What ails SRRT: a diagnosis
The Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT) was the permanent structure formed out of progressive political organizing in the American Library Association during the revolutionary time of the late 60’s. (For a good history of SRRT’s beginnings, see Toni Samek’s Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility in American Librarianship, 1967-1974 (McFarland, 2003). Since then it has served as the political “conscience of the association,” applying internal pressure from an egalitarian moral and political point of view (e.g. opposing ties to corporate America) and taking a public stand on many issues not directly related to librarianship. When I was in library school in the late 90s, SRRT’s existence and the passion of the people who worked within its structure were deeply encouraging, because it affirmed what I saw as an important tie between librarianship and broader social concerns. I was energized by SRRT and became active within it. It was my primary place of activity in the profession outside of my job over the next decade, and I met most of the people I know in librarianship in the process of contributing energy to SRRT. I owe a tremendous amount to SRRT, so it is with a sense of, I don’t know, guilt actually, that I say what I am going to say.
SRRT has run into a wall.
What do I mean? SRRT is the largest round table in ALA (or it was the last time I checked), with over 2000 members. The leadership of SRRT, that is, the people who are active in SRRT discussions, run for and are elected to office, attend regular meetings and make the decisions, are dedicated and passionate people, with strong politics that stem from a sense of moral responsibility. For the most part, they have been involved in SRRT for a long time, some from its very beginning. They are activists, and pursue activist goals within the framework of SRRT, as it was created for. That SRRT is and should be an activist group has never seriously been questioned, but in fact that isn’t what it is for the majority of its members. For the majority of its members, SRRT is something to join in order to support the activities of this activist group and to show ones identification with the idea of the importance of social concerns within the profession.
Only a handful of SRRT members are interested in using SRRT for activist goals. That group is mostly older SRRT members whose idea of activism comes from the era in which SRRT was formed. Their political priorities, assumptions about the way things are, and modes of acting come from that era. There are some younger SRRT members among the activist group – people in their 30s and 40s – but in my experience we have not been able to change the round table’s direction or ways of doing things, due to the strength and entrenchment of the long-time leaders. That is one reason (of several reasons) that I am no longer active in SRRT.
The past few decades have not been friendly to activists of the SRRT stripe. I think that makes it remarkable that SRRT is still around, and as the largest round table at that. SRRT members should be proud that we have not been beaten down by the forces we’re up against as the country has shifted rightward. But it also has to be acknowledged that those forces have had an impact on SRRT, often making it a place of shared frustration for the activists who keep it alive. Many of the difficulties that SRRT has encountered have amounted to an ongoing clash with a worsening reality, a clash made more painful by the obsolete assumptions on which our actions were often based.
I think that SRRT is now in a period of protracted crisis based on a conflict between the activists at its core and the majority of its membership, who have grown less interested in seeing SRRT pursue activist goals over time. This crisis has been precipitated by the issue of the Cuban “independent librarians.”
I have given up discussing the Cuba issue, because I found that no matter how well I explained SRRT’s position, people would inevitably say they understood it and had heard it before but would not be able to explain the argument if asked, let alone answer it, and seemed to remain unaware of the reasoning that led the SRRT leadership to its conclusions. Because of that, I will not rehash the debate, but will only comment on it to point out a few small things. First, it must be appreciated that there are many possible positions to take on the issue, something people often don’t realize. I can discuss a variety of positions on this issue privately with people who are interested (contact me privately if you want). Second, the ideological nature of the debate has led to such a feeling of disgust, among both participants and observers, that issues surrounding the debate have a bad feeling to them and are more difficult to work out. Third, while I feel that SRRT members’ arguments were often more insightful and fair to the real situation, it also has to be stated that they were often fueled by loyalty to the Cuban revolution as a real, successful socialist revolution, which the majority of SRRT members cannot be expected to appreciate or care about.
To report a bit about my experience serving on SRRT Action Council, when the Cuba issue and other contentious issues came up in our discussions, someone would often suggest that we don’t know what the majority of our members think. The idea of polling the membership would sometimes be raised for the purpose of saying that we shouldn’t do it, the reason being that people who don’t know or care much about an issue are happy to idly fill out a poll and have their vote determine something. Instead, this conversation would always conclude, we need to do a better job educating our members about what we are doing and the reasoning behind our position. Action Council has never been interested in knowing what its members think, even during times when membership was declining. (When membership was declining, there were logical reasons to cite that had nothing to do with what SRRT Action Council was doing or saying.)
I don’t know where SRRT’s membership stands on the issues that SRRT has taken up; I imagine that its views are varied (much more so than the core group, I would think). It does seem clear to me, though, that the majority of SRRT’s members are not activists and don’t view SRRT as an activist organization, while its core members do. And, over time, the awareness of an activist orientation for SRRT and support for that orientation have declined, so that for most SRRT members, SRRT is like other round tables, meaning that it is a place to associate with librarians with a shared interests. Still, the official statements of SRRT and its other activities are known, and the leadership is right to assume implicit support for those statements and actions in members’ ongoing membership. While members are free to join the SRRTAC-L listserv and share their opinions, I can tell you that the leadership for the most part has little interest in what those opinions are. Part of the reason for that is that it is rare for a member who is unknown to the leadership to step up and start talking. When one does, the question in the leaders’ minds is normally, “Who is this person?” and not so much, “How big a part of the membership does this person in effect represent?”
I call this gap between the membership and the leadership a “protracted crisis,” but there are more acute crises from time to time that SRRT deals with, or if not crises, then at least problems. The most current one involves all of these issues, and it is over control of the SRRT Newsletter. The SRRT Newsletter has a new editor, Myka Kennedy Stephens, who is not in the activist mold. It seems to me (and I should probably talk to her before writing this) that she is in SRRT because it is the place where her professional ideals are most alive in the association, but not as an opportunity to be a political activist. The core group in SRRT feels that it goes without saying that being active in SRRT (e.g. newsletter editor) means being a political activist. So, when the Myka decided to run an article by Steve Marquardt, who opposes SRRT on the Cuba question, to use a cliché, “all hell broke loose.” As the newsletter editorial board, the newsletter editor, and Action Council have been trying to work this problem out (read “new rules”), there has been a certain amount of misunderstanding between the newsletter editor and others stemming from these different basic assumptions about what SRRT is and what it means to be involved in it.
So, now it seems that SRRT is facing a question. Is there support among the membership to continue it’s 60s-style activist work within the association? Or do members want SRRT to be more like other round tables? Does the SRRT leadership want to know the answer? Or would it prefer to ask another question, such as, “How can we better sell what we are doing to our members?”
I used to feel that this kind of thing should stay in SRRT, but I no longer feel that way. I think it is good to talk openly about what is happening in SRRT and in other groups that we care about.
Regarding Cuba: I know some readers are going to post about Cuba in response to this, but I would ask that if you do, please don’t ignore what I have written on it in the past. The arguments I have made have been responded to many times but never answered, and I am too tired of the discussion to continue in that manner. Posts concerning Cuba in response to this are off-topic, and I might decide not to approve them if they don’t add anything new.