Andrew Lockhart. PLG Member, London Ontario Chapter. M.L.I.S candidate, UWO.
The Canadian Library Association (CLA), which represents Canadian libraries and library workers who are members, sees itself as the “advocate” and “public voice” for the “Canadian library and information community.”1 The association has a simple, straightforward2 “Code of Ethics”
that outline the responsibilities of the CLA and its members. It is necessary for an association, especially one with members from disparate places and backgrounds, to have a clear code of ethics and responsibilities because it shows its members what the association stands for and what its role is. It is also necessary and expected that an association will follow through with their code of ethics by acting in accordance with them and advocating for causes that are in line with their ethics and mission. We should expect that an organization that represents Canadian libraries and library workers takes these ethical principles and translates them into actions.
However, recent issues, such as the cuts to the Toronto Public Library System, the librarian and archivist strike at UWO, and the altering of the mandate of Libraries and Archives Canada, show that the CLA chooses not to advocate and be the voice of the library community, but instead remains silent or attempts to be neutral. Meanwhile, unions such as the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) and the Toronto Public Library Workers Union (TPLWU) have advocated strongly for the continued importance of libraries. Because of this, librarians and library workers should put their time and energy into working with their unions, as these are the organizations that take a real stand to protect libraries, the people who work in libraries, and the values that the CLA themselves seem unable or unwilling to defend. Furthermore, a national professional organization should be created so that librarians can better coordinate and advocate on behalf of the profession.
Let’s begin by looking at the CLA’s ethical standards. The CLA’s “Position Statement on Code of Ethics” dates back to 1976 and is reproduced in its entirety below:3
Members of the Canadian Library Association have the individual and collective responsibility to:
- support and implement the principles and practices embodied in the current Canadian Library Association Statement on Intellectual Freedom;5
- make every effort to promote and maintain the highest possible range and standards of library service to all segments of Canadian society;
- facilitate access to any or all sources of information which may be of assistance to library users;
- protect the privacy and dignity of library users and staff.
The most important point for the purposes of this discussion is number two: it indicates that promoting and maintaining the highest possible standards of service is a principle that the CLA and its members have the responsibility to uphold. Taken broadly, this means that the CLA should be an advocate for the importance of libraries in our society, and the improvement of the quality of our libraries. But the text also says that “every effort” should be made to uphold those highest possible standards: this means that according to their ethical standards, the CLA has a responsibility to do more than just advocate or release statements, but to pursue every avenue that is available to promote and protect libraries. These assertions are further emphasized by the CLA’s stated mission, “CLA/ACB is my advocate and public voice, educator and network. We build the Canadian library and information community and advance its information professionals.”5 The ramifications of these statements seem fairly straight forward: for example, if a Library was being threatened with significant cuts or a closure by a municipal government, the CLA and its members should do everything they can to “maintain the highest possible range and standards of library service to all segments of Canadian society.” At a minimum one would imagine that this would involve a strong statement of support for the Library and its staff, but it could also mean financial support or lending resources and expertise to help the Library and the members of its community promote the Library and fight against the proposed cuts.
Toronto Public Library cuts
Moving beyond our theoretical example, we can look at recent events to see if the CLA upholds its “Position Statement on Code of Ethics” and its stated mission. The first issue to examine are the cuts to the Toronto Public Library System proposed by the administration of Toronto’s Mayor, Rob Ford. These cuts provoked a huge public response, criticism from public figures such as Margaret Atwood, and a great deal of negative coverage in the press.6 The Toronto Public Library Workers Union has been instrumental in coordinating the response to these proposed cuts and increasing the public’s awareness of the issue. The union operates a blog7 that has almost daily updates on the Toronto library cuts and advocates that the Toronto city council listen to the overwhelming support that the people of Toronto have shown for their libraries. TPLWU has also sponsored the site Our Public Library,8 which acts as a nexus of information on the issue and provides ways for people to support the cause by sending letters to public officials. TPLWU has also produced many press releases, such as the recent “‘No interest in public opinion’ by Toronto Public Library board members…”, where their president, Maureen O’Reilly, strongly defends the library’s staff and collection:
“It is a shocking show of disrespect for taxpayers. Either that or these Board members are simply afraid to face the public after they voted to cut over 100 positions from an already overwhelmed library staff and also cut 27 per cent from the materials acquisitions budget, ensuring that the library collection will go downhill.”9
This type of advocacy is in line with the second point of the CLA’s “Code of Ethics”: these cuts will certainly damage the quality of services at TPL and represent a devaluation of the profession of librarianship as a whole. Meanwhile, I was not able to track down even a statement from the CLA: if they are attempting to “make every effort to promote and maintain the highest possible range and standards of library service”, they are certainly very shy about doing so on this issue.10 The only thing on the CLA’s website relating to the Toronto cuts is a news post saying that the former head of the CLA will be discussing the issue on CBC’s The Current.11This lack of a response is disappointing. As mentioned above, cuts of this magnitude would certainly affect the standards of service and the CLA’s Code of Ethics indicates that they should be involved in this issue.
Library and Archives Canada’s restructuring
However, to give the CLA the benefit of the doubt, another issue can be examined. According to Library and Archives Canada’s biography of Daniel Caron, current Deputy Head and Librarian and Archivist of Canada,12 in 2010 he “launched [a] modernisation initiative in order to ensure [Library and Archives Canada] would be able to embrace the multiple challenges of the digital environment.”13 In a “Backgrounder” document, the CAUT indicated this “modernisation” threatens LAC’s health through restructuring, cuts, and changes to its mandate.
In May 2009, LAC announced a ten-month moratorium on all purchased acquisitions. While the official moratorium was lifted in January 2010, acquisitions have not resumed. Holes in LAC’s collection are the result of this cessation of acquisitions and will be difficult, if not impossible, to restore retroactively.14
CAUT also launched a national campaign to protect and support LAC.15 The campaign’s website provides tools to help people become informed about the issue and take action by sending letters to members of parliament. These actions by the CAUT show that the organization is actively involved in protecting our national library and archive from cuts and reorganization that would reduce the quality and service of this institution. Meanwhile, CLA President Karen Adams wrote a response to the CAUT Backgrounder. Instead of decrying the cuts, Adams writes that:
While the [CLA] shares some of the concerns outlined in [CAUT] correspondence, particularly in the areas of acquisitions and the provision of services by qualified professional staff, we also understand that Library and Archives Canada must adapt to the digital age and address competing demands from its mandate as well as from the political realities of the day. With all federal departments facing increased scrutiny and requirements to produce significant budget reductions, LAC has to make difficult decisions with regard to its collection and services.16
Despite acknowledging that the changes at LAC will affect the quality of service, Adams concedes that “political realities” necessitate these changes. Looking back at the CLA “Code of Ethics”, one can’t help but think that this letter does nothing to help “promote and maintain” LAC’s level of service. CLA seems eager to capitulate to the government’s changes to LAC and unwilling to advocate for LAC or attempt to incite the public to demand that the government support LAC financially. This again shows that the CLA either ignores its own Code of Ethics or that it is unable to put this Code into practice.17
UWO librarian and archivist strike
Another issue that recently arose was the strike by librarians and archivists (who are members of CAUT) at the University of Western Ontario in September 2011. CAUT Executive Director James Turk argued that the strike “is another example of the challenges faced by academic librarians as they resist attempts by university and college administrations to devalue librarians’ work and jobs”, while affirming the importance of the profession of librarianship, “Librarians play a vital role for faculty and students, and their having decent and fair working conditions is crucial in sustaining high quality education and research in our universities and colleges.”18 CAUT also provided a million dollar donation to the striking workers’ fund. This level of support is expected: CAUT is after all a union protecting and supporting its members. But saying that the union has a vested interest in the strike doesn’t negate their advocacy for librarians and the support that was shown. Compare this with the CLA response: UWO Professor Sam Trosow wrote a letter to the CLA listserv that provided an update on the UWO situation and gave a number of suggestions for ways that members of the CLA could support the striking workers.19 Trosow characterized the strike as “a situation where librarianship is under attack” and called for “a better and more coordinated response.” He asked that the CLA leadership “issue a statement in support, [because] it’s important that our professional associations support their members.” The response from CLA President Karen Adams was the following:
In any case of negotiations between institutions and library staff, CLA encourages both sides to work in good faith towards fair and equitable settlements that ensure the on-going provision of quality library services to users. As the Canadian Library Association, we count both libraries and all those who work in libraries as members. We cannot and will not indicate support for one side over another in the case of dispute or strike. Each situation involving negotiations is unique, and must be resolved with respect to local circumstances. (Italics added for emphasis.)
Despite not protecting libraries in the previous examples, Adams uses the need to support both the librarians and the library (i.e., management) as the CLA’s reason for not providing a statement of support. Again, the the CLA seems unwilling to address issues that are affecting the health of the profession, its workers, and its libraries.
After looking at these examples, one would be justified in asking “What exactly would it take for the CLA to take a stance and defend libraries?” The only recent statement that they have on their website that condemns an action20 is on the destruction of the People’s Library at Occupy Wallstreet in New York City.21 This suggests that in order to provoke the CLA, one must deliberately physically destroy a library; from the Toronto example “destroying” a library through cuts and branch closures is not enough to justify a statement.
By looking at these three issues, it is clear that the CLA is unable or unwilling to put its Code of Ethics into practice. Meanwhile, the CAUT and other unions are not just strong voices in support for librarians and library workers, but also libraries as a whole. Based on this, there is no point in trying to improve the CLA’s Code of Ethics or attempt to make the CLA follow these statements: the CLA has shown that it is not interested in representing librarians through its inaction and complicity on issues that its Code of Ethics indicate it should be actively promoting and defending. This may seem like a harsh judgement, but the CLA has no excuse: how can we not judge it for not upholding its own values? Why should we continue to support an association that does not support us? Instead of trying to overhaul the CLA, librarians interested in protecting and promoting the profession should spend their time and energy within the organizations that are already doing this work: their unions. CAUT and TPLWU have both shown that they will come up to bat on library issues and that they are capable of translating their support for librarians into real activism.
While I do see value in the CLA’s present activities, librarians have been left without a unified, national voice. If the CLA is unwilling to fill this role, a new national professional organization that can be a real voice for librarians and take on the critical issues facing the profession should be created.