Saturday, July 16, 2005

Groupthink@Your Library

Over the last several years, the "intellectually diverse" group of speakers at ALA's annual convention has included Ralph Nader, Naomi Klein, Rep. Bernie Sanders, Richard Clarke and E.L. Doctorow. Not to mention last year's showing of the delightfully nonpartisan Fahrenheit 911. In keeping with ALA's tradition of left of center partisanship, this year's convention speaker was Senator Barack Obama. Writing for Library Journal, Steven Bell exposes the ideological herd mentality behind this phenomenon:

Having survived the 2004 Orlando conference where Farenheit 911 and E.L. Doctorow combined for some good old administration bashing, I left Barack Obama'’s opening keynote wondering when ALA will develop some backbone and seek out a keynoter who will challenge, anger, or confront us. We are always being professionally encouraged to step out of our comfort zones, yet ALA provides a steady diet of keynote speakers all too willing to keep us in a safe and warm groupthink cocoon.

As a profession, does our hunger for recognition and positive reinforcement compel us to subject ourselves repeatedly to the same "you'’re so special and yet so underpaidÂ" spiel? Sitting through these politically overt keynote addresses feels eerily like listening to a Presidential State-of-the-Union address. Librarians stand, cheer, and clap wildly with every word of praise for our causes and every denouncement of conservative policies and practices. Obama barely had to work to get more standing ovations than a classic rock group giving their final reunion concert. Librarianship is supposed to be about balance, recognizing divergent viewpoints, and providing a platform for all sides of issues. But, given ALA's reputation as a bastion of liberalism, I can't imagine any conservative speaker (and please, let'’s stop shuffling out Colin Powell as an example of our open-mindedness) daring to step into the ALA lion's den. For what? A healthy chorus of boos, catcalls, and derision?

As I waited in a long shuttle bus line after the Obama speech, along came Steven Cohen of Library Stuff fame. I took the opportunity to rant about another cookie-cutter ALA keynote address. With his usual insight, Cohen said, "But ALA is giving the crowd what they want so they'’ll keep coming back for more. What do you expect?" I expect speakers who do more than toe the company line while librarians lap it up, giving as much thought to what'’s being said as lemmings give to what they'’re doing as they follow their leader right off a cliff. I expect a speaker to inspire me, challenge what I think, and get me to ask some tough questions. The best this audience could come up with for Obama was the old "What book inspired you the most?"” softball.

A Tale of Two Talks

One of my greatest frustrations is working in a profession that preaches intellectual freedom, yet practices the worst kind of ideological groupthink and conformity. Unfortunately, I have no expectation that this will change anytime soon.


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