What is a student worth?

This morning, as I was getting off the bus and into the rain, I tweeted about the first day of my professional placement. This tweet turned into a giant thread about the nature of work experience within LIS, whether placements should be compulsory and/or paid, and the difficulties inherent in taking time off paid work or other responsibilities. I am slightly stunned by the response it got. I hope this doesn’t make me some kind of influencer. :/

You might have to click on a few different tweets to see all the responses. I was typing on my phone and so was slower to respond. Plus I was, yanno, doing a placement. I’m concerned that some of my thoughts on the topic may have been buried or misinterpreted, so here is a very quick overview. I also want to make very clear that my views on this topic are, as always, my own. They are definitely not those of my former employer, my placement host, my future employer or my uni.

In short: I have no issue with work experience or professional placements. I fully appreciate that for many LIS students, a placement may be the only practical experience they get before they graduate. Placements can lead to great networking or job opportunities, and we all know how hard entry-level jobs are to find these days. Plus with so many of us studying online (me included), every little bit of library experience helps. Many students find their placements to be enriching and rewarding experiences that allow them to apply their theoretical knowledge in a practical setting.

I do have an issue with unpaid placements—if they are unpaid, they should not be compulsory. Being a student is financially precarious enough as it is. By forcing students to attend unpaid work experience, we are implicitly sending the message that their labour is worth nothing. That in order to be professionally recognised and accredited, they need to have invested their time, energy and enthusiasm in a host organisation that couldn’t even be bothered paying them. That they ought to have enough funds from somewhere else to support themselves, and that if they don’t, they’re not welcome here. This kind of attitude only further entrenches the class inequality within LIS. The payment wouldn’t have to be much—even a small stipend would help immensely. Something to take the sting out of that fortnight’s rent.

In addition, being on placement should not be an excuse for the host organisation to use the student as free labour doing the crappy jobs. I am fortunate that this is not the case for me. I am doing my placement in a well-regarded institution, doing some interesting stuff. I also had to quit my job in order to do it. I am sandwiching my placement in between short-term contracts; scheduling has been very difficult for me, and I don’t even have children or caring responsibilities (it must be ten times harder for those who do!). I am also fortunate to have good finances, a second job, and a week’s worth of annual leave payout. Plenty of students don’t have this to fall back on.

The issue of who would pay a placement stipend is a tricky one. I believe organisations who take placement students should consider a stipend part of the cost of doing business. After all, most hosts are already investing staff time (ergo money) in training the student and showing them the ropes. The flipside, of course, is that places that can’t afford to pay students will simply stop offering placements, and only the richest libraries will take students. I’m not convinced. I think they would find a way—after all, students are going to be running this profession one day, and wouldn’t you want to make sure you taught them the right things?

I’m glad that we’re talking about unpaid placements. I hope that our conversations today might be a catalyst, however small, for some reform in this area. Professional placements are not, strictly speaking, work—but they prepare students for the world of work in LIS. And they are worth paying for.

Games without frontiers

With warning / No warning
Peter Gabriel has a song for everything.

I hope you’ve read the recent articles about Cambridge Analytica, the secretive data-mining and -laundering firm that used data illicitly extracted from millions of Facebook profiles to microtarget American voters, and ultimately interfere in the 2016 US presidential election. I learned a lot the other day, including a troubling new-to-me phrase: ‘information operations’. Information as a cyberweapon, against which the public has little to no defence. In many cases, individuals have no idea that they have been targeted at all.

I look at this news as an ‘information professional’, long on morals and short on pay, and I despair. We are powerless against information mercenaries who will acquire personal data by any means and sell it to anyone. We are pawns in international cyber-wargames. How can we possibly arm people against threats like this? How are we defending our communities against this onslaught?

Our profession relies on the goodwill of people, chiefly middle-aged white women, who just want a comfortable job and a secure income. Fighting is a risk few librarians are prepared to take. Fewer still are adequately prepared. How often have you heard people say ‘ooh, I’d like a nice quiet library job’? Who wants a flaming argument at the reference desk with someone neck-deep in their News Feed? How many of us have shared inflammatory content on social media, unaware of how it came to us in the first place? Who among us knows where our patron data is going? (Hint: it’s going to Big Vendor, and we’re not calling them out on it)

What can we do? What good are our morals if we have no impact?

The March/April issue of ALIA’s member magazine InCite is themed ‘Libraries in the post truth society’. The day before deadline, I decided to write a short piece. That’s me on page 24. I’m surprised it was published, to be honest. I don’t think it’s my best work. But it’s also the most optimistic take I could possibly come up with (and believe me, I tried!). InCite readers want optimism, positivity, progress. They don’t want to hear about the slow disintegration of civic society and the planet at large. They don’t want to know how much Facebook has on them. They don’t think about the nature of their library’s relationship with their vendors. It’s not going to help them get through the day.

We seem to want it both ways. We painstakingly teach fake news detection strategies to people who aren’t listening. We want people to trust us. Yet we’re still buying (crappy) library software from commercial entities that naturally place profit above privacy. We’re still using Facebook to promote our libraries, even as we discover what happens to the data of Facebook users. Personally, I quite like the idea of a profession with an inbuilt set of morals and ethics. (I know there are varying views on this.) But we certainly don’t always act in ethical ways.

Librarianship is not innocent. We are complicit in the takeup of unequal systems and unethical practices. The sooner we all take a good hard look at ourselves, our society, and the Delete button on our workplace Facebook accounts, the better. We cannot hope to defend—and change—a world we don’t understand.

Response to ALIA’s updated statement on marriage equality

As I’m sure everyone has seen by now, the ALIA Board of Directors today made an additional statement on marriage equality. This statement was prompted, in large part, by the negative response from ALIA members to ALIA’s formal response to NGAC of 11 September (released online on 18 September), culminating in the open letter I wrote to the Board on Tuesday 19 September, and the further letters and feedback that followed.

(I feel like I need a timeline, to be honest.)

Firstly, I’d like to sincerely thank the ALIA Board for reading my letter and those sent by others (including James Nicholson and @Preprint_). I received the same email response that James did, which echoes the statement on the ALIA website.

I was heartened to see my letter strike such a chord with the Australian library community. I was especially thrilled to have inspired others to write to the Board as well, and to have helped fellow librarians to find their voice. I was so, so happy to see so many supportive Twitter comments and likes and retweets and engaged, thoughtful commentary.

However, I must admit I am not as thrilled by the Board’s statement as I would like to be. My views on this are quite complex, with my earlier attempts to condense them into 140 characters ending in complete failure. I want to be careful in how I phrase these views, and I apologise in advance if I am wordier than usual.

For perpetuity, the Board’s revised statement is as follows:

The ALIA Board agrees that the current Commonwealth legislation dealing with marriage is discriminatory, and that a yes response to the postal survey is required to right this discrimination. At a human level, we regret the divisions that are forming and the impact on the well-being of our Members. We believe the majority of our personal members will support a yes vote and we, as a Board, do so too.

We continue to encourage ALIA Members to participate in the postal survey; to support our LGBTQIA+ colleagues and clients; and to ensure that library users have access to the information they need to help them understand the issues.

Note that ALIA’s institutional position has not changed—that is, there isn’t one. Where the Board previously spoke as individuals, they have decided to speak together, and lend the weight of their collective Directorships to their speech. This statement, like the one before it, has come from the Board as people, not from ALIA as an institution. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one.

By comparison, Andrew Vann, the Vice-Chancellor of Charles Sturt University (where I studied for my MIS) issued a searing, powerful statement affirming CSU’s support for marriage equality. Professor Vann clearly agonised over this statement and gave it a lot of thought, yet ultimately decided to commit not just himself as an individual, but the university ‘as a corporate body, an employer of staff and a community of students’ to supporting LGBTIQ scholars and the broader cause of marriage equality. It’s a beautiful piece and I can’t thank Professor Vann enough for writing it.

I love Professor Vann’s statement because it hits all the right notes. It affirms a university’s role as a defender of intellectual freedom and a place to discuss sometimes difficult ideas. It acknowledges the existence of other views and the right of people to hold and express those views. It also makes clear that if the university is to uphold its stated value of inclusivity, being neutral is simply not an option.

The Board’s revised statement does not do those things. The opening phrase ‘the ALIA Board agrees’ (with whom? with me, presumably) kinda gives away that this statement wasn’t ALIA’s idea. There is no mention of the existence of opposing views (a concession that, for the record, I would have completely supported) and no defence of the library as a space for the exploration of ideas.

Note also the expression of ‘regret [for] the divisions that are forming’ within Australian librarianship. This is not the first time the Board have brought this up; it was also mentioned in their response to Katie Miles-Barnes’ resignation from NGAC. I’d like to be wrong, but this tells me the Board are more preoccupied with the idea of librarians (publicly) disagreeing on this issue than on the issue itself. Because, you know, we were all one happy family before the postal survey was forced on this country, and librarianship totally wasn’t dying a slow death, right? Right?!

In what is surely a complete coincidence, NGAC advertised today for new members. There has been a lot of talk on Twitter over the last week about the relevance of ALIA to newer, more progressive librarians. The cynic in me suggests these advertisements were timed to capitalise on this wave of dissent, to provide a way for those disaffected librarians to contribute positively to the future of their organisation.

I was once asked, long before all this blew up, if I were interested in joining NGAC when the opportunity arose. I was then, as I am now, reluctant to join an organisation and advocate from within, when I felt I could be more effective working from the outside. (I was also hesitant to give up some of my hard-won internet semi-anonymity.) ALIA’s treatment of NGAC over the last month has only cemented my position. Sustained lobbying by NGAC and the resignation of an NGAC member over this issue were not met with an appropriate response. It took a few letters from ordinary Personal Members, and a flood of Twitter discussion, to galvanise the Board into taking a stand.

I truly feel that ALIA’s response is not enough. I wanted ALIA as an institution to take a position. It didn’t happen. But this new statement of support from the Board is more than we had. NGAC, Katie, yours truly and many others have worked hard to make it happen. I am grateful that the Board took the time to read and discuss my letter, and I am gratified that they have responded at all.

If nothing else, it demonstrates that this system works. Andrew talked today about the value of remaining an ALIA member, a topic on which I continue to seesaw. It’s true that I couldn’t have written my letter were I not an ALIA member. I know it spoke for librarians who, for various reasons, are not ALIA members themselves. Yet I find it difficult to support an organisation that had to be cajoled into supporting its members. I wonder if other groups are a better fit for me.

I’ll finish by clarifying an important point. I am not a queer person. I am, so far as I know, a straight person. This fight is not about me. It is about you, rainbow librarians of Australia, who deserve all the love and support and empathy and advocacy I can muster. I was not asked to fight this battle. I choose to fight it because it’s the right thing to do. I can shout pretty loud, so I choose to use my voice to amplify others.

I’ve made my point. I’ve cast my vote. I encourage you all to do the same.

Please vote yes. 🙂

An open letter to the ALIA Board of Directors on marriage equality

Board of Directors
Australian Library and Information Association
PO Box 6335
Kingston ACT 2604

By email: aliaboard@alia.org.au

19 September 2017

To the ALIA Board of Directors

I write regarding your recent statements on marriage equality in Australia, a topic currently the subject of a voluntary postal survey, to be issued to Australians on the electoral roll. While I have debated writing you for several days, your response to NGAC dated 11 September 2017 and released by NGAC on 18 September has compelled me to speak.

As a Personal Member of ALIA, I am extremely disappointed by your handling of this issue. It has been apparent from the outset that ALIA, as a professional organisation, clearly cannot bring itself to say ‘We support marriage equality’. Your actions are a source of intense professional shame.

Your stated reasons for this reticence demonstrate ALIA’s priorities loud and clear—that you prioritise the interests of Institutional Members (including faith libraries, whom you did consult) over those of Personal Members (including the ALIA LGBTQ SIG, whom you did not consult). You prioritise the rights of members ‘to hold an alternative opinion’ on what you claimed to agree was a human rights issue. You consider this topic so important that you relegate your recent statements on it to the ALIA FAIR Twitter account, which has just 12% of the followers of ALIA’s main account, and which seemingly enables ALIA to distance itself from its own political advocacy. Even then those statements are issued from individual Directors, not the Board itself.

You have gone out of your way to disassociate ALIA from any statements of support made by Directors, members, SIGs or committees. This suggests that ALIA is fearful of potential backlash from opponents of marriage equality. I don’t want my professional organisation to be so terrified of backlash that it refuses to stand for anything. I want ALIA to take a stand. I want ALIA to speak for me.

Compare your statements with those of the Australian Society of Archivists (ASA) and Professional Historians Australia (PHA). The ASA’s statement demonstrated their willingness to stand up for their members and the wider LGBTIQ community. PHA’s statement went even further, recognising the work of LGBTIQ individuals in historical pursuits and the right of all Australians to be regarded as equals before the law. Neither statement told their members how to vote, yet both organisations affirmed their support for marriage equality and the welfare of their members. There is nothing stopping ALIA from taking a similar approach.

Your responses to this issue smack of an organisation trying desperately to be neutral. To please all parties. To tick all boxes. Yet this survey presents us as voters with only two boxes, and we may tick only one. To abstain—to claim neutrality—is to do just as much harm as it would to vote no, for abstention is both an implicit endorsement of the status quo and a sign that you do not consider this issue important enough for you to voice an opinion.

Librarianship is not, has never been, and will never be a neutral profession.

You campaigned for months for the release of Ukrainian librarian Natalya Sharina from house arrest. The language you used then to defend her was noticeably stronger than the language you use now to defend your own members. You were not neutral on that issue—because being neutral would have been inconsistent with library values.

ALIA’s core values include a commitment to ‘respect for the diversity and individuality of all people’. The debate on the scope of Australia’s marriage laws—for that is all it is—presents a golden opportunity for you to walk that walk. To respect the diversity of library workers and library users alike. To support the right of all couples to have their relationships recognised by law. Your actions so far have sent a very clear message that you do not respect our diversity, and by extension, that you do not respect us.

It is not too late for you to set this right. The survey is still in progress, and you have ample opportunity to show your support for, and solidarity with, LGBTIQ library workers and library users. You do not have to tell people how to vote. You can acknowledge the breadth of opinion on this issue, and how the influence of Institutional Members had previously guided your stance. All you have to do is issue a brief statement affirming ALIA’s position, as informed by NGAC and Personal Members across Australia. It can, in fact, be four words long.

‘We support marriage equality.’

I look forward to your response.

Yours sincerely,

Alissa M.
ALIA Member