Urban Librarians Unite Conference Proposes Advocacy, Activism

The theme of the Urban Librarians Unite (ULU) 2017 Conference, held at Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Library on April 7, was Dangerous Librarianship—an appropriate designation for a librarians challenging the status quo. Some 186 librarians from the New York metro area and beyond—including attendees from Massachusetts, Arizona, and California—gathered to share and learn about advocacy, social justice, alternative service models, privacy, leadership, and more.
ULCON17-Logo-960x482The theme of the Urban Librarians Unite (ULU) 2017 Conference, held at Brooklyn Public Library’s Central Library on April 7, was Dangerous Librarianship—an appropriate designation for a librarians challenging the status quo in a year that has already seen a preliminary presidential budget aiming to defund of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Some 186 librarians from the New York metro area and beyond—including attendees from Massachusetts, Arizona, and California—gathered to share and learn about advocacy, social justice, alternative service models, privacy, leadership, and more. This is the fifth conference hosted by ULU founder and executive director Christian Zabriskie, administrator at Yonkers Public Library System, NY, and ULU board chair Lauren Comito, Job & Business Academy manager at Queens Library, NY (2012 and 2015 LJ Movers & Shakers, respectively). The first ULU conference, in 2013, had as its theme “Living in Interesting Times”; events of the past year have moved the needle on that concept considerably. As Zabriskie wrote in an April 11 Huffington Post article kicking off National Library Week, “This is not a typical year, this is not typical America.”


Maurice Coleman’s opening keynote speech, “Be the Duct Tape and WD-40 for Your Community, or Every Librarian Is Fucking Awesome,” was designed to rally and energize the crowd. Coleman, a 2010 LJ Mover & Shaker, serves as technical trainer at Harford County Public Library, MD, and hosts the T is for Training podcast. He worked a series of librarian-centric affirmations—if your director doesn’t tell you you’re doing a great job, know that everyone you help thinks you are; “NO” stands for “Next Opportunity”—into more generalized career advice. Coleman stressed the importance of a librarian’s everyday duties to keep stuff together (the duct tape of the speech’s title) and getting stuff done (the WD-40) but also accepting limitations and using failure as a building block (“On the road to success, sometimes you drive under a bridge that’s too small for you”). You cannot know everything, he added—just know where to find it. And, you cannot be all things to all people but you can have something for everyone.


T.J. Lamanna, adult services librarian at the Cherry Hill Public Library, NJ, gave a solid overview of digital privacy—with the caveat that it’s a lot like dieting: “Everybody knows they should be choosing healthy options but they have trouble sticking with it.” However, he broke the various levels of privacy safeguards down into what could be accomplished that day, in a week, in a month, and in the next year. Lamanna outlined the wide range of tools available both for libraries and individual users, ranging from email and text message encryption tools to password generators, safe search engines, and anonymity networks such as the Tor Project, and included tactics for getting the library IT department on board. Finally, he urged attendees to take the Library Freedom Project’s Library Digital Privacy Pledge, work to upgrade their library’s privacy measures, and “Don’t click on any freakin’ links you don’t recognize.”


In her presentation, “Answering ALL the questions or “Why CAN’T I put this DVD on my laptop?” library consultant Jessamyn West (a 2002 Mover & Shaker) discussed the ethics of using tools that users might request for “quasi-legal” purposes. West lives and works in Vermont, where libraries often don’t have access to digital content many elsewhere take for granted, and while she doesn’t advocate breaking the law, she does want her patrons to have equitable access and is willing to educate them about tools they can use to get it. The gray areas she encounters mainly fall into the realm of copyright law—a patron, for example, who wants to borrow a 35-CD audiobook but is going on vacation and doesn’t want to incur the library’s steep late fees. While she would not rip the CDs to the patron’s iPod, said West, she might tell her how to do it, with instructions not to put the digital file on the Internet or sell it. Another case might involve  print-disabled patrons who want to read material on their Kindles when the “read-aloud” function has been disabled by the publisher. (West recommends ebook managers like Calibre, which translates between ebook formats and could restore the function without breaking the ebook’s digital rights management [DRM] technology.) People don’t understand copyright law or are afraid of it; the line between legal and not, said West, can be fuzzy. “It’s kind of like jaywalking—it’s good to be mindful, but if you always want to stay on the right side of that line you can overcompensate and not use content in ways you’re allowed to.” A particular barrier, she finds, is that patrons equate librarians with authority figures or “think librarians are super judgy,” and are reluctant to ask about work-arounds. But, she concluded, helping and sharing are “one more part of being a critical and effective librarian.”


Zabriskie stepped into an open spot in the schedule to offer an informative and useful “real talk update” about the impending IMLS funding crunch—both the facts on the ground and how librarians can step up to advocate. Trump’s proposed budget, he noted, is not yet a death knell for IMLS; it needs to be voted on, approved, and finalized by both The House of Representatives and the Senate—and only after being reconciled by appropriations committees in both chambers. Your state representative or senator is probably not part of those committees, Zabriskie explained, but anyone can call, email, or tweet their elected officials asking them to sign a “Dear Appropriator” letter demonstrating support for the Library Services and Technology Act, which is then brought before the committee by designated signators. The more signators, the more letters go before the committees—and the response is definitely all about the numbers, he advised. “It’s pragmatic, it’s ugly, it’s brutal, but it’s politics.” Currently the budget has passed through the house, with good results: an 18 percent increase of “Dear Appropriator” signatories. It will go to the senate next, with letters circulating in late April or early May. Once it goes to a larger vote, it will be the time for advocates to put pressure on individual members of congress. We can expect a lot of debate, said Zabriskie, as the budget has so many contentious elements. Right now it’s important, he added, for library advocates to stay on message about IMLS and not succumb to hyperbole. The loss of the agency would not automatically mean that local libraries would lose hours or staff. But approximately one-third of IMLS funds that go to state libraries are matched and then distributed through the state, making up library costs outside of local tax rolls and private funding. In order to maintain basic services, libraries would have to cut from other programs. Larger library systems might weather the changes, but small, rural, and tribal libraries would see losses in important community services. Discussion moved to tactics and potential areas of focus—one librarian noted that cutting Medicaid would have more impact on her library than cutting IMLS—and what was and wasn’t working in the American Library Association’s (ALA) Washington Office. It was also pointed out that ALA’s direct messaging has limits—librarianship is bigger than ALA membership. Zabriskie pointed out that local librarians could also do advocacy work through the New York Library Association or, on a national level, the nonprofit political action committee EveryLibrary; others suggested the National Education Association, the AFL-CIO, and small publishing associations. What he was most disappointed in when it comes to advocacy conversations, said Zabriskie, was the insistence on getting people training—“We don’t need training. We’re all smart. We need to get people ownership and options.” If you’re not happy with what ALA is doing, he said, send an email. “Send me an email and I’ll forward it.” If you’re blogging, blog about it. “But phrase it so John and Jane Q public can get their hooks in it.” And at the most grassroots level? “If you go on a date with someone, make them contact their congressperson before you have dinner.”
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