Last year, I became persona non grata on Library Twitter because I said on that I thought the CIA should be able to exhibit at ALA since they were sharing information about really decent librarian jobs.
I wanted to expand on my remarks about this since 1) my Twitter account is private and 2) the toxic culture around the CIA petition has reared its head again. (I actually wrote this a few months ago during a different toxic callout culture incident, but it’s once again timely now that the CIA has purchased a booth at ALAAC.)
For your hate-reading pleasure, I’ve grouped my objections to the “No CIA at ALA” movement into a few categories.
Some of the CIA critics are seriously confused, and should not be taken seriously.
The ALA/CIA issue started when the American Library Association featured the CIA library in a regular feature on their Instagram account. It was a super popular post and the comments on Instagram were overwhelmingly positive. (The reception was so warm that the CIA then purchased a booth at ALA’s annual conference. These booths are not cheap. So, ALA’s staff successfully monetized their social media presence, while reacting nimbly to the desires of their online audience for more information about these jobs. Sadly, instead of kudos for a job well done, staff were barraged on Twitter with accusations of “collaborating” with the CIA.)
I should have known that trouble was brewing when Librarian Twitter had a meltdown, accusing ALA of letting the CIA “take over” their Instagram. In fact, it was a post in a series of “instagram takeovers” which featured many government libraries. But I guess Librarians Online thought that the ALA had actually “turned over” their handle and/or information.
To those people, I sincerely ask: what is wrong with you?
There was an entire series featuring different libraries where it was clear that professional photographers had gone onsite and taken pictures ahead of time. It’s terrifying that any of these people teach about “information literacy.” I think these people should get off Twitter and get some common sense. Unfortunately, attacking people who disagree with them online isn’t enough: a handful of these Library Twitterati are now planning to “protest” the CIA at the next ALA conference (and by “protest” I mean “prevent jobseekers from accessing information they are interested in at a vendor’s booth”).
So here I am blogging about them, instead, with the hope that a reasonable blog post will persuade people who are on the fence to mind their own business and let conference attendees look for whatever jobs they want to at an expensive conference that they paid to go to.
Government by protest/Twitter/petition/etc. undermines representative government structures in membership organizations.
After Instagram-gate, Library Twitter got upset about the CIA having a booth at the conference. I believe people protested at the 2018 conference, and then there was a widely publicized open letter. I have an issue with letters like these, which have sadly become more common within our field.
Governance by this kind of petition is not aligned with my personal values of representative government.
My first criticism of this”open letter” was that its authors should have asked a member of Council to introduce a resolution or a proposal at Council, thus triggering the mechanisms that are in place for a more discussion. Plenty of councilmembers signed the petition. Any one of them could have introduced a resolution to either ban the CIA or to form a working group to create a proposed exhibitor code of conduct.
Instead, they signed an open letter that seems to have fizzled out (discussion of the matter seems to have basically faded to people making personal attacks on me for pointing out on Twitter that some people who paid to go to a job fair might actually be interested in highly-compensated federal jobs with excellent benefits).
I don’t like open letters/petitions because they trick people into feeling like they have done something simply by signing. These types of petitions devolve into a form of performative activism that I feel provides short-term social/emotional validation without actually generating strategy or momentum around broader justice and access issues.
These periodic bursts of outrage and petitions are not just a distraction from the real work of governance. They also obscure the wishes of the majority of the membership. A vocal minority on Twitter is mistaken for the membership itself. Random people, not affiliated with ALA, sign these petitions. Members of Council then chastise other members for asking whether signatories of these petitions are members, occasionally speaking of them perjoratively because of their skin color. This kind of racial commentary is unprofessional, and worse: it’s not collegial. People should be discussing ideas, not attacking each other personally. (For an example of how polite discourse devolves, you can check out all the crap people said about me on Twitter because I pointed out that the American Library Association is not the Antifa Library Association.)
This kind of disiveness leads to low member engagement, and worse: it leads to people leaving our professional associations because they’re sick of the Twitter echo chamber and bullying of anyone who expresses an opinion that isn’t perfectly aligned with whatever today’s social justice groupthink happens to be.
I have more to say about online call-out culture and the people who are cynically leveraging it to build platforms for themselves, but I don’t want to go there in this post. Maybe I will say some of it on Twitter. Follow me for real talk!
This particular protest of the CIA is ad hoc, and does not offer coherent policy recommendations.
Beyond my issues with performative activism in general, and specifically how it creates a toxic call-out culture at ALA, I simply think it is wrong-headed to propose to ban the CIA without introducing a broader vendor policy. It puzzles me that there was no petition to ban far more dangerous vendors from ALA.
For example, Reed Elsevier, DBA LexisNexis, has been providing database services to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement since at least 2014. These databases are used to track down undocumented people in the United States. Apparently, it took the current administration’s solicitations for librarians to notice that LexisNexis bid on proposals for “extreme vetting” tech.
Amazon Publishing is also exhibiting at ALA. Although the publishing arm of Amazon is probably pretty well separated from the (likely racially biased) facial recognition software it sells to law enforcement, there are still serious privacy concerns with every aspect of Amazon’s business.
If we are trying to ban vendors who make the conference “unsafe,” I think Elsevier is a much bigger risk than the CIA. Conference attendees know to steer clear of the CIA, but are not necessarily aware of Elsevier or Amazon’s activities. Thus, the myopic focus on the CIA was a missed opportunity to have bigger discussions.
Speaking of the bigger picture:
The vitriol against the CIA is bizarrely specific.
I don’t believe that the CIA is uniquely evil or nefarious among government agencies. I do not see a meaningful difference between the Department of Defense, the CIA, and the State Department.
So why are we not writing open letters in support of banning all of them pre-emptively? Why single out the CIA?
Nor do no I think there is a bright line between the work of intelligence agencies and the work of Congress or the higher levels of the Executive Branch. Would the anti-CIA people ban the White House from recruiting librarians? What about the Library of Congress? The Library of Congress provides research assistance to members of Congress, who set imperialist foreign policy and have these other nefarious agencies reporting to them. Most U.S. government agencies are complicit. (I also do not trust the Library of Congress to run a search engine, which is among the most ridiculous suggestions I’ve ever heard on Twitter. The fact that it came from academics is frankly terrifying.)
And for that matter, I don’t think there’s a huge difference between working for the CIA or working for any number of private scetor employers. I certainly don’t think working for the CIA is inherently more unethical than working for Facebook, for example.
Speaking of shady tech companies, I think it’s interesting that people with computer science degrees aren’t bullied online for accepting positions in the private sector. This brings me to my next issue with the people trying to ban the CIA from ALA:
The discourse around this particular job is a manifestation of broader themes of class privilege, classism and ableism in our profession.
The CIA offers highly-compensated jobs with good benefits in a field where people are hurting for both. People think it’s okay to try to censor information about these jobs because of the pernicious class privilege in our field. I don’t think it’s okay for librarians to censor information from people who have spent their own money to go to ALA because they want to find a better job.
I can’t help but notice how many academic librarians signed that open letter. Your perspective on ALA is different if someone else is paying for you to be there.
So shut the fuck up.
In library school, my classmates and I often chatted about new job postings, specializations, etc. I would often make comments to the effect of, “that job doesn’t pay enough for me to apply,” or, “I’m focusing my studies on data analysis because it’s better compensated.” Conversations about money usually result in someone eventually saying, “we didn’t become librarians for the money!”
Actually, I did! I worked 30-60 hours a week during undergrad. I did every kind of job under the sun and I still couldn’t find work after graduating college. I moved back in with my parents in northern Virginia and got a job doing customer service and managing the file room at a car dealership. My parents told me that grad school was the new bachelor’s and that I needed to go back to school.
We landed on library science in part because I had a low undergraduate GPA (thanks to working at jobs that I thought would position me for employment after school – I was wrong) and serious learning disabilities (my undergraduate major choices were limited by those). I also had a neighbor who was a successful law librarian and an adjunct professor at Catholic University, who had planted the seed with my parents long ago that I should be a librarian.
I was skeptical about library school, because I had been following people online for years who seemed to regret their degrees and who posted all the time about how bad the job market was. (Unfortunately, I didn’t realize until after graduating that all of those people have been complaining about their jobs for over a decade yet I’ve never seen them at networking events. I also discovered via conferences that some of them are just borderline unemployable in customer-facing positions.)
But any librarian who can get a job with the CIA can just get a job elsewhere!
Again, why does no one ever say this about software engineers, or any other job? Hmm. Anyway…
Although I’ve read a lot about how this is a “generalist” degree that positions you for lots of different work, unfortunately, I haven’t found that to be the case. Although I have the skills, aptitude and experience to successfully perform in many roles (especially in market research, which is my original and perhaps greatest interest), because I haven’t held full time work or unpaid internships in a handful of the “right” places, I can’t get past an HR screen.
Adding to my challenges finding work, many companies prefer to hire and train 22-year-olds than 30-year-olds with actual work experience, but if you don’t have the right degrees or internships during college (or if you go to the wrong school), you can’t get a job when you’re 22, either.
Of course, plenty of libraries also prefer to hire inexperienced 20-somethings over library professionals…but that’s a post for another day.
Most people complaining about this just don’t understand the D.C. job market.
In DC, if you are a librarian, you only really have two choices. You can either make ~50k at a contractor with marginal health benefits and 2 weeks total PTO (these positions usually top out at around 80k for people with highly specialized skills), or working for the CIA making 75k+ with a much better insurance and PTO package. If you have legal research experience, I assume you can get a job in a law firm – but I don’t, so I assume I wouldn’t be successful seeking these kinds of positions, especially given the sheer volume of unemployed JDs.*
Most federal jobs in the executive branch/competitive civil service go to military veterans. You can get around this by working for the Library of Congress (the legislative branch has way more discretion in hiring), but that’s an employer well-known for nepotism.
The intelligence agencies are some of the very few meritocracies in DC – and they’re known as pretty great places to work as a result. (Other highly technical agencies are also good places to work. But if you had the aptitude to be a specialized and successful research scientist, chances are, you wouldn’t be a librarian.)
Speaking of specialized and successful researchers: I’m constantly shocked at how little academic librarians are paid. I make more in Chicago than my colleagues in academic libraries in the Bay Area, DC area, and Seattle. Some of these people have ten years of experience. I don’t think that’s okay.
If you think it’s okay, you might have class privilege.
Speaking of good places to work:
If your employer claims to have a positive mission, they are probably abusive (and most of the library field is)
Here’s a PSA for anyone still reading this: most passion careers and employers you’d feel good about working for are abusive.
The irony here is that all these would-be censors fawn over April Hathcock when she writes a blog post about how the library is a plantation, but they are actively trying to censor information from people who are so desperate to get off “the plantation” that they paid hundreds of dollars of their own money to go to a job fair.
The bigger irony, of course, is that they want to lecture ME (a first-generation American – my family fled a Latin American dictatorship) about “class solidarity.”
Working in these kinds of organizations is terrible for people’s mental health (and often their physical health, since employees are subjected to guilt-trips about not being committed enough to the mission when they try to set boundaries).
I know this because I’ve been there: I turned down jobs with a financial regulatory body and the Department of Defense because I wanted to work again in disability advocacy and policy. Talk about an abusive field!
The employers that don’t have a feel-good mission usually pay better and have more interesting work environments. Because these employers make money off of their employees, they are invested in hiring good people and preventing them from burning out. At my job in the private sector, I have great work-life balance and am intellectually stimulated on a daily basis.
So, look. If you want a vacation? If you want to be able to save for retirement? If you want to be able to enjoy a nice meal out or help your family out with money? You’re not a bad person. And having your retirement squared away, and taking vacations, are all incredibly valuable for your mental health. (But I guess encouraging people to tend to their own physical and psychiatric needs isn’t “solidarity” or “intersectionality.” Whatever.)
If you want to make $75,000 as a librarian, and the CIA is your only chance to do that, I don’t see how you’re any more “complicit” than a janitor who works there. Librarians aren’t setting foreign policy.
It’s a decent office job in a high-cost of living area. People will probably be pretty nice to you. You’ll have a high-level security clearance, so you can command a higher salary in other government consulting roles if you want to leave. There is nothing wrong with aspiring to upward class mobility.
Anyone who tells you otherwise has class privilege of their own (or a partner who helps pay the bills).
Because I am not ableist, I don’t judge people who need or want to work in healthy environments.
Speaking of healthy work environments and ableism…
When I started library school, I was waiting tables. This reinforced my conviction that I needed to get a desk job ASAP, because my body is not suited to positions that require a great deal of standing. I had other issues after working as a page for 18 months. Fortunately, with good health insurance, I’ve been able to get my body back into shape.
If you have a chronic health condition (or a family member who needs care), the federal govenment is really your only option in DC. If you don’t believe me, consider that federal employees are about to get maternity leave, despite their already-generous sick and vacation accruals. Contractors aren’t – and their PTO packages are chintzy.
I have friends who have worked for government contractors who were not flexible with flex time or remote work. If you have a chronic condition you are spending all of your PTO going to doctor’s appointments. If you do not have specialized skills outside of library work, a federal job is the absolute best job you can get.
I’m not totally convinced that the people bashing me on Twitter actually know how much it costs to have a chronic health condition. If you have any kind of physical disability or illness, you are spending at least several hundred dollars at the beginning of every year just to hit your deductible, and your spending doesn’t really go down from there. At my last federal job, after I hit my deductible, I was still spending between $200-500 a month just to maintain my health – and that was with solid government health insurance.
One of the people who dragged me online for saying that the CIA was advertising good jobs said that she would prefer to work at WalMart. This is an incredibly ableist comment. There are multiple lawsuits against WalMart because they do not make reasonable accommodations for their employees. WalMart also eliminated greeter positions, which employed many people with disabilities.
This comment is also hypocritical: WalMart causes severe environmental and economic damage on a global scale…just like the CIA!
The final missing piece of these discussions is the concept of effective altruism. To me, it’s far more unethical for someone who could earn $75,000 to earn $40,000 (the salaries I was being offered in public libraries in Chicagoland).
Even if you can quantify your work as a public or academic librarian and determine that it generates $35,000 in “value” each year, I still think there is serious potential for a bigger social impact if you instead earn that money and direct your resources to social improvements and/or social investing.
(But don’t take my word for it. The most influential moral philosophers and economists of our time have been articulating exactly this position for decades.)
Working for employers like mine gives you a lot of resources. You can use those resources to do great things in your private life. And personally, I’ve accomplished a lot more in my life when I haven’t been worried about my health spiraling out of control and subsequently costing me a job.
My next financial goal (other than having children) is to purchase property suitable for use as a Section 8 rental property. I believe in Section 8 as a program. I think it’s what the government should be doing. I want to provide affordable, high-quality housing for working class people in my community. I think this is how I can have the biggest impact on inequality and everything else the people protesting the CIA claim to care about.
I’m also really looking forward to digging into corporate citizenship initiatives and continuing to leverage my work network for fundraising. Those are resources you’ll never get in the public sector, and this doesn’t even get into the kinds of skills you get in a very short time by working at a high-performing organization. I’ve only been at [REDACTED] for seven months but I am shocked every day by my gains in productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness. (More on this in another post, but obviously I hate the article criticizing Pete Buttiegieg for saying that McKinsey was “a place to learn.” It was probably the best objective place for him to build skills. McKinsey would have kept on McKinsey-ing whether or not Pete chose to work there. No company is going to stop being evil because an individual chooses not to work there. On the other hand, an individual can absolutely make a positive structural impact at companies that we think are “evil.”)
I work in a clerical position where I am respected and treated fairly. My MLS is higly relevant to my work, it is respected and valued, and I work with intelligent and driven people who want to make the world better. My employer provides upward paths of mobility to people from diverse backgrounds and is a leader in gender equity and corporate citizenship. My employer gives me the flexibility I need to focus on my health and my family. As a result, I have become more flexible, creative, and a better listener and problem-solver.
Best of all, at the end of the day, I have energy and creativity to give back to my community and care for my family. I think the world is probably a slightly better place because I’m not a librarian living at the poverty line (literally my only other option).
My haters are all keyboard warriors; prove me wrong
Because of my decision to treat my job as a source of income instead of personal meaning, the past year, I’ve:
– gotten multiple trans youth out of abusive living situations and into supportive, stable ones
– exposed an abusive GLBT shelter operator
– provided subsidized housing to first generation librarians of color
– provided employment for multiple disabled people and people of color
– helped women of color receive fair financial settlements when they had been mistreated at work
– connected women of color to employment opportunities
– worked the Hill to reform an arcane and obscure, but incredibly important, disability policy agency (hopefully, more on this to come…)
This does not include my structured volunteer activities (shoutout to the Court Appointed Special Advocates and the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance programs). And I’ve helped a bunch of animals, too. My job’s flexibility allows me to be actively involved in medical care for a chronically ill family member, and will allow me to welcome a child into my family in the near future.
Personally, I think a lot of the people who are so upset about the CIA love to complain on Twitter and flex their social justice bona fides because they have a lot of ennui and suspect, deep down, that their lives are meaningless.
To all my haters, I ask: what have you done lately? With few exceptions (and they must be made for the authors of the open letter, who are undeniably doing good things – I believe their intentions were good and not attention-seeking, but I don’t believe that about most of the other people who are trying to govern by petition), I mostly see my haters:
– complaining on Twitter
– writing open letters and/or blog posts
– acting like victims
– trying to publicly shame people who disagree with them
Am I missing something? Are my haters doing awesome stuff that I should know about?
* ETA: Information about law librarianship
A reader was kind enough to share the following:
“While the majority of academic library jobs require both the JD and MLS, firm jobs don’t, by and large. You posit that you’d still be an unlikely candidate because of the “sheer volume of unemployed JDs,” but some firms even prefer to hire MLS-only candidates because that makes it less likely the librarian will be doing legal work (applying facts to law), which is a big no-no if you’re not licensed to practice in the jurisdiction. For a sample of current law librarian jobs, you can see the SEAALL jobs board, https://seaall.wildapricot.org/employment , especially the job openings at Miller & Chevalier, Hogan Lovells, and Ogletree Deakins.
[Many jobs] require law firm/legal research experience, so practically speaking one might have to start as a paralegal or at a pretty small firm and work their way up. But no required JD.”
I think I would have been a great paralegal, I’m sad that I graduated from college at a time when those jobs were impossible to get! Do you know anyone with an MLS who has successfully parlayed it into a position as a paralegal? Tell me! I want to interview them for my blog. Even though I make too much money now to change careers, I think this is useful information for other people and I want to share!