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Getting Ready for Webcred

I’m so exhausted from the ALA Midwinter conference I could curl up into a ball and sleep for three days, but on some dim level I’m excited (and a bit alarmed) about Friday’s Webcred (also known as the Blogging, Journalism and Ethics conference) at the Berkman Center at Harvard. This conference will be webcast and audiocast so do follow along–I’ll be the one with the paper bag over my head.

I don’t have enough time to go do a pile of research (which I always find very centering and comforting, not to mention responsible) or to prepare short lists of clever bon mots. No, I’m going to show up in a roomful of Famous Journalists and Bloggers and stutter my way through whatever happens next. (At one point, I will speak, very briefly.)

I don’t have clear thoughts. No–I don’t have thoughts, period. Whose idea was it to do this, anyway? (Mine. I begged for it.) What makes me think I can hold my own? (That’s me: ready, fire, aim.)

I hear the snowplows outside my hotel window, and think: Now is the winter of my discontent… But enough about me. What follows is a message I sent to an internal list, to bring up some of the issues I thought important. What do you think?


I have been following the bjc discussions with interest though I have not wanted to speak until (or unless) I had something to say. I am also at a huge and intense library conference here in Boston absorbing most of my time morning, noon, and night, and am aware of but only partially following the Webcred blog discussions, which, to use a librarianesque euphemism, are quite lively. So here’s my cameo (a somewhat prolix core dump due to lack of editing/review time):

The word “strive” struck a chord. I am a librarian (and blogger, and writer, and active member of the American Library Association, one of the conference sponsors). In the late 1990s there was much discussion, quite a bit of it “lively,” about the ramifications of introducing the Internet into libraries that until then had thought they were bastions of free speech and fully committed to principles very similar to those Rebecca mentioned in her FAQ when she quoted Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel: “the purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” (If you replaced “journalism” with “librarianship,” the only quibble librarians would have is that is not our only purpose; otherwise, the statement echoes similar statements found in the core documents of librarianship, from Ranganathan’s Five Laws of Librarianship to our Intellectual Freedom Manual with its many well-thought-out interpretations to the recent statement, Libraries, An American Value. Should anyone be interested in these materials, I can provide direct links later when I am not so pressed for time.)

The wild, wooly, “take me as I am” Internet forced librarians to think and talk and rearticulate principles that we had become somewhat complacent about (though these principles had been battlegrounds in earlier eras, such as the late 19th century, when public libraries began opening their formerly closed stacks, or in the 1950s when some librarians stuck warning labels on books they considered “Communist”). Information was becoming more of a conversation–territory we had crossed before, but which seemed new all over again. In the past, we had told ourselves our collections were diverse and uncensored, but the Internet put our principles to the test. We could censor portions of the Internet (which made us uncomfortable) or bring it into our libraries without mediation (which made us uncomfortable) or delay introducing it in our libraries (which made us uncomfortable). I can sympathize with the librarian who once told me she was “waiting for this Internet thing to blow over.”

One of the expressions that arose during the many discussions about Internet access in libraries was that ALA is the “North Star.” Through its statements on ethics and intellectual freedom, ALA articulates standards of information access and delivery we librarians strive for, at varying levels of willingness and ability. Sometimes libraries seem very far from that star (like the libraries in Mississippi that briefly banned Jon Stewart’s “America”), and sometimes they seem very close (like the many librarians who have fought for open access to the Internet in their libraries). But it’s good to have a North Star, and it’s good that the North Star sets almost impossibly high standards of integrity, ethics, transparency, fairness, balance, access, accessibility, diversity, and preservation of the written word. If the star were brought closer (or, to mix metaphors for the sake of clarity, the ceiling were lowered), and our standards were qualified and muted and made less emphatic, we might make some librarians more comfortable but we would be doing our users a disservice, and (an issue I am surprised not to hear invoked more often in the bjc discussions–perhaps that is one place where our professions differ in focus or emphasis?) we in librarianship are all about the people we serve. (You might think we are about books or other media, not people, but hear Ranganathan’s First Law:
“Books are for use.”)

Open stacks, book labels, the Internet… as Roseanne Roseannadanna said, “it’s always something.” But if you have a North Star, no matter where you go, you can always see it.

Now I’ll invoke Ranganathan’s Fourth Law (“Save the time of the reader”) and end this message. See you all this Friday–

Karen G. Schneider

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