Earlier today a friend commented on Twitter that he hates it when librarians are called gatekeepers. But it occurred to me that's exactly what we are. Our job is to keep gates open.
The rise of public libraries across the United States was at least in part about giving everyone a chance to read great literature and educate themselves as they wished. (It was also, in part, an attempt to bring immigrants into line with American cultural norms and give them opportunities to "improve themselves" that didn't involve strikes or political organizing. Nothing is ever simple.) Today we prop open gates by negotiating licenses to allow interlibrary lending and supporting open access publishing initiatives and helping students learn the confidence and skill to participate in the making of knowledge. But there are any number of ways that we have to fight to keep the gates open. Here are a few percolating right now.
Libraries are in favor of net neutrality. We think everyone should have equal access to the Internet, either to put stuff on it or to access stuff. The FCC upheld net neutrality, but Verizon sued and this week a court ruled in their favor. Verizon would like to charge some customers that use a lot of bandwidth a fee to give them faster access to what we once called "the information superhighway." Reserving lanes for those who can pay will make the Internet less equal and that's not a good thing for intellectual freedom. Let's hope an appeal and/or a clearer defense of the Internet in the public interest on the part of the FCC will succeed.
Some of the same interests are trying to ram through Congress the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a secretly-negotiated trade treaty and other international agreements that will harm free speech, due process, and the progress of the arts and sciences by handing corporate "intellectual property" owners more sticks to beat us with. We're against it. And the secrecy with which it's shrouded isn't too cool, either. Good government is open.
But our private lives shouldn't have to be. We support privacy, because it's necessary for free inquiry.
We need copyright reform for a whole lot of reasons. Libraries work to rebalance copyright law so that it works for the public good.
Some librarians go to lengths to inform the public about threats to intellectual freedom. John Dupuis, for example, has been doing a terrific job chronicling the Canadian war on science. (No, Canadians don't hate science, but their Prime Minister appears to have a problem with it.) There are groups like Radical Reference and Free Government Information which believe freedom and information are close relatives. The American Library Association has an Office for Intellectual Freedom which has done good work over the years. Last year, the ALA gave its annual James Madison Award for promoting and protecting citizen access to government information to Aaron Swartz, posthumously.
It has been a year since he died, a year since he helped organize us successfully to defeat legislation that would have reduced Internet freedom. This year, you can support another kind of Internet freedom - the kind that defends our right to privacy in a digital world. I'll be fighting back - and hope you'll consider doing so, too.
My friend conceded that I had a point, but he would rather have no gates at all. But while there are gates, I'm happy to be part of a profession that keeps them open.
photo courtesy of Daniel*1977