Taking the ALA Statement of Appropriate Conduct seriously

After I got back from this year’s ALA Annual Conference (held in the City of It’s Just a Dry Heat), I saw some feedback regarding B.J. Novak’s presentation at the closing session, where he reportedly marred a talk that by many accounts was quite inspiring with a tired joke alluding to a sexual (and sexist) stereotype about librarians.

Let’s suppose a non-invited speaker, panel participant, or committee member had made a similar joke. Depending on the circumstances, it may or may not have constituted “unwelcome sexual attention” per the ALA Statement of Appropriate Conduct at ALA Conferences, but, regardless, it certainly would not have been in the spirit of the statement’s request that “[s]peakers … frame discussions as openly and inclusively as possible and to be aware of how language or images may be perceived by others.” Any audience member would have been entitled to call out such behavior on the spot or raise the issue with ALA conference services.

The statement of appropriate conduct is for the benefit of all participants: “… members and other attendees, speakers, exhibitors, staff and volunteers…”. It does not explicitly exclude any group from being aware of it and governing their behavior accordingly.

Where does Novak fit in? I had the following exchange with @alaannual on Twitter:

A key aspect of many of the anti-harassment policies and codes of conduct that have been adopted by conferences and conventions recently is that the policy applies to all event participants. There is no reason to expect that an invited keynote speaker or celebrity will automatically not cross lines — and there have been several incidents where conference headliners have erred (or worse).

I am disappointed that when the Statement of Appropriate Conduct was adopted in late 2013, it apparently was not accompanied by changes to conference procedures to ensure that invited speakers would be made aware of it. There’s always room for process improvement, however, so for what it’s worth, here are my suggestions to ALA for improving the implementation of the Statement of Appropriate Conduct:

  • Update procedures to ensure that all conference speakers are made aware of the Statement.
  • Update speaker agreements for invited speakers to require that they read and abide by the Statement.
  • Make available a point of contact for all speakers who can answer questions regarding the Statement and how it applies to presentations. This should not be construed as a request that ALA review the content of presentations beforehand, just that ALA provide an individual who can help speakers interpret the Statement in case of doubt.
  • Ensure that the exhibitors’ manual and the exhibitors’ portal (exhibitors.ala.org) prominently link to the Statement. This does not appear to be the case at the moment, although this may be due to the exhibitors’ portal switching over to the upcoming Midwinter.
  • If this is not already the case, ensure that exhibitor agreements incorporate the Statement.
  • Discuss the Statement periodically and adjust it based on feedback from conference attendees and emerging best practices from other conferences. Speaking of feedback, the Magpie Librarian is conducting a survey (that closes today) to gather information about code of conduct violations at past ALA conferences.

I invite feedback, either here or directly to ALA.

4 replies on “Taking the ALA Statement of Appropriate Conduct seriously”

  1. I wasn’t there so I can only comment from an uninformed bystander’s point of view, but I think it’s important to note that we ask comedians and actors to entertain us by being transgressive and inappropriate. That’s part of what humor is. Sharing the Code of Conduct might have helped here, or it might not, since a comedian might take a list of rules as something to be broken.

    1. What counts as transgression? If a (perhaps unusually well-informed) comedian decided to puncture a few sacred myths of librarianship during his or her routine and made us think, great! That doesn’t seem to have been the point of the joke in question.

      I don’t buy that inappropriateness or punching down is a necessary part of comedy, in general or especially in the context of a professional conference — i.e., a conference where almost everybody present is ostensibly there to work. Nor do I buy that it would be impossible, or even all that difficult, to find speakers who can inform, entertain, and challenge us while still adhering to the code of conduct.

      All of that said, my primary concern here is the procedural issue of ensuring that the policy is known to apply to all folks who are part of the conference. Novak’s routine was only the inspiration.

  2. Do you think comedians can be funny without sexualizing everyone in the room? I mean, if you insist on doing that, make the joke *really* funny. This one was flat and boring.

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