Monday, December 21, 2020

jlarue.com - Welcome

In November of 2018, I left my position at ALA in Chicago to return to my Colorado-based writing, speaking, and consulting career. So I'll be beefing up this blog and links, after the holidays.

For now, a brief overview of my services is as follows:

Speaking

Looking for an inspirational talk? Looking for a workshop? Recent topics include:
  • Intellectual freedom and social justice
  • Transformational by design: a paradigm shift
  • The first year: six strategies for being a successful library director
  • Key trends (emergent literacy, library as place, ebooks, community reference, advocacy)
  • Library building programs and processes: building for tomorrow
  • Library as publisher: from gatekeeper to gardener
  • Community reference: leaving Fort Ref, taking it to the streets
  • Advocacy: Telling the library story
  • Trustee and director training: making each other look good
  • Succession planning: who, why, when, how
  • Hiring and firing: how we keep getting it wrong and how to get it right
  • Change management
  • Other workshops as needed

Consulting

  • Executive coaching: one year of confidential support for new directors
  • Getting clear about roles: workshops for trustees, friends, foundations
  • Public engagement for building projects
  • Planning for the next election: 2 years before the vote
  • A 2 hour strategic planning process
  • Cataloging the Community: from embedded reference to community leader

Writing

I'm a longstanding co-editor for the Perspectives columns of the Public Libraries magazine, and have contributed to many professional journals. Need a piece on one of the topics above? Let me know.

Please feel free to contact me at jlarue [at] jlarue [dot] com.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Where I might live

Where I might live

I could live in the air,
the sixteenth floor or higher,
an aerie over prairie,
enough to feel the volume

of grass bending to sky,
misty horizons grown sharp,
edge anchored to the eye.
Height can be gorgeous glory.

Or I could live so low,
the sun always marginal,
aslant along sidewalks,
spilling through the half windows

gridded by iron bars,
skirting the wee dank shadows
of underground, of hope
(all hope so soft and secret).

I could live. I could live
from moment to moment and
whether the eye of bird
or mole could sense sky's changing.

I could unfold myself
and become the atmosphere,
all of it, all the light
and dark, all of the turning.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

FreeGeek Chicago

FreeGeek, 3411 W Diversey Ave, Chicago, IL 60647, is an oddity. Tucked into an alley, down a flight of stairs, into a basement, it's been around for over a decade, operates as a not for-profit, and offers some remarkably good deals.

To wit: I found a Toshiba netbook (NB 505), running on Mint xfce, for $40. Nice little screen, keyboard, wifi, 2 gigs memory, 160 gigs storage, three USB ports. Pretty small, and light enough to throw into a backpack for the coffeeshop.

At first, I thought this was great. Fun to play with, and I can use it when I'm offline. I almost bought it on the spot.

I really like to write in emacs org-mode. I can't do that on my Chromebook. My Windows laptop now has a broken arrow key.

But do I really need org-mode when I have Dynalist and Docs?

The Toshiba is rather better than my old Acer netbook, which I got a lot of use from.

Computers, Linux, used to be a hobby. I don't really do much of that anymore. $40 is pretty cheap for hours of tinkering, and maybe a little more writing.

But it's also another device, another cord, another thing to be charged up and updated. I suspect I have the tools I need. But I love knowing that there are earnest geeks offering affordable computing to the world - mostly, I gather, through a combination of Linux and volunteers. Good on 'em! (And now to fight temptation.)

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Yes, there was a Holocaust

Some months ago, I was targeted by some Nazi trolls. Their pitch to me was that (a) Amazon's dropping of some pro-Nazi titles constituted censorship and ALA should do something about it, and (b) if I would just read some key Holocaust denial works (thoughtfully appended), I would agree with them.

Of course, Amazon isn't a library. It isn't even a public entity. As a private company, it doesn't have to carry products it doesn't want to, or that it fears would offend the majority of its customers. So it didn't really fall in ALA's wheelhouse.

You just have to wonder, though: why would anyone want to stand up for one of the most compelling instances of evil in history? One clue could be found in the ludicrous "fact-finding" of one of their "researchers." A woman called us, demanding to know my "ethnic background." She complained about "disgusting" images of people with dreadlocks on the ALA website. She wanted to know if librarians had something against people with pure, Norse lineages? This same woman was later banned on Twitter for hate speech. In other words, the motives were a fairly transparent racism.

But I found myself thinking afterward about just what I am obliged to do when challenged by someone making wild claims. Clearly, not all beliefs, just because they are widely held, are true. Sometimes historical revision is justified. For instance, the genocide of Native Americans by white settlers was covered up for far too long.

Yet there are some truly looney opinions out there. There are still people who believe, or profess to believe, that the world is flat. Often, the wilder the beliefs, the more likely the believer is to suffer from logorrhea: an inability to stop writing and writing and writing.

So on the one hand, when somebody challenges a library book, the first thing I ask is "have you read the whole thing?" If not, they lose credibility. You can't judge a book by one or two random passages, although lots of people try.

On the other hand, isn't it hypocritical for me to reject the works on Holocaust denial if I won't even explore their literature?

After long thought, I have decided that the answer is "No." Why? First, if I were to spend all my time reading the ravings of madmen, I would never have time for anything else. Second, it isn't necessary. In just an hour or so, I can usually identify and test the claims of extravagant positions.

So let's say you're encountering Holocaust denial for the first time. What are they saying? The three pillars seem to be these:

  • Hitler didn't call for genocide
  • There were no gas chambers
  • "Only" a million or so Jews died

With just a little Googling, you can find the raw footage of Hitler calling for the extermination of the Jews. You can find ample evidence of the existence of gas chambers. Through several demographic methods, it's clear that more than 6 million Jews were deliberately exterminated - and not "just" victims of typhus in concentration camps.

So the claims of Holocaust deniers are false. You don't have to wade through thousands of websites and spurious documents. The Wikipedia or Snopes articles list the source material, and often the refutation has been around for decades. There not only isn't extraordinary proof for extraordinary claims, there isn't any proof at all, just laziness and lies.

The odd thing to me is that disproving the claims doesn't seem to stop people from repeating them. And that's the best reason I can cite not to spend much time with Holocaust deniers. They are impervious to the evidence. The arguments don't go anywhere.

So that's my thinking. Sometimes, intellectual open-mindedness means you have to be willing to seriously investigate a surprising opinion. But intellectual integrity does not require you to be held hostage to years of crackpot literature (unless you enjoy that sort of thing). Instead, identify the premises, check out the evidence for them, make up your own mind, and don't get caught up in endless, repetitive recitals of the obvious to people who have chosen an invincible ignorance.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Are libraries neutral?

Here are my remarks at today's American Library Association Midwinter Conference. Jim Neal's Presidential Program was "Are libraries neutral?" I was first on the "pro" side of the debate.

In 1938, a time with an eery resonance to today, some citizens in Des Moines, Iowa protested a book we would now call hate speech: Hitler's Mein Kampf. Director Forrest Spaulding drafted "A Library's Bill of Rights" to establish for the first time the library's endorsement of intellectual freedom -- the right to access even uncomfortable or offensive content. Maybe, Spaulding said, we needed to know what was going on in the world.

In 1939, ALA Council approved the statement for the entire association.

Implicit in intellectual freedom is the principle of neutrality.

Let me make two things clear.

Neutrality does not mean that librarians have no values. We do. It doesn't mean that institutions don't exist to advance certain goals. Libraries actively advocate for literacy, for learning and knowledge, for self-actualization, and for civic participation.

Nor does believing in neutrality mean we always live up to our values. We don't. Some white librarians actively supported the segregated south. Even today, we get regular reports of library administrators who pull LGBT displays, school librarians who won't buy graphic novels that show kissing, and librarians who say they would punch any neo-Nazi shameless enough to walk into their branch.

But the failure to consistently walk our talk is part of the human experience. It doesn't deny the meaning or importance of our principles. Values are aspirational.

The deep significance of today's debate is not what we stand for. It's how.

I will argue that neutrality has a precise and essential meaning. Here it is: we do not deny access to library services and resources, we do not seek to silence people on the basis of their backgrounds or beliefs.

We do set limits on behavior. People who start shouting at or punching other patrons get kicked out or arrested.

But our courts have consistently held that speech -- whether spoken, written, filmed, sung, or worn on a T-shirt -- is not the same thing as action. There has to be imminent and immediate physical danger.

When we suppress speech, or shut out, or shout down people in public space -- whether it be to advance the cause of conservative or progressive agendas, whether it be in the name of preservation of power or social justice -- we conflate word with deed. We claim that just by listening or reading, we have been injured. So my safety requires someone else's silence. This view is the foundation of censorship and tyranny.

The Pew Foundation's Lee Rainie reports that three occupations are most trusted in the United States: firefighters, nurses, and librarians. In all cases, that trust depends on neutrality. When firefighters rush up to your blazing house, they don't ask, "Are you a Democrat, or Republican?" Nurses, treating you in the emergency room, don't say, "about your lifestyle choices..." And librarians don't get to decide whether or not you are sufficiently woke to deserve public resources.

While neutrality doesn't mean that we don't have values, it must mean that we are not partisan. Library funding - school, public, or academic - tends to comes from a larger community. We must be willing to serve everyone in ways that everyone can respect.

For librarians, neutrality has three key dimensions.

First is service.

The Library Bill of Rights, Article V, says a person's right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views. Our statement on Professional Ethics couldn't be clearer: we provide equitable, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.

By policy -- and policy exists for the purpose of guiding our practices just as values guide our personal actions --  we're not supposed to give preferential treatment to those who agree with us, or discriminate against those who don't.

Recently, a librarian asked me, "Suppose someone asks me for contact information for a hate group. Do I have to give it?" The answer: yes. Once government officials -- that would be us -- start deciding who is and isn't a hate group, and what general information should or shouldn't be shared, we will cease to be trusted. And in that case, no one should trust us.

Can a librarian punch Nazis because of what they believe? Then we deny them the common legacy of humanity: the right to be really wrong in public, and possibly to learn something.

We also establish a principle that will turn on us. Last year in the American Southeast, some white high school students hurled racial epithets at an opposing, mostly black, basketball team. The principal of the white, pretty well-to-do school invited a nearby African American professor to speak at a mandatory school assembly on the topic of privilege. The professor showed a video about a foot race. Some contestants had to start further back, or fight obstacles in the course. Within days, outraged parents demanded the firing of the principal. He was requiring their children to listen to hate speech, inciting anger against ... themselves.

If speech is conflated with action, if speech is defined as harm, anyone can demand that someone else shuts up. The same arguments used to challenge privilege will also be used to defend it.

The second dimension of neutrality is Access to facilities, including programs and technology.

Under a well-tested body of law, if the Democrats get to use the room, you can't deny access to the Republicans. You can't let the Evangelicals in, and keep the Wiccans out. If you make a room available to PFLAG (a support group for the parents and friends of LGBT folks), it must also be open to Exodus International (an ex-gay counseling organization). People should be able to investigate them both, and make up their own minds.

A few months ago, I got a call from a library director who told me about a local group that booked a meeting room to show a video claiming that vaccines caused autism. A lot of people showed up and the group immediately booked another viewing. The director told me his concern: this claim has been thoroughly debunked. Spreading it had the potential to cause real harm to his community. It really might happen that people would die. Did he have to allow it? After reviewing his policies, I advised him that he did.

But, I said, that didn't stop him from doing his own, library-sponsored programming. He could invite in local medical experts. He could create exhibits and displays advancing the scientific facts. He could put bibliographies and articles in the meeting rooms.

Neutrality doesn't mean you can't advocate for positions based on the evidence. It just means you don't have the exclusive right to do so.

The third dimension of neutrality is Collections.

Again, inclusion of the hate speech of Mein Kampf was not an endorsement. Public scrutiny is the best defense against the spread of poisonous ideology.

Quite recently, ALA President Jim Neal, and my office, both got approached by a group of Holocaust deniers. They were mad that Amazon stopped carrying some popular Holocaust denial books. Wasn't that censorship? Why wasn't ALA condemning it?

Are libraries obligated to buy Holocaust denial books?

The answer, unless your libraries collects historical works, is no.

Library collections, even if they begin perfectly balanced on a topic, change because of three key factors: what the community wants more of, what we know about what's published, and the ongoing consensus of the field. Sports figures who believe the earth is flat won't find much on our shelves to support that idea. But conservative communities will likely wind up with more Ann Coulter than Al Franken. And even Franken's books are being challenged now.

I want to acknowledge that there are indeed systemic biases in our collections. Today, five big publishers dominate public library collections. Yet over three times as many titles are self-published every year, and many of those titles have precisely the diverse content our patrons seek, and we do not provide.

But that's not an endorsement of bias. It's an awareness of a problem we have to fix.

In conclusion, neutrality is about the refusal to deny people access to a shared resource, just because we don't like the way they think. That doesn’t mean that anyone is immune from criticism. In fact, they can expect it. But first, they get to speak. Everyone gets a seat at the table.

Neutrality is essential to our role in public life. It is enshrined in our values, our laws, and our policies. We abandon it at our peril.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Evaluating the board

Two persistent topics for public library boards and directors is the performance assessment. I have already posted about the director evaluation here. This post is about a self-assessment for public boards, based on a cooperative effort between the Arapahoe Public Library District and Douglas County Libraries some ten years ago.




jlarue.com - Welcome

In November of 2018, I left my position at ALA in Chicago to return to my Colorado-based writing, speaking, and consulting career. So I'...