Friday, February 8, 2013

Legally Bound: Librarians and Publishers 4 Lyfe

A post in Gawker today cites a story about a librarian who disparaged an academic publisher in his personal blog and is now being sued for libel by the publisher, Edwin Mellen Press. Gawker makes light of the story - mainly over the idea that librarians are so boring that they are embarrassed to even be posting this story, and that publishers' law suits are so ridiculous it's funny, so that's why they posted it anyway.  While the latter may true in some instances - that this story was discredited due its lack of relevance to the rest of world is mistaken.

What goes on behind the polished wooden doors of academic libraries - namely freedom of access to information via publishers and book, journal, and database vendors - is important to the rest of the world.  Academic freedom and the freedom of information are paramount to the democratic privileges we all enjoy; and to libraries those things are paramount to the profession.

Just breathe. We still have freedom of information, kinda.

Publishers rely on reviews for their titles to be purchased.  It is the job of academic librarians to review the books and journals that they will add to their collection.  With deep budget cuts affecting almost all libraries and collection resources, what librarians decide to purchase matters.  So it is terrifying that when a qualified person shares an opinion about the content of the books produced by a publisher on a personal blog, he or she can be sued for it.  Universities pay librarians to make judgment calls on what books and materials are added to a collection.  It is the job of a librarian to determine if the works are truthful, scholarly, and support university courses.  If a book doesn't meet these requirements it won't be bought.  And if most of the books that fall into this dud category are from the same publisher, why not say so? This is what Dale Askey, a tenured librarian at Kansas State University in 2010, did on his personal blog.

To be sued for libel over stating an opinion about the content of publications is a scary prospect.  And while we can laugh this story off as a librarian getting sued for way too much money from a company way too large to seriously care about this - it has other implications for what we deem as freedoms of speech and intellect.  It also says a lot about the balance between large corporations and personal bloggers.  It is ok to unabashedly promote a product and not tell consumers that you are a spokesperson, but it is not ok to have a personal opinion that could sway consumers away from an inferior product.  What about Yelp reviews and scathing emails to companies from disgruntled customers that are published? Is this to become libel as well?  And what about Facebook's use of our "like" statuses to promote products that we have little or no knowledge of our complicity in.

Don't worry, Tina Fey will figure this scary publisher-bully thing out.

These issues do affect the rest of us.  Anyone with an online presence is subject to these same principles that the Edwin Mellen Press is setting forth.  Opinions matter and opinions need to be protected.  Libraries are the only federally sanctioned institutions to uphold freedom and access to information, and when that is threatened in a protected space it means something for the rest of us.

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