ALA’s New Online Code of Conduct and Commercial Activity

The American Library Association has a new Online Code of Conduct, which establishes rules for participation in the ALA Connect forums. The Connect forums have mostly replaced email discussion lists as the place where librarians have their professional communications as members of the association, so they are an important foundation of professional activity now. The Code of Conduct is mostly about maintaining a safe environment for people, to be free from online harassment and support respectful communication. It also takes care of other issues, like protecting ALA’s nonprofit status by prohibiting support for candidates for public office, and preventing copyright violations.

But it’s another rule in the new Code of Conduct, one that is a bit different from the others, that I am going to talk about here. This is what it says:

“Promotion of paid products, events, or services not initiated by the American Library Association is not allowed.”

On the surface it seems to be simply about protecting ALA members from spam, which is something we want. The problem is that it only defines commercial marketing as spam if it comes from outside the association. ALA is using the rule to protect its own commercial products and services from competition in the professional space.

You should know that I’m sharing these thoughts as a librarian who’s been a member of ALA since 1997, but also as the founder of a commercial entity within the library space. So, I’m particularly attuned to the issues around commercial activity and volunteer labor within the profession. It has brought into focus for me a built-in tension within ALA in the modern era.

On the one hand, ALA is the main professional organization for librarians, which means that it is the space where librarians focus their professional communication, developing standards and dealing with issues as a group. In this context, it isn’t what ALA as an entity does that matters, but what we do as the membership of ALA. As a professional association, ALA is us. The business entity of ALA (the nonprofit organization with a budget and staff) is there to support members’ communication as a profession.

On the other hand, ALA is legally a business entity, even though it is has the status of a nonprofit. It is an entity that does and speaks apart from its membership, even if what it does and says is meant to be decided democratically (as undemocratic as some have found its process at times). As a business entity, ALA has a $50 million budget. Only 18% of its revenue comes from membership dues. The rest comes from its commercial activities – publishing books and other materials, putting on conferences (which brings in registration fees and vendor fees), and offering online classes, among other things. To an extent, ALA members’ volunteer labor (what is called “association work”) is fed into these commercial products and services. This can include presenting at ALA conferences and doing committee work that leads to published products. ALA is a nonprofit, so this commercial revenue all gets fed back into supporting the activities of the association. But a good portion of those activities also supports the revenue generation. It’s a cycle. It’s not a bad thing, but it does mean that ALA is a commercial participant in the library space that it supports.

The thing is that it is not the only commercial participant in that space. The central publication that brings together public librarians as a readership, for example, is Library Journal, not American Libraries. (The editor-in-chief of Library Journal, incidentally, has, over the past century and more, often participated in the governance of ALA as an elected member of ALA Council. Eric Moon even served as ALA President.) Other commercial entities in the library sphere are, in various ways, also central to it (both profit and nonprofit entities). The biggest of these is OCLC, which publishes the Dewey Decimal Classification and runs the central cataloging resource, WorldCat. OCLC also offers online classes through WebJunction. Ingram runs Books in Print and maintains the ISBN registry. There are also numerous other publishers and education and training providers in the field – again, profit and nonprofit organizations. These commercial entities are important participants that help make up the lifeblood of the profession, alongside individual librarians.

So, I am concerned about this new rule in the Online Code of Conduct, prohibiting “Promotion of paid products, events, or services not initiated by the American Library Association” in the primary forums for professional communication in librarianship. ALA, as a commercial entity, is trying to leverage its role as a professional association in protecting its commercial activity from competition.

So much of what is done by people in the library space is not on a 100% volunteer basis. Where there is financial remuneration for librarians’ contributions to the profession (outside of their jobs), there is a commercial entity involved, whether it is a big one like ALA or OCLC, or a small one like Library Juice Academy. There is a blend of cooperation and competition among these entities within the library space. ALA’s Code of Online Conduct limits the participation of competing groups in the library space – groups that help to make up that space in a broader sense.

Full disclosure, in case this needs to be clearer: I am speaking as the founder of a group that has an interest in this rule. Historically, we have used library discussion lists run by ALA to announce new books and upcoming classes. Up to now we have used Connect groups for the same purpose, and I believe ALA members have found our commercial messages valuable.

The Online Code of Conduct will be continuously revised, and I hope that group moderators, who are currently responsible for its revisions, will reconsider this rule.

— Rory Litwin, Founder of Library Juice Press and Library Juice Academy

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