Woolwine’s argument for the ALA needing a different type of ethical argumentation is set in the context of the USA Patriot Act, passed in the wake of the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. Of particular note in the USA Patriot Act were provisions that limited the privacy and restriction of access to library records. The ALA saw itself as a “strong institution” standing “between the government and citizens” and thus released resolutions calling for preservation of intellectual freedom and civil liberty and condemning the parts of the USA Patriot Act that threatened those rights.
While the USA Patriot Act was passed over a decade ago, one recent group of legislation that brought privacy concerns was the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA). The ALA spoke out against both of these acts. While SOPA had very visible public opposition, on the grounds that it would lead to Internet censorship and stifling of creativity, the opposition to CISPA has not been as strong. In a CNET article from April 23rd, 2012, it is pointed out that, unlike what happened with SOPA, support for CISPA continues to grow in the United States Congress. However, CISPA seems to be more representative of the kind of attack on intellectual freedom that the ALA rallies against. CISPA would allow Internet companies to hand over customer records to the National Security Agency (NSA). This is the exact kind of intrusion that the ALA argued against in the USA Patriot Act. However, the ALA hasn’t spoken out against it as strongly as it did against the USA Patriot Act.
Before we tackle why that is, Bowker’s article can give us some insight. In his article we also saw how the process of creating intellectual arguments and structures (in his example a disease classification information structure) can affect and be affected by institutional culture and society. One point that Bowker makes is that the uniformity of the classification system must be matched by the uniformity of the bureaucratic system (53). We can similarly see that the arguments posited by the ALA are a direct result of the structure of the organization. While each individual organizational entity within the ALA has some degree of autonomy, it also has a culture, which fits into the larger culture, and thusly it produces ideas and work that fit in with the larger whole. Finally, Bowker’s assertion that “information infrastructures force us to pay close attention to the unit of historical analysis” (59) helps us understand that the ALA’s views on intellectual freedom are deeply rooted in the history of the organization.
So why hasn’t the ALA fought as strongly against CISPA? Well for one, this isn’t a bill that has passed yet. The only statement from the ALA has been in the form of a press release on April 24th, 2012 , quoting ALA President Molly Raphael urging supporters to contact their elected representatives and urge them to oppose CISPA. For the ALA to issue as strong a statement as those against the USA Patriot Act will require at least a few months of meetings and voting by its various committees and councils. The ALA is a behemoth organization consisting of nine distinct organizational entities, each with their own sets of leadership and rules. Each entity has councils and committees that create rules, resolutions, and proclamations. And any action at a lower level has to be routed through a myriad of groups before it reaches the genera ALA. The ALA’s relatively weak public argument against CISPA is a prime example of how the size and complexity of the ALA (which, in all fairness, is not unique to the ALA) can get in the way of it making bold statements against legislation that negatively affect libraries and their patrons. To me this signifies an opportunity for the ALA to change the way it operates to allow for quicker issuing of official proclamations in cases like these.
- Libraries and the Balance of Liberty and Security, David E. Woolwine. Library Philosophy and Practice 2007 (September).
- The History of Information Infrastructures: The Case of the International Classification of Diseases, Information Processing & Management, Vol. 32, No. 1, pp. 49-61, 1996.
- ALA Handbook of Organization, http://www.ala.org/aboutala/governance/handbook, accessed 19 April 2012