Friday, July 21, 2017

These are the days it never rains but it pours

I was happy to learn that the ALCTS Board approved the ALCTS Diversity Statement as part of its agenda at ALA Annual 2017. This statement addresses the Division's position of equity, diversity, and inclusion as they relate to acquisition, description, management, and preservation of library materials but it also addresses those issues as they relate to the recruitment and retention of library workers with marginalized identities. This statement is thoughtfully crafted and I sincerely hope that the member organizations within the Division both live up to and promote the values codified in the statement.

As a cataloger, the statement in the ALCTS Diversity Statement that is most applicable to my daily metadata creation and remediation work is "ALCTS practices include resisting bias in resource description while recognizing that the act of description is never neutral." As someone whose belief that the lived experiences of catalogers have a direct impact upon the work they produce, I was glad to see the professional organization I align myself most closely with acknowledge this truth. This idea was expressed also in the Core Competencies for Cataloging and Metadata Professional Librarians which was approved by the ALCTS Board in January 2017. That document states:
Human beings unavoidably assign value judgments when making assertions about a resource and in defining (via metadata standards and vocabularies) the assertions that can be made about a resource. Metadata creators must possess awareness of their own historical, cultural, racial, gendered, and religious worldviews, and work at identifying where those views exclude other human experiences. Understanding inherent bias in metadata standards is considered a core competency for all metadata work.
Even as we can rejoice over the steps that ALCTS is taking to acknowledge the impact that lived experience has on metadata creation, we should also recognize that the statements in these documents exist in tension with the Guidelines for ALCTS Members to Supplement the American Library Association Code of Ethics, 1994 which states "an ALCTS member strives to provide broad and unbiased access to information." I believe this statement reflects the attitudes that catalogers had at the time the document is created and the attitude that many people who do metadata creation and remediation work continue to have. A story metadata creators have told ourselves is that creation of unbiased metadata is both a worthy and an achievable goal. And that story has become such a part of who we are that we teach that story to each generation of catalogers who comes after us. In some ways, the tension between the statements in these documents reflects the tension happening in the cataloging world and even in the wider world of librarianship where people are testing where the ideals of a professional code of ethics intersect with the realities of the world in which we currently find ourselves.

Since the ALCTS Diversity Statement was published, I have been thinking about what it means that our Division says both that our lived experiences play a role in how we create metadata and that we are obligated to set those lived experiences aside. I think it would be easy to dismiss the disconnect between that ALCTS Diversity Statement and the Guidelines for ALCTS Members to Supplement the American Library Association Code of Ethics, 1994 as just an oversight. But I think it's more useful (and interesting) to see it as a microcosm of a larger tension happening in librarianship. ALA has a code of ethics which, among other things states that:
we distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.
And there are a lot of people for whom this is the bottom line, who believe that we should shrug off our personal convictions when we arrive at work. And as I've written before, that kind of thinking works great for people with privilege. But for many of our colleagues with marginalized identities, the personal and the professional are inextricably linked.

I hope that ALCTS leadership brings the ALCTS Diversity Statement and the Guidelines for ALCTS Members to Supplement the American Library Association Code of Ethics, 1994 more closely into alignment. But more than that, I hope that ALCTS members engage with the tension that exists when our lived experiences and our perceived professional obligations conflict. This tension is where many of our hardest choices exist.

Stay positive,

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