March 21, 2011
A Pound of Flesh: Free Speech in the Context of the Desperate Bargains Made between AALL and the Legal Publishing Industry and Individual Institutional Buyers and Their Vendors
One of AALL's rationalizations for not webcasting, live or archived, or for providing an official transcript of AALL's Vendor Colloquium, was that doing so would not allow participants to speak freely. This provides the opportunity, allegedly, for participants to express views that may not be those of the organizations they represent. I, for one, am betting some vendor reps still self-censored some of their own opinions but we will never know.
Now, in one-on-one communications via phone or email with vendors and law librarians, I do keep discussions strictly confidential, meaning they do not end up in LLB blog posts, for example. Sometimes, I ask, "can I write about that after you review my draft post." If the answer is "no," I'm fine with that. If the answer is yes but subject to my or my company's editing, I accept the edits. No mention about either the negative answer or the edits made are ever published. And sometimes during exchanges with vendors and others, I specifically do not ask a question because I don't want the answer to be held confidential.
But those are private one-on-one conversations. AALL's rationalization for neither webcasting nor creating and publishing a complete transcript of the Vendor Colloquium proceedings is an entirely different matter. It borders on It is insulting to one's intelligence that any law librarian would not understand the difference between any participant stating something is qualified by "this is my institution's policy" and another statement qualified by "this is my opinion which does not represent my institution." And then taking such statements out of context.
Mark Estes' sanctioned blog posts during the AALL's Vendor Colloquium and some later posts after the AALL's Vendor Colloquium essentially followed the Chatham House Rule. See, for example, Mary Jenkins' AALL Spectrum Blog post, An SCCLL Librarian’s Notes from the Vendor Colloquium ("I have 26 handwritten pages of notes; surely, some of that would be of interest to my colleagues. Since my perspective is primarily that of a librarian at a public and subscription law library, I will start by offering my own notes from Ann Fessenden’s presentation (a statement of the challenges facing state, court, and county law libraries (SCCLL) and questions for the publishers) and from the discussion that followed"). Then I will identify the attendees’ shared principles that seem to speak to these concerns.)"
Since I'm unsure whether AALL officialdom knows what the Chatham House Rule is, here it is:
When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.
The reason for the rule is the rationalization used by AALL for not webcasting or publishing an official transcript -- freedom to speak without concern for personal reputations or a participant's official duties and affiliations. My problem is threefold: (1) we paid for this meeting; (2) we have no basis to make any informed judgement about what is forthcoming from it, namely a Shared Principles document and an Action Plan even if drafts are available for member comment; and (3) we are smart enough to know the difference between participants statements that represent their institutions and statements that are personal opinions if the complete record includes those qualifications. If attendees did not make such qualifications during their participation in the meetings, then even they don't know which is which and that means their reliance on what was said is muddled at best.
Fear of Reprisals. Over the years, I have talked with a fair number of law librarians who are afraid to speak openingly in public about systemic issues in the vendor-buyer relationship (unfortunately that also includes AALL members serving on AALL committees worried about consequences from AALL officialdom). The response, in a nutshell, goes something like this:
I have to put my employer's needs first and, even if I qualify my statement with a disclaimer that "the opinion I express is my professional opinion and does not necessary represent my employer" I am worried about the consequences.
Frankly, many professional law librarians are afraid that one or more of our very expensive vendors will find a way to make the execution of their employment-related responsibilities "difficult."
The vast, very vast,majority of such concerns are expressed by private sector law librarians -- the market sector that drives what our vendors do. While I personally know of no such "retribution," (feel free to comment anonymously or email me privately, if you like), the fear is real in the private sector -- less so in the public sector and much less so in the academic sector. but neither sector, individually or combined, matter as much as the private sector to our major vendors and their revenue generation objectives.
If our association doesn't think we know the difference between official and unofficial statements made by participants in an official meeting, just how dumb do they think we are? Here's a desperate bargain that must be eliminated if AALL is serious about consumer advocacy.
If individual librarians are afraid of vendors extracting their "pound of flesh," then it is time to address the desperate bargain between institutional buyers and vendors by way of meaningful publicity and sanctions by AALL.
Both are unacceptable. [JH]