for attorneys. It has an (to my mind) overly complicated bureucratic structure, with state and regional chapters as well as functional divisions. For example, I belong to the national organization (ALA), to the state organization (FLA), and to four functional organizations: ALCTS (Collections and Technical Services), ACRL (College and Research Libraries), LAMA (Administration and Management) and LITA (Information Technology).

As a favorite teacher of mine says: clear as mud?

ALA provides two great benefits: one, a certification of professional standing, and two, continuing education. This is analogous to what other professional organizations offer to their members, and, of the two, I think most everyday librarians like myself would agree that the second one is the most important. These days, there is so much information about information that it is impossible for a single individual to track it all. ALA provides a sterling service, through conferences, workshops, and publications, in bringing it to our attention. They also provide scholarships, job exchanges, and all kinds of avenues for librarians in less technologically
developed countries to have access this information.

Because I do believe in continuing professional development I have worked very hard to promote it within the organization. I have served in education committees, mentored new members, and arranged conference programs. I am proud of my service and feel that ALA membership has given me a leg up in my professional career.

But boy, do I have issues. Two, to be exact.

The first has to do with the standing of academic librarians. The issue here is tenure. In many academic institutions, librarians' tenure is modeled on and sometimes piggybacked with faculty tenure. My pet peeve: the requirement that a librarian have a a second advanced degree other than that of librarianship (M.L.S. or its modern equivalent, M.I.S.) in order to be considered for tenure. Would you ask a history professor to have a degree in biology to be considered for tenure? Why should I, a professional with a specific field of expertise, have to show that I am an "intellectual" as well, as someone once offensively asked me? And why can people get away with considering librarianship less than an intellectual pursuit?

I feel ALA, by accepting and fostering this system, has placed librarians in the position of being neither fish nor fowl. In trying to promote librarians as "the same" as faculty, it missed the boat in promoting librarianship as an unique field that brings unique benefits to the institution, and which should be measured by its own standards. When a teaching faculty is hired by an University, she is given a certain pre-set amount of time to comply with a series of requirements usually related to research and publication and participation in University governance. A librarian must do that--and get a second masters in an "academic" field as well.

Although I'm speaking about the academic world, I have heard public librarians express similar frustrations over the inability of the organization to promote them as professionals. How many of you knew that the nice woman in the children's room who helps your son pick out a new picture book has to have a masters' degree? Or that she might be a published author herself? Or that after she gets to her office she will be reading thousands of reviews, publications, author interviews, and brochures in order to spend her (usually minuscule) budget wisely and keep your kid in new books? Or maintain a million-item online catalog?

The second issue touches on the independent libraries fracas. There is a small but vocal group at ALA who use the association to promote far left political activism. Usually people who came of age during the Great US Screwup down in Latin America, they are reflexively pro anyone the government is against, as their flirtation with Fidel reveals (a true mark of the American kneejerk leftist is how he feels about Castro, but that is an issue for another day). They make big noises, which are picked up by the media, but they do not affect the professional lives of an ALA member, and, as far as I can tell, are basically ignored by the rank and file. They piss me off mostly because they take the association off-message. In case you have any doubt, THE MESSAGE IS THAT LIBRARIES AND LIBRARIANS ARE THE BEST INVESTMENT THE AMERICAN PUBLIC HAS EVER MADE.

I feel strongly that a professional association is meant to promote the issues relating to that profession. If you want to play politics, there are a great many both liberal and conservative organizations that would be more than happy to take your money and your time. The biggest issue facing American libraries today is the massive push in Washington to starve them to death. If the library closes, so does your access to the latest bestseller (unless you can afford to pop an average of $24.95 for a hardcover and $6.99 for a paperback); your kids' access to free homework assistance (don't ask about school libraries!); your parents' access to interesting classes and programs that won't break a retiree's budget...and a thousand and one other things you will only miss when they are gone.

And yes, I am proud of the stand ALA takes on First Amendment issues. Nobody knows better than I what happens when free speech is eradicated. This is not a political issue, but one that strikes to the center of democracy. Destroy free speech and you destroy the basis for government by the people. If it is within my power, I WILL NOT ALLOW IT TO HAPPEN HERE. The American Library Association and I agree on that one.

Monday, October 13, 2003

Mythical Wastrels and Other Security Blankets
For a few years now I've been hearing/reading about these disgraceful Americans: rushing headlong in a mad pursuit of material things, working all hours and neglecting their children just so they could drive the latest model SUVs, send their children to the fanciest of private schools, and build second homes in, if not the Bahamas, at least in the South Carolina mountains. Special scorn was heaped on the women who "abandoned" her offspring to climb the corporate ladder.

I always had the same reaction: who were these people?

Certainly not anyone I knew. From my cousin and his wife (trucker and hairdresser) to my best friend and her husband (small business owners) to co-workers (professor and librarian), the couples I know work like crazy to just keep themselves afloat. No saunas, gold-plated faucets, Rolex watches, or seaside vacation homes. It takes two incomes just to pay the bills and maybe afford one vacation a year. If you happened to have medical bills (the co-workers) you could just write off the vacation, the savings, and maybe even the home. Where were these mad pursuers of hedonism?

Well, according to this Salon article, maybe in the same mythical pantheon as so many other American popular figures. Prof. Elizabeth Warren of Harvard Law School and her co-author and daughter, Amelia Warren Tyagi studied nearly 2,000 families that declared bankruptcy. They found that today's families are actually spending less on consumption that their parents spent a generation ago: 22 percent less on clothing, 21 percent less on food, including eating out, 44 percent less on appliances, less on furniture, less on floor coverings. The reason for this remarkable situation is that today's two-income family has 75 percent more income than the one-income family had a generation ago, but by the time they make four basic payments and their taxes they have less money to spend than their one-income parents.

A comment of Prof. Warren's closely matches my own experience: Today's mortgage costs and health insurance costs and day-care costs mean that today's families can't survive on one income and use the second income for extras. Instead, they have to commit both incomes just to making the basic payments. Most of the women I know work because they have to: their income is needed to keep the family above the poverty line.

Take a basic American dream: owning your own home. According to Warren, mortgage costs have risen 70 times faster than wages. Long Island, where I lived for ten years, was, by the time I moved back to Florida, becoming impossible for first-time buyers. One of my staff and her husband, born and raised in Setauket, bought their first home--in New Jersey. Even if the couple decided to remain renters, rental prices have kept pace with their mortage counterparts. The house next to ours, a three bedroom, one-and-a-half bath bungalow with a small yard, rented for $1,375 two years ago. And Miami is not exactly the highest rental market in the United States.

Why is there such belief in the overspending, free-wheeling, high-living wastrel? I think it's because those who are struggling can keep the terror of poverty at bay by finding reasons why it couldn't possibly happen to them. Like women who blame other women's behavior for rape, it says: I'm a good person, and terrible things don't happen to people like me. It's a very human reaction, but it brings shame to those who struggle and fail, and keeps society as a whole from dealing with the larger issues, such as the rapacious lending industry.

If, as Warren says, the families who are filing for bankruptcy are hardworking, play-by-the-rules people, who are doing the best that they can for their families, we owe them more than a sideways glance and a surreptitious gesture to ward off the evil eye.