I Want To Believe: ‘Illegal Alien’ as Dropped Subject Heading?

By tylerdnns

When the word “alien” is used to classify an individual, it is inaccurate, silly, and downright disrespectful. On one hand, it brings to mind science fiction fodder from the 1950—bulbous heads with tubular arms bearing “We come in peace” banners. It’s disrespectful, obviously, because it reduces a human being, no better than you or I, to this cheap, cartoon visual.

The history of the term begins unexpectedly. This now-offensive term was once used to supplant a much more offensive one.

In the 70s, “a group of Chicano UCLA students […] suggest[ed] the [LA Times] use the term illegal alien. They were responding to an editorial in the publication whose title referred to people who’d crossed illegally from Mexico as wetbacks.” So for a period, the term was a politically correct answer to what now seems like an archaic and particularly nasty slur (that reputable newspapers would publish without a thought)

So in the 80’s, when politicians like Ronald Reagan were using the term, it didn’t strike people as offensive as it does now. According to NPR, it wasn’t until the 90’s that the phrase started becoming associated with bigotry. Despite this current understanding that the term is outdated, it is prominently linked to political, right-wing rhetoric.

Politicians like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump coupling the words “illegal alien” with the word “criminal,” (NPR) as an antecedent or vice-versa. They are essentially labeling a voiceless people in a way that the people themselves don’t determine.

The current political climate in which the term “illegal alien” has an insidious relevancy is interesting when compared to the Peet article. It describes the avenues and roadblocks a Dartmouth student navigated in her quest to remove “illegal alien” as a subject heading with the Library of Congress. While researching, the student noticed that many inflammatory readings about non-citizens were found under the heading “illegal alien.”

The student took her concerns with the heading to a rights group for the undocumented students at Dartmouth. From there, the bipartisan group took the student’s concerns to librarians at Dartmouth. The librarians advised that the group would have to take it up with the Library of Congress directly. What follows was a description that, frankly, painted the Library of Congress as an impenetrable and hierarchical force at best. On the more extreme side, an absolute, perhaps harsher interpretation might cast LC as sometimes-protector of the hegemony.

After six grueling months of waiting, the Library of Congress finally got back to Dartmouth students, denying the change. The LC memo stated that the terms “illegal alien” and “undocumented immigrant” were not interchangeable. In their eyes, the connotation for each phrase was different.

Then, after what seems like relatively small pressure from ALA and civil rights groups, the Library of Congress relented. They changed the heading to “non-citizen”…for three months, at least. After that short span, Republicans (specifically) tried to stop this.

One Republican senator from Tennessee (neighbor to my own home state, Alabama) even went so far as to say the name-change would cost taxpayers frivolously, and therefore would not have been worth pursuing. As if using more thoughtful words wouldn’t lead to a more uniform, thoughtful community benefiting everyone…

The bill was ultimately passed, then denied, and is now currently up in limbo. The end of the Library Journal article is optimistic. It highlights the enterprising Dartmouth student, a former undocumented individual who is now a modern incarnation of civil rights hero. The article champions individuals like her, and as readers we are implicitly encouraged to follow suit.

Despite the bill not passing by the time of the article’s publication, the work done by the students was still necessary. The publicity generated by their efforts makes “illegal alien” seem even more antediluvian and backwards, further discourages thoughtful people (most of us, in my opinion) from using it. Any publicity, if it encourages less usage of this word, will paint researchers who use this tag as insensitive, pressuring everyone to use it less in every capacity, unless trying to incite (like insensitive, topical politicians of the day). In short, I don’t think anyone who matters is going to be using this term.

Both words in the label “illegal alien” are propaganda. “Illegal” implies criminal activity even when none occured. “Alien” is a particularly cartoonish way of saying an object doesn’t belong. It is not just propaganda, but it is immoral propaganda.

This reminded me of the struggles for more apt representation (or representation at all) in the Library of Congress subject headings outlined in the Drabinski readings. “Lesbian” finally got validation from LC as a subject heading in 1976. The dynamics of power, of literally waiting for the hegemony to realize that a disrespect is taking place, and then waiting on them to care enough to change it, is relevant in the Dartmouth case as well. When a dominant class is put in charge of defining a less-influential other, they are only going to approach this task with the limited understanding they bring to the table.

The Drabinski article was about how people are limited by their biases, whether they realize it or not. Even when the defenders of these inaccurate subject headings are in the wrong, they often don’t seem to realize or spend too much time defending instead of just realizing the new for something new and more respectful. If harmful language can exist in libraries, those hallowed places idealized by Madison and Jefferson, then what hope is there for the drastically more-chaotic spaces outside of it?

Above all else, we just have to ask people and understand what they feel comfortable being called. Why is that so hard?

Drabinski, E. (2013). Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction. The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, 83(2), 94-111. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from https://lms.pratt.edu/

Greene, D. (2015, August 19). The Evolution Of The Immigration Term: Alien. Retrieved February 20, 2017, from http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/

Peet, L. (2016). LC Drops “Illegal Alien” Subject Heading. Library Journal, 141(11), 12-13.

Protected: Reviving Libraries: Civic Engagement and Protests

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Pop-Up Libraries and Community Engagement

By alanamhmd

When the city halted construction on a Hunters Point library this past spring, pop-up and mobile libraries provided alternative services. 1  Queens Library CEO Thomas Galante, who is currently on paid leave due to an investigation into his salary and spending, had said plans were halted because of budget discrepancies concerning the complexity of the building’s designs. 2  Hunters Point residents petitioned for access to a public library, leading Queens Library to open a mobile library at the would-be site of construction. In addition, a group called Friends of Hunters Point Library has kicked off their own pop-up library, which uses the “take-a-book-leave-a-book” model and offers free WiFi and downloads to the public.

These solutions follow the recent trend of “pop-up” libraries that seem to mark a renewed focus on community engagement. Some of these libraries, such as Occupy Wall Street’s The People’s Library, are completely community run and often run on donations. Others, like the Cleveland-based ‘Literary Lots’ work with public institutions to provide access in underserved areas.  These directives interest me because they recall the idea of strengthening community service. In “The Professional is Political: Redefining the Social Role of Public Libraries,” Shiraz Durrani and Elizabeth Smallwood state that,

Engaging with the traditional library commodity of information in a ‘non-traditional’ way that responds to local contexts, via the involvement of local people in service design and development, will enable libraries to help bridge the gap between the information rich and the information poor (137). 3

The pop-up library’s mobile and ephemeral nature seems to be a direct response to an information age that allows us a constant flow of communication outside of our immediate surroundings, and to a hostile economic climate that has left the poor segregated in underserved and barren areas of the world. These libraries reinforce the necessity of open access to information and its agents, while abandoning its traditional structure and taking on the transient quality of information today.

This new pop-up model seems to be a way to better engage with communities that don’t have access to traditional libraries. However, I wonder if community engagement necessarily equates to community good. Historically, community engagement has not always meant servicing the public in open and honest ways. American libraries have been centers of education meant to proselytize bourgeois ideals to disenfranchised people. In The Alienated Librarian, Maria Nauratil notes

George Ticknor, leader of the Boston Brahmins and a founder of the Boston Public Library, worried that the steadily increasing immigrant population was unfit ‘to understand our free institutions or to be entrusted with the political power given by universal suffrage,’ and he strongly advocated education as a ‘remedy for this influx of ignorance,’ (38). 4

The library’s opening of access to the general public seemed benevolent, but the underlying forces were patronizing in nature. Upper-class philanthropists believed in libraries as ways to assimilate the working class to their ideals and thus qualm social unrest (Nauratil, 39).  Pop-up, community-based libraries could easily act in a similar manner, disguising assimilation tactics as wholesome public service. A more sinister view could propose that these libraries are infiltrating community spaces to disrupt existing and relevant conversations.

However, this idea that the library can act as a vanguard of mainstream ideals can be disturbed upon closer inspection. We must question what these libraries are meant to offer us and how they choose to interact with us. Not every pop up library follows the same model.

For example, last year the PEN World Voices Festival and Architectural League of New York set out to create ten Little Free Libraries, which used small non-invasive spaces such as mailboxes and trellises to provide a limited number of books to the public. The readers are invited to give self-directed tours of the designers’ favorite reading spots. The books provided are from popular publishers and include titles such as Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Game series. 5

This year, the Floating Library emerged on the Hudson: a pop-up library aboard the Lilac Museum Steamship organized by artist Beatrice Glow. The space is open to the public. The ship will offer, “a range of reading materials from underrepresented authors, artist books, poetry, manifestoes, as well as book collections, that, at the end of the lifecycle of the project will be donated to local high school students with demonstrated need.” The ship also offers art installations, performances, and workshops dedicated to DIY politics with an emphasis on leftist politics and environmental concerns.

Both pop-ups are at least part artistic experiment, but I wonder which library services the community better. Both have an agenda: the Little Free Libraries aim to be accessible to what the public, while The Floating Library aims to expose the public to new ideas, authors, and culture. What is of more value to the public: accessibility or exposure? The Little Free Libraries were set up in deliberately public places, while the Floating Library exists in a contained and maybe exclusionary place. Surely it’s easier to grab a book from your bench-turned-book-shelf than to trek to Pier 25 on the Hudson River. But then again, we must wonder who has the best access to these Little Free Libraries, all located on the Lower East Side? I would also seek to question: where are the librarians, curators, and information specialists? While I am not about to assert that the Little Free Libraries actively aims to uphold bourgeouis ideals and brainwash the working class, the project isn’t interested in engaging the public in conversation surrounding its material.

The Little Free Libraries project seems to focus more on the book than on the flow of information between people. In some ways, this echoes the idea of the enchained book in university libraries. Andre Cossette touches on this in Humanism and Libraries, noting, “The tidy arrangement sufficiently shows the importance that [universities] accorded to the preservation of books as opposed to their diffusion and sharing” (41). 6  Leaving books in odd corners of New York City for casual perusal could hardly be called a focus on preservation. However, both models of libraries seem to value the book over its information. That seems to be the case for the director of the PEN World Voices Festival, Jakab Orsos, who told the Times, “It really restores my faith, this connectedness — how people are actually harboring the beauty of reading and the book and the importance of the book.” 7 Part of the appeal of the Little Free Libraries project is the novelty of seeing a book in a bird-feeder instead of on a shelf. Glow’s “Floating Library” seems more focused on conversation surrounding content, than the book itself. To me, this seems to be the more meaningful way to engage communities. Whether it’s the most appealing way is another question.

On a symbolic level, I wonder about the uprooting of the traditional, physical library. Removing reading, learning, and conversation from the confines of traditional educational structures in favor of the open spaces we tend to have more organic connections with is appealing to me. These pop-up libraries illustrate the ways that information is no longer confined to institutions. When they include underserved communities in relevant conversations, these libraries begin to, as Durrani and Smallwood say, “help bridge the gap between the information rich and the information poor.”

  1. Evelly, Jeanmarie. (May 23, 2014). “Pop-Up and Mobile Libraries to Bring Books to Hunters Point This Summer.” DNAInfo.com. Retrieved from http://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20140523/long-island-city/pop-up-mobile-libraries-bring-books-hunters-point-this-summer
  2. Evelly Jeanmarie. (Feb 27, 2014). “Plans Tweaked for Hunters Point Library After Bids Run Millions Over Budget.” DNAInfo.com. Retrieved from http://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20140523/long-island-city/pop-up-mobile-libraries-bring-books-hunters-point-this-summer
  3. Durrani, Shiraz and Smallwood, Elizabeth. “The Professional is Political: Redefining the Social Role of Public Libraries.” Questioning Library Neutrality: Essasys from Progressive Librarian. Ed. Alison Lewis. Duluth: Library Juice Press, 2008. 119-140.
  4. Nauratil, Maria. The Alienated Librarian. Westport: Greenwoord Press. 1989.
  5. Yee, Vivian. (May 3, 2013.) “With Tiny Libraries, Bringing Free Literature to the Streets.” The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/03/with-tiny-libraries-bringing-free-literature-to-the-streets/
  6. Cossette, Andre. Humanism and Libraries. Library Juice Press. 2009.
  7. Yee, Vivian

Protected: Neutrality and the Digital Divide

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Building the Future – Brooklyn Public Library and Y.A. Services

By Rachel O'Neill

Nearly 30 years in the making, the building of the Central branch of Brooklyn Library that dominates a corner of Grand Army Plaza, went from ground first being broken for the building in 1912, to completed construction in 1941. In 1997 the Landmarks Preservation Commission declared it a landmark building and in 2013 the interior of the library, much like the concept of the Public Library itself, remains a work in progress. Walking into the Central branch is literally like walking into an open book, one that offers glimpses of how the public library of the past and present is actively repositioning itself for a future role as something much more than simply a repository of knowledge and information, accessible to all. On a recent visit, I decided to take myself on a tour of the two floors open to the public before settling into the Youth Wing for an afternoon of observation and a conversation with one of the library’s two children and young adult specialist librarians on duty that day. After the near complete silence in the adult/reference sections and the popular library upstairs, and the low buzz of the info-commons and the library café in the main lobby, the noise level goes up a notch or five as I opened the doors to the Youth Wing which is a world away from traditional notions of the public library as quiet space. And while there is certainly public debate and a lot of enthusiasm for having both types of environments, the palpable energy of the Youth Wing space certainly made for a lively library visit.

The first thing I’m told by Yesha, the Y.A. librarian, who is standing under a “Cats Against Cat Calls” banner (a visual medley of pink lettering and photos of cats in their best haughty feline pose) is that she herself was asked to be quiet recently  by a young patron for talking too loudly – so much for the mythical figure of the shushing librarian! While the main focus of the Youth Wing is still reading and study, how that reading and studying is undertaken is changing rapidly. Books are still central to the space but laptops are also available for checking out and there are eight desktop computers for use in the Y.A. area. Color printing, either from a library computer or a patron’s own electronic device, is available for a small fee and Yesha handles queries and facilitates various printing requests during the course of our conversation.

In addition to the computers in the Youth Wing, teens also have exclusive access to all the computers every Tuesday afternoon between 4.30pm and 6pm in the Info-Commons as part of the Teen Tech Time program. However, by far the most popular teen tech offering is the Active Gaming Arcade program on Saturdays providing access to games such as Minecraft, which hones players creative gaming skills, encourages them to explore new environments, collect resources to use in these spaces and adapt and protect the space from attack.

A downside Yesha mentions in terms of having the availability of online games is that the teens rarely play against each other but tend to retreat into the games by themselves and so another aim of teen programming at the library is to try and balance things out and encourage more interaction between patrons. To this end there is an art club, writing clinic, poetry workshop, book club and a Game On! board game challenge, there’s even a monthly open mic. session as part of the teen program. Programs are planned to run with 2-15 teens taking part and having eight or more participants is considered a success.

Not all the programs are instant hits and Yesha explained that a recent self-portrait program required the librarian to order teens in the tech lab off the computers and point blank refuse them further access until they tried drawing “for at least 10 minutes”! While most did their 10 minutes and fled, eight teens stayed and returned to complete the program the following week, small steps perhaps along the path to what Durrani and Smallwood have called creating the people orientated library service:

As custodians of information, librarians everywhere have a role to play in eliminating the root causes of poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and inequality. It is no longer acceptable for libraries and librarians to refuse to acknowledge this social responsibility. The choice is simple: if the information profession does not acknowledge its social responsibility and act upon it, it will no longer have a social role. People will then develop alternative models of information and knowledge communication, which do meet their needs. There will then be no libraries as we know them today. The choice is our to make – today.

The location of the Central branch means that it services teen patrons across a broad demographic spectrum, from the relatively high-income area of Park Slope to the lower income areas of Crown Heights and Brownsville, as well as patrons who travel from further away to use the facilities unique to the Central branch. In turn this means there is a real opportunity to level the playing field of access, and in terms of teen patrons, by far one of the most effective and popular programs is T4 – today’s teens, tomorrow’s techies.

Previously, I’d spoken to a former participant of the program, now a librarian himself who explained that for him the program had given him an opportunity to take a different path to the one he’d been heading down as young man. While currently only offered at the Central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, the program gives teens a chance to learn basic computer skills via an intensive summer workshop. This is then followed up with a minimum commitment of three hours per week for at least a 6-month period of volunteer work at the library, assisting librarians, and trouble shooting computer problems encountered by older patrons.

This intergenerational aspect and the social skills that are developed while carrying out a responsible volunteer role, as well as the varied practical skills that are learned, demonstrates the active way the library is fostering not just a community for its own future but make tangible what Dewey thought a “Great Community” might be.

Block quote: The Professional is Political: Redefining the Social Role of Public Libraries, Shiraz Durrani and Elizabeth Smallwood  – first appeared in Progressive Librarians, No. 27, Summer 2006. Republished in Questioning Library Neutrality, Alison Lewis Ed. Library Juice Press 2008.

A Dystopian, Vampire Romance – tales of eBooks, publishers and public libraries

By Rachel O'Neill

The Coldest Girl in Cold Town is the latest Y.A. novel by Holly Black, published last month by Little Brown (part of the Hachette Book Group). It falls easily into that most ubiquitous of Y.A. fiction categories: dystopian, vampire romance. A week after publication, I purchased the Kindle edition for $4.99 (I had my reasons). While the New York Public Library purchased two eBook editions, for which there are currently multiple holds on the library website, and 72 hardcover copies (of which 22 are currently available to borrowers). Why so many hardcopies and only two of the eBooks edition? It couldn’t possibly be due to the sky-high price extracted from NYPL by the publisher to acquire an all too temporary license to the eBook edition?

In his recent opinion piece posted on Wired magazine’s website (October 2, 2013) Art Brodsky writes about The Abomination of EBooks: They Price People Out of Reading. While he isn’t too concerned with the fact that eBooks don’t offer the same sensorial experience as printed books, for him:

“The real problem with ebooks is that they’re more “e” than book, so an entirely different set of rules govern what someone — from an individual to a library — can and can’t do with them compared to physical books, especially when it comes to pricing”, (the way eBooks) “are priced differently to consumers and to libraries. That’s how eBooks contribute to the ever-growing divide between the literary haves and have-nots.”

Noting that the mark-up to libraries in some instance can be as much as 300%, Brodsky post examines the variety of other restrictions that come with eBooks, not just in terms of what device an eBook may be read on – which he claims is discriminatory enough in itself – he also tells of how libraries are only allowed to circulate an eBook a certain number of times before a decision must be made to renew the library’s eBook license. Not exactly a vision of a library utopia with equal access to all!

But then should we be surprised?

“That corporations dominate our profession as publishers, hardware manufacturers, software providers, database creators, and network gatekeepers, and that an attendant corporate ethic increasingly infuses how library management defines its modus operandi”

as Peter MacDonald has previously asserted (Corporate Inroads and Librarianship: The Fight for the Soul of the Profession in the New Millennium, essay from Questioning Library Neutrality, ed Alison Lewis 2008. Original essay published in Progressive Librarian, Nos. 12/14. Spring/Summer 1997).

As of this week it may even seem like the already difficult relationship libraries have with eBooks has hit a new crisis as not one but two eBook subscription services were rolled out in quick succession. In September Oyster arrived and was portrayed in the media as “a plucky young NYC-based start up”, and then just this week the social publishing service, Scribd, announced it’s own subscription service had landed HarperCollins as it’s first major publisher to come on board and lend it some traction in the race to be the “Netflix for the eBook”. The Forbes commentary said it all:

“And even though libraries have done this for books, for free, for more than a century, so far there hasn’t been a digital, all you can eat subscription platform for books.”

And clearly we need that eBook buffet.

So where does this leave the public library? Perhaps, like the heroine of many a romance novel, in need of a complete make-over.

“As heretical as it may seem in these times, marketing probably deserves financial preference over the more basic library activities”

(Maria J Nauratil in The Alienated Librarian pg 77, quoting Daniel Carroll’s Library Marketing: Old and New Truths Wilson Library Bulletin 57, November 1982 pg 216). But it must be incredibly demoralizing to be trying to get the message out that public libraries are there to cater to patrons, who are often the most under served in the community, while at the same time coping with underfunding, as well as pressure to maintain their collections in the face of strident commercial competition.

So what about a happy/happier ending? While it might not make everyone happy all of the time, there is much worth considering in Eric Hellman’s August, 2013 blog post about an alternative business model for Libraries and eBooks: A Rational Framework for Library eBook Licensing. Hellman offers up a range of practical suggestions for Libraries and publishers to cooperate over eBook licensing, including the currently contentious notion that if the library buys an eBook, it should get to keep the eBook. However, he is also advocating compromise when he suggests libraries could pay up to a 500% mark-up for the most popular eBooks but a much reduced price for eBooks where the library will most likely have some hand in making them a success. While Hellman acknowledges his proposals would require a radical rethinking of how things are done, never an easy ask, the benefits to both publishers and libraries would be immense.

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