National Dialogue on the Curriculum of Readiness for the 21 st Century Librarian

ALA Annual Conference - Chicago, Illinois - Tuesday June 28, 2005


Plenary Session III: Don’t Just Talk About It, Be About It: New and Veteran Librarians on Connecting LIS Pedagogy and Readiness to Social Justice and Societal Change

Bharat Mehra: Our second speaker is Cheryl Aboudola, who is a director at the Essex and Union and Public Libraries. And she is also a former PRISM scholar.

Cheryl Aboudola:  Thank you. Thank you very much. I graduated from the University of Rhode Island GSLIS program as PRISM fellow and I want to stress PRISM. Lots of people think that I was in prison. And that's pretty scary. I received a solid education from a very professionally dedicated and personally committed faculty. Beyond the usual problem solving, critical thinking, decision making skills they taught was their commitment to ethics and the code of our profession.

As a student, we would have been more than negligent if we had simply memorized to satisfy our class requirements in exams. The ALA code of ethics and the Library Bill of Rights are our profession's Hippocratic Oath. We would be appalled to learn of a doctor who refused to treat a patient because of a patient's social status, religious conviction, or their age. We assume that they are always professional saving the life first, reserving their personal judgment and upholding their professional responsibilities.

Why then, as librarians would we not be irate over insincere efforts to uphold the duties and responsibilities of our profession as established by the ALA code of ethics. If we are not committed to the highest standards of our professional service and stand firmly behind our professional obligations, how can we be put out when our towns and cities are satisfied with mediocrity or willing to barely comply with minimum standards?

I am a Director of the Tiverton Library Services. It's a small community coastal community in Tiverton, Rhode Island. We serve 15, 280. It's a lovely coastal community of citizens able to trace their ancestry back to the Mayflower and to the Revolutionary War.

The most recent migration to this well established protestant, Yankee community was about 40 years ago, when Christian Portuguese brought their families to live along the coast. There is a cordial tolerance between the two. But it's this whole community that's now just getting trying to get used to me.

In all fairness, I have been treated well. I have definitely opened up their worlds, their experiences. There have been those who were very upset with that the new library director was a Muslim. And negative opinions and attitudes were shared with me directly. They didn't hold back.

They came in and shared. And I put my foot down, trying not to stomp on toes, and I stood up for myself with as much dignity as I had and tried to push down or repress any hostilities because I had to work with these people. Whenever any town department, school teacher or local minister comes in and asks me to speak to their community or their department about Islam or Muslims, I am usually very honored and very thrilled to go. It gives me an opportunity to do some community outreach and to share our collection the subject.

From the very beginning I aggressively became a team player in the town department insisting, constantly insisting that they realize that the library served the same community that they did. It was a brand new concept for the board. And the town, well, there was always pulling and tugging, so it was brand new for them as well. I would even go in on my days off to aggressively work with them.

I bring suggestions and ideas on how to better serve our community. In general, how the library can work cooperatively with other department and basically offer whatever the library can do in both good times and bad times. Recently the DPW director burnt down the DPW department. And they were without any place to work, and we offered the library, we offered the computers. And it definitely pays off in the long run to be a team player.

I have served on the town's comprehensive planning committee, their economic development committee and homeland security, which is pretty ironic. The ALA code of ethics, Library Bills of Rights, the Freedom to Read, intellectual freedom as well as patron privacy has been and will continue to be both my badge and my shield. I am a Muslim serving a community full of non-Muslims. I am not exaggerating, when I say that we are lucky if there are African American families. And there is nothing else there. That is who I serve.

I oversee their town library department. How do they see me? I am hoping that they see me as an outstanding competent, highly professional -- outstanding highly competent professional, sorry. I strive to always be guided by my profession's highest standards. I am committed to intellectual freedom. This is my badge.

But I am also hoping that it is my shield. I am hoping that it will save me from my greatest fear. If I ever have to stand up and say to the FBI that come knocking on my door, not without a subpoena. I fear that they will not see me as a citizen with rights but as another uncooperative Muslim.

After September 11, 9/11, the East Coats was hit very hard with the FBI searching Arab and Muslim businesses, households. Persons with Arabic names were targeted at the universities, the workplaces, businesses and at the mosques. Wire tapping and subpoenas to federal court were the norm. We all had to go. We were subpoenaed to go to federal court.

Everybody that I knew was subjected to it. We gathered to discuss our concerns our fears, and share our firsthand experiences and I might say that were not out of the woods. It's still very, very high tension especially along the east coast, I don't know what it's like in the rest of the United States but we are still be in very subjected to constant watch.

But after September 11, I was a student at the time, I was working as a reference librarian at the main library in Providence. We were inundated with questions about Muslims and Islam and most of the staff was not prepared for how to find the answers, what to do and they were kind of in the dark. I created a web page for the staff and the public that they could be easily referenced.

And the library linked it from the main page and answered questions, non-Muslims were opposing but they'd also address issues concerning social justice and rights for Muslims what to do and where to do when these are violated. My educational experience said URI provided me with these skills necessary to develop the web pages, form strategic alliances with the local community to set up programs about Afghans and Afghanistan. And for me there was never a time when the community outreach was more urgent on my personal.

Librarians too make a difference, I could see it and I was impressed with what I was seeing. The request and inquiries might not always be as urgent or as personal as it was for me at that time but that doesn't mean that they're not always as important access to materials our access to materials, information and programs covering a lot of variety of topics as what we do daily, that is a purpose.

But recently, and I know you're not suppose to air dirty laundry in public but I feel that if it's for the good then I will do this. Recently the Rhode Island affiliate American Civil Liberties Union published a finding of survey they conducted in 2004 regarding Rhode Island's public libraries Internet access.

Their official report was published in April 2005, it was entitled Reader's Block: Internet Censorship in Rhode Island Public Libraries just by the title you know it's not good news. The result of the study fell into three major categories or findings. First "The statewide consortium is responsible for determining the minimum standards for libraries to comply with SEPA, has taken a necessarily expensive view of those standards, thereby denying adults access to constitutionally protected information".

Secondly, they found that not only were librarians confused about the legal obligations of the act, the consortium failed to provide adequate information and sufficient training regarding the filtering technology chosen by the consortium. Although these were disturbing, it is my understanding that many of the legal professions had found SEPA statutes confusing.

So the fact that librarians are confused. But it is also my understanding that the Consortium has made every effort to rectify the ACLU's findings. The final portion, however of the report is for me the most troubling.

The report said that when deactivation to block sites was requested by an adult patron, which is one of the stipulations of the statutes, individual librarians reportedly posed embarrassing questions about requested materials, the subject matter,  subjected patrons to judgmental comments and ultimately refused to disable the filters for viewing.

It is easy, even tempting to relinquish professional standards in times of upheaval and allow individual prejudices to take reign. There are even times when it feels like the behavior is encouraged especially in the light of the political behavior and political field that we agree with you. But for me, that's scary.

When our professional beacons become dimmed in our own personal prejudices and individual moral start taking over helter-skelter, we lose uniformity, cohesiveness and professionalism. Individual interpretation of moral standards undermine our profession, our communities, the communities we served and ultimately our country. We risked it all because a few feel they're the only ones who have the right perspective, the right answers.

We all have values, opinions and beliefs defining who we are and how we cope with the world around us. But we should be checking those in at the doors of our institutions and we should remain true to our professional obligations first.

We need the framework that defines us, guides us and helps us to be professionally judicious. The ALA Code of Ethics, the freedom to read, intellectual freedom, patron privacy need to be taught in school, their importance forever stressed. And constant reminders of and vigilance for continued long after librarians are in the field. We cannot afford to take these for granted. Thank you.

Bharat Mehra: Thank you Cheryl for sharing those personally powerful experiences and which kind of points to the poignant need towards us as library and information professionals to do something about this kind of experiences. And, just to call attention to a project that was started by David Silver, I was assistant professor at the Department of Communication in the University of Washington.

September project and I'm sure most of you might have heard about it. And this year too, they are continuing that momentum of trying to make libraries the place that Jose was talking about in the beginning, how to make that the center of engaging with the community in terms of issues about civil liberties, intellectual freedom and rights that are being violated by the government and other agencies.