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Although I was never a member of the Canadian Library Association, I - along with many other people - had some criticisms of it. One my my main concerns was that while it officially endorsed intellectual freedom, its endorsement had - at least as far as I could see - no effect on the organizations that composed it. CAUT is active in the academic world making sure that universities kept up their ends of various bargains, and had a power to sanction that CLA never had, and likely never wanted. In the end CLA came to represent the library leadership class and the libraries that made it look good and supported it financially. It was, as was pointed out a few years ago, the Canadian Library Association, not the Canadian Librarian Association. It wasn’t there for us.

One of the strange things about simply being born is that we are born into a world that already exists. It is tempting to imagine that things have always been as they are, or that the reason something is a certain way is because of some objective reason. But the study of history tells us that this is rarely, if ever, the case. Things come to be out of struggle and argument and discourse, out of the passions, opinions, justifications, and reasoning of the people who happen to be around and involved. These people both self-select (people with interest and access) and are selected or deselected (I’m thinking here mostly of people who are excluded and prevented from participating). What this should say to us, though, is that nothing that exists today is sacred. We can change it all.

In reading about this history, I came across an episode in the library history of Nova Scotia, around the time that CLA and Canadian librarianship were being formalized. Much of the struggle in those days was around forming a “community of interest” recognizable to the labour board (the same issue still pertains to non-unionized library workers today). In the end, the system we have now came into being: municipal unions for public librarians, academic associations (whether unions or not) for academic librarians, as well as some outliers. Typically, public librarians are included in a municipal union alongside other city workers, while academic librarians are sometimes lumped in with faculty, sometimes not. Now, it might be politic to argue a community of interest between academic librarians and faculty members, but it’s a stretch to argue community of interest between public librarians and other city workers. (And we know from experience how fragile the collegiality between faculty and librarians can be). In addition, library workers who are not recognized as librarians are typically in other unions, lumped in with other sectors. The “community of interest” that applied - one assume - among library workers as a whole is splintered among various unions and associations (or are completely unprotected) and placed among other constituencies with other interests. I haven’t mentioned the CLA in this framework because to my mind the CLA didn’t really fit in here at all.

As this model was coming into being, alternatives were proposed in various places. In 1973, a debate over the proper form of organization, especially as it pertained to the guarantee of academic or faculty status and tenure, took place in Nova Scotia, where various models of organization were proposed. One of the most interesting, to my mind, is the proposal of a province-wide union of librarians. Ruth Hafner, St Mary’s University’s chief librarian at the time, argued that

librarians would be better served by forming a provincial union inclusive of all librarians with a form of librarian status akin to academic status but focused on conditions of work and promotion specific to the profession.

Jacobs, Leona. “Academic Status for Canadian Academic Librarians: A Brief History”, in In Solidarity: Academic Librarian Labour Activism and Union Participation in Canada, edited by Jennifer Dekker and Mary Kandiuk, Library Juice Press, 2015, p. 27.

This proposal was in contrast to the idea that academic librarians should form a community of interest within the academic community (rather than the librarianship) community, in which case wages, evaluation/assessment, and promotion would fall under academic norms and procedures - essentially, the system we have today. (Well, sort of - it’s become clear to me how vastly different every university is in terms of the policies and procedures governing their librarians).

What a fascinating idea. What if, instead of the current splintering of the community of interests, we formed instead a nationwide union of library workers, one which was able to take over and decide for itself how library workers ought to be governed, one which had the teeth to sanction any interference in the intellectual freedom of library workers, one which could call a nationwide strike, rather than the isolated labour actions library workers currently have to fight?

Now that the CLA is no more and has been replaced by the Canadian Federation of Library Associations, the ambiguity of the CLA’s position has been removed: the Federation is made up of associations, not librarians. This leaves the ground free for a different organization - one with some teeth - that represent the interests of library workers. (And let me be clear, this would not be a “librarian” union, this would be a union for all library workers).

This idea initially occurred to me in the context of intellectual freedom, and the situation in which public librarians find themselves unable to discuss issues of importance to them, or issues that the whole field is discussing, because they don’t possess “academic freedom” (this applies too, of course, to library technicians and other “non-professional” library workers). A nationwide library union could enforce an intellectual freedom clause in all library contracts in the same way that a faculty association (and e.g. CAUT) can ensure academic freedom in cases where it has been abrogated.

I have no idea what this One Big Union might look like, but the Industrial Workers of the World might be a good model to investigate. I also don’t know what would be required in order to implement it. But I do know, from reading library history, that these things - as contentious as they may be - can be implemented, can be modified after they are implemented, but the first step is to start the conversation.

I’m also aware that there will be flaws, constraints, and objections to this idea. But it’s worth raising, I think, for all that.


Sam Popowich

Discovery and Web Services Librarian, University of Alberta

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