Review: Which Side Are You On


Which Side Are You On?Elaine Harger. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2016.

Summary: An account of seven debates in the American Library Association Council over matters of social responsibility and how this body exerts its influence in broader social debates.

Most of us have the impressions of libraries as sedate places with librarians who are helpful, interested in serving the reading and information needs of patrons, and knowledgeable about the resources they have at hand. The most political act of most librarians seems to be supporting “Banned Books Months,” featuring attempts to remove books from circulation that patrons or others may deem objectionable.

This last is actually the tip of the iceberg according to Elaine Harger, who has served as a Councilor-at-Large within the American Library Association (ALA) and on the Social Responsibilities Round Table. In this book, she recounts what appear to have been lively and contested debates around seven issues that suggest a far from sedate, sometimes contentious, and sometimes very politically motivated association. In the course of these debates she explores some challenging issues such as the conflicts between intellectual freedom, censorship, and social justice; the tension between patron privacy and protection from surveillance and national security; relating to corporate partners whose products or views conflict with the social consciousness of librarians; and even the difference between stated views around climate change and climate unfriendly practices.

The first debate concerns the re-issuance of a 1975 film called The Speaker concerning the controversial race and gene theory ideas of William Shockley. Originally an ALA expose’, over the years it was deemed moral offensive to minority communities and its reissuance and presence on YouTube raised the ire of many, while receiving calls of intellectual freedom from others.

The second concerns the banning of anti-apartheid books in South Africa and how the ALA along with other library groups would advocate against this practice and boycott South African vendors. The third confronts a somewhat similar issue in Israeli and Occupied Territories and the censorship of materials deemed a threat to the State of Israel. Here interests favoring Israel and those opposing censorship clashed seriously.

The fourth and fifth debates concerned corporate partners. In the fourth, the concern was the sponsorship of McDonald’s of children’s reading programs, with its corporate logos prominent on all the materials. Can an organization concerned with the deleterious effects of the fast food sold on the McDonald’s menu work with such a corporate partner. This is even more tendentious with the Boy Scouts, an organization who had long worked in promoting reading with Scouts but whose positions around excluding homosexual boys and adult leaders from participation made it unsupportable.

The sixth discussion turns on privacy concerns, particularly in the face of Edward Snowden’s release through Wikileaks of massive amounts of documentation showing the extent of government electronic surveillance intrusion into all of our lives. For librarians concerned with patron privacy (that their searches, borrowed materials records, and other electronic activity with the library remain private), this was an issue that struck close to home. Yet a resolution to not only decry this intrusion upon Fourth Amendment rights but also to support whistleblowers like Snowden, although passed, was pulled for a tamer substitute because of pressures from the ALA’s Washington office.

The final debate, more a personal cry of the heart of the author concerns the gap between statements of concern around climate change and activities from cross-country travel to uses of resources and energy that conflict with the avowed seriousness of concern for climate change. One of the most interesting parts of this chapter was the author’s personal testimony and example that including resigning her Councilor position and restricting her airline travel because of her concerns.

The chapters give detailed accounts of these debates including transcripts of some discussions and various parliamentary maneuvers. I suspect that this may be of greatest interest to “library insiders” but I found several things fascinating:

  1. I’m glad librarians are concerned and speaking out about Fourth Amendment intrusions upon privacy. I wonder if librarians might also exercise a greater role in educating patrons on how to protect personal information from identity theft and from parties that might use personal information in other ways to their disadvantage.
  2. It is intriguing that librarians, as curators of information, may privilege certain forms of information to the exclusion of others. Even if there is intellectual freedom, if socially unacceptable views are not accessible, this can amount to a subtle form of censorship. In particular, many of our current social debates are framed in a very binary fashion, in which a person who does not fully embrace the socially privileged view is pigeonholed with the benighted “others”. Thoughtful dissenters from social orthodoxy are easily lumped in with outright bigots. My question is, will librarians allow a civil and pluralistic public square of ideas, even conflicting ideas, to flourish?
  3. It was striking to me that this association is hardly immune to political pressures from right or left. Its effectiveness would seem to rest in its skill to adequately represent its constituents, be transparent in its processes, and courageous when it takes positions and encounters opposition.
  4. The author’s final chapter underscores a great challenge any of us working in the knowledge world face. We can talk a better game than we live. Praxis is just as important as the positions we take.

I do think the title of this work is interesting. “Which side are you on?” conjures up a vision of those who are right, those who are wrong. Yet one wonders if it is really that simple in the library or the real world. It also suggests a form of conflict resolution with winners and losers. As I mention above, we love to create binaries, excluding the possibilities of third options, which may be possible at least in some cases. There certainly are some evils simply to be resisted, but not all things are like that in society. Often, better resolutions come as we understand situations better and also have a better sense of the range of options available. Librarians, it seems to me have a unique access to such information, that suggests the potential that they may contribute uniquely and significantly to conflict resolution where there are people of good will.

“Which side are you on?” may accurately reflect the social responsibility debates of the last twenty-five years in library circles. Who will be the people in the library world and elsewhere who frame a different “come together” conversation? I hope I will see that book someday.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

One thought on “Review: Which Side Are You On

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: October 2016 | Bob on Books

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