The new ALA Code of Conduct

I’ve mentioned on Twitter, but this should be formally announced on the blog as well: ALA now has a conference code of conduct.

how it happened

The policy grew out of face-to-face and Twitter conversations a few months ago, with a highly collaborative (and fruitfully argumentative) Google doc draft that wound its way through ALA process – Counsel, the executive board, et cetera – to become a final statement.

It seems I’ve been identified as The Person To Talk To About This — and I am more than willing to talk to anyone about it! — but I want to clarify for the record that I was only one of many people involved in turning this idea into reality. Other people brought more urgency to starting the process, more draft language to the Google doc, and more knowledge of ALA process to bear. I want to make sure they are recognized here.

The Ada Initiative and Geek Feminism provided invaluable starting points, in terms of both sample policies to work from, and explanations of what these policies are and why they matter.

The following people contributed to the Google doc:

Aaron Dobbs, Bess Sadler, Chris Bourg, Chris Martin, Cindi Trainor Blyberg, Coral Sheldon-Hess, Courtney Young, Jason Griffey, Jenny Levine, John Jackson, Karen Schneider, Lauren Pressley, Lea Susan Engle, Lisa Rabey, Mary Ghikas, Matthew Ciszek, Melia Erin Fritch White, Tyler Dzuba.

I’m sure there were others who contributed to the conversation, but whose names I did not keep a record of or (particularly in the case of ALA staffers) never knew, and I apologize for the omission.

Above and beyond, though, Mary Ghikas, ALA’s Senior Associate Executive Director, deserves credit, for working with ALA’s lawyer to make this a document that the organization can sign off on, for understanding the realities of its staffing and staff training enough to make this a document we can implement, and for herding all the cats necessary for final approval.

Thank you, everyone.

what I learned

Like I said, I’ve been The Person To Talk To About This.

It took me a while to get comfortable with this role, and I’m still not, 100%. Mary Ghikas did a huge amount of the heavy lifting. Others wrote most of the words, or were first to insist we had to do this thing. Me? I…stuck around to the end, mostly. And translated.

The translation comes pretty naturally; I’ve been at the intersecting edges of enough groups that I like the challenge of reframing one set of cultural constructs in a way that makes sense in another context. And there was a lot of that, and I expect will be more. Code of Conduct discussions come out of the technology world, where the discourse about gender is often very different than it is in libraries, and where there have been numerous recent high-profile incidents of conference harassment. I found along the way that this context is wholly unfamiliar to many librarians with nontechnical backgrounds, so there has been, and I expect will be, a process of explaining. Ongoing and challenging and fun.

But sticking around to the end, man. That doesn’t come naturally to me at all. I like the first 80% of anything, the shiny part full of ideas and possibility. The bit I can do in a couple days of enthusiasm-fueled focus. The bit that doesn’t require me to make to-do lists and keep track of stuff.

And my role in this process? A whole lot of it was exactly that: putting items on a list, with deadlines. Emailing people. Checking in to see if the doc had been edited and the comments resolved. Asking about status. Making sure that (as I’m doing right now) the result gets publicized.

And it…seems like so little. Nothing that takes special talent or insight. None of those amazing leaderly gifts people dream of having. Just an act of will.

And yet, someone’s got to be there at the end. Or you don’t get to have ends.

This is going to work its way through my skull for a while, being quietly, profoundly transformative.

but why? stories and values

But, why do we need this, several people have asked. Are things like this a problem at ALA conferences? We don’t have high-profile incidents, like they do in tech.

Well. Part of being The Person To Talk To About This is becoming a keeper of stories. People don’t just ask about policy; they tell you things in whispers. That time in a bar. That thing that happened and they didn’t know what to do at the time, or what to do after.

No, we haven’t had outlandishly-troglodyte incidents that convulse the internet for a week, and we have very few people willing to speak publicly about the things that have happened, but that doesn’t mean we’re without problems.

But even if we were, this would be worth doing. Because it’s better to have and not to need than to need and not to have. Because anyone — anyone — who feels threatened at ALA, at this place that is my community and my second home and my metamorphosis, should have a place to turn. No one should ever be harassed and feel alone. No one should ever wonder whether ALA will help.

A conference anti-harassment policy is a mechanism for investigating and resolving disputes, but it is also a statement of values. A signal to everyone of who we are.

ALA seeks to provide a conference environment in which diverse participants may learn, network and enjoy the company of colleagues in an environment of mutual human respect. We recognize a shared
responsibility to create and hold that environment for the benefit of all

I want my association to publicly state that it values being a safe space for everyone. I’m glad that it has.

21 thoughts on “The new ALA Code of Conduct

  1. This is fantastic! Can we make this committee permanent? Y’all could be like the A-Team or Mary Poppins — do the superhero swoop in, solve a seemingly intractable problem in librarianship, post the results.

    I’m sure this topic will be discussed quite a bit more, both before Midwinter, during, and after. One place I know it will be discussed, and where I encourage your readers to participate in that discussion, is during the Top Tech Trends panel on Sunday, January 26, 2014 in Philadelphia:


    1. Oh hey, that’s rad that it’ll be at TTT. Will have to listen for it.

      And let’s *not* make the committee permanent! I’d really rather have a fluid thing where people who care about problems can work on them. Maybe the next problem we solve (oh yes, we will) will have a different set of people! And they should get to play too.

      But this idea of getting things done, I could go for making a habit of it…


  2. There seems to be some belief (in That Library Facebook Group That Shall Not Be Named, At Least Publicly Here) that this means Big Brother is Watching You at ALA, and we can’t have fun anymore. What would be your response to comments like that?


    1. 1) I refer you to the actual text of the code of conduct, which includes “Conference participants seek to learn, network and have fun.” (Emphasis added.)

      2) I try to think of these conversations not as adversarial situations but as opportunities for engagement. One of the things that came up over and over in drafting the CoC is that ALA members come from very different backgrounds – different parts of the country, different subcultures, different generations – and we bring different expectations to the conference about its purpose in our lives and about appropriate behavior in professional spaces. There is *necessarily* a grey area where people of good faith will disagree, and will be surprised and brought up short by the disagreements.

      And that’s okay. It’s a chance to listen and reflect and collaboratively work for mutual understanding.

      That’s an opportunity that’s time-consuming and sometimes frustrating and takes some back-and-forth. But librarians are generally decent people and we do generally want people to have positive conference experiences, even if we differ on the specifics of what that might mean, and I’ve had some ultimately productive conversations via patience and listening and trying to really understand what’s going on, and reframe things in ways that other people can understand.


      1. I have a question that probably reveals the limits of my imagination and my laziness, but… What fun things can’t people do now that ALA has a conference code of conduct?


      2. Honestly, I can’t imagine. Chicago, I took a bunch of people out to a restaurant with outrageously copious bourbon flights, and one of them had to leave early because she’d organized a trip to see male strippers with bedazzled junk, and as far as I’m concerned all of that was consensual and opt-in and after-hours and off-campus and I really can’t see what code of conduct issues it could possibly raise.

        I can see time and place things raising concerns (bedazzled junk is not appropriate on the exhibitor floor, or even at official happy hours or exhibitor galas, right? because we violate that opt-in, consensual thing?) But it seems to me that the only “fun” it would bar is the kind that *isn’t actually fun*, because some people are maybe enjoying being all transgressive and crazy, but others are stuck there feeling powerless.

        Seriously, let me state in the strongest possible terms that I am okay with informed, consenting adults doing whatever they want. In official spaces, in public spaces, in spaces people kindasorta have to go to because of career or social obligations, there’s a lot more people who need to be informed and to consent, which means a narrower range of what’s acceptable, *which is totally okay because consent and inclusion are awesome*. In your suite at the Bellagio at Vegas 2014 with a half-dozen of your best friends, some adventurous contortionists you struck up a friendship with after Cirque du Soleil, and an open bar tab? Hell, kids, go crazy. Just don’t expect me to be there.


  3. I suspect you’ve already heard this, but I wanted to ensure it. The already mention FaceBook group had a lot of problems trying to figure out what this paragraph means:
    “Speakers are asked to frame discussions as openly and inclusively as possible and to be aware of how language or images may be perceived by others. Participants may – and do – exercise the “law of two feet.” Exhibitors must follow all ALA Exhibits rules and regulations and ALA policies.”

    I parsed it as a two sentences for Presenters, paraphrased as ‘be aware of how you could be perceived as attendees may walk out if they are offended’.
    Followed by one sentence for exhibitors.

    Others seem to have taken it as three bullet points:
    – Speakers are…
    – Participants may…
    – Exhibitors must…

    Other than that confusion on “the law of two feet”, commenters were generally glad to see a code of conduct has been written.


    1. As the policy’s goal is that we work mutually toward a culture where everyone can have positive experiences, aliens and the Illuminati are welcome at ALA conferences. If they’d like to learn about library issues, network, and have fun, I’d like them to attend.

      Abductions, of course, are unlikely to be consensual and would tend to disrupt our joint work toward a welcoming culture, so the policy will have to frown on those.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’ve been an active member of ALA for more than 40 years and I’m currently the ASCLA Councilor. After reading this thread and the recently announced policy I feel like I’m Rip Van Winkle and I’ve just awakened from my 40 year sleep.

    Who raised the issue? A speaker? Members? Is it because we’re going to Las Vegas. It looks like the Board has discussed it, and the Code of Conduct has been approved. Does this code apply to all conferences? Does it apply to in person conferences virtual conferences, workshops? Were the divisions engaged in the discussion? Was there open comment period?

    A bit more background would be helpful. thank you


    1. I’ll answer as many of these as I can in sequence, and ask some other people to weigh in on the ones where I can’t give you a good answer.

      Quite a few members have asked about this issue over the past year. It’s also an issue for speakers; John Scalzi, who spoke at ALA last Annual, shortly afterward took a pledge not to speak at conferences lacking this sort of policy, and hundreds of potential speakers in the technology and science-fiction-writing spheres have taken similar pledges.

      It is not because of Vegas. Code of Conduct discussions have been thriving in the technology sphere for several years now, and many technology conferences have either adopted them or discussed doing so. One of the interesting things for me in this process has been discovering how *un*familiar the issue is outside of technology, when it is hard to go a week without encountering it *in*side; the issues are old hat to many LITA members in a way they are not necessarily in other divisions. The Ada Initiative and Geek Feminism links in the post are good starting points for context on that discussion.

      The participants in the discussion cited above include two ALA staffers and several ALA councilors. I wasn’t privy to the internal ALA discussions and I don’t follow the ALA council list, so I can’t speak to how or whether the issues were raised in those spheres; I’ll ask them to comment.

      I am a LITA Board member, as are several of the people listed above; LITA has not had a formal discussion of this issue, but awareness among the Board and the members is fairly high. I won’t speak for the other board members, but I consider myself to have been representing my constituents in this matter.

      The Google doc is, and has always been, open for comment, and we made full edit privileges available to anyone who asked.


    2. Liz, this issue arose — mostly in Facebook posts and Twitter posts from ALA members — prior to Annual in Chicago. Based on the extent of the comment thread and repeated “Does ALA have a code of conduct statement for conferences?” line, I raised the issue at the Chicago meeting of the ALA Conference Committee (standing). Their reaction was somewhat like your initial reaction, “huh?” — followed by a good discussion. This is a huge issue in the “tech” world — both for members/attendees and for potential speakers. Some of the statements being used in the “tech” world would not, in fact, work for ALA. ALA has very strong policies — and a strong culture — around intellectual freedom, for instance. Thus, the careful language you see in the final statement. We worked through a pretty careful analysis of applicable ALA policies and also spent some significant time looking at the various legal issues. We will post this on the MW site and on the AC site. This was discussed with ALA unit managers (division execs, office directors) during the early stages. AASL, ACRL and PLA will make individual decisions re. how they handle this at their conferences.


  5. I see no mention of privacy or confidentiality. I have found myself tagged in photos I was unaware were being taken, which makes me a little twitchy. And I’ve always wondered how much information exhibitors pick up off those badge cards – it creeps me out to be greeted by name by strangers. Perhaps I’m alone in these concerns? If not, is there the possibility of adding a line about respecting the privacy of other attendees?


    1. I also find those badge readers creepy (and I never use them, which prevents people from getting any information off them). I think clarifying the privacy policy exhibitors are held to in using them would be good (and if there *isn’t* one, defining it would be very good).

      That said, privacy policies are typically separate from and outside the scope of codes of conduct, which are really meant to address harassment. (A good one is also a lot longer than a line; I’ve read quite a lot of them and there’s potentially a lot of legal verbiage to include.) I think advocating for a separate privacy policy, or better communication about existing privacy policies, would be a better course of action than stretching the scope of this policy.


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