Jamie LaRue

Steve Thomas: [00:00:15] This is Circulating Ideas. I’m Steve Thomas. My guest today is Jamie LaRue. He’s the new director of the Office of Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association. Can also read his blog at jlarue.com.

Steve Thomas: [00:00:52] Jamie, welcome back to the show.

Jamie LaRue: [00:00:54] Steve, it’s a pleasure to be back.

Steve Thomas: [00:00:56] When you were first on the show you had just recently left your job at Douglas County and was consulting and you have now taken on a new position. But I had a question first of, with your new position, do you still do consulting or is that something you put aside now with your new position?

Jamie LaRue: [00:01:12] It mostly I’m wrapping up about five engagements that I had that I made before I started at ALA. But you know occasionally I do still some executive coaching and I’ve done a little bit of facilitation.

Steve Thomas: [00:01:24] OK. So tell listeners about what your new job is at the Office of Intellectual Freedom.

Jamie LaRue: [00:01:30] Well actually I’m the director, I’m only the third director Judy Krug was the first, Barbara Jones was the second. Judy was here for something like 40, 45 years. Barbara was kind of an interim director that stretched into about five, six years. So I’m only the third, so the director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom and the executive director and secretary of the Freedom to Read Foundation.

Steve Thomas: [00:01:51] And what is the mission of the Office.

Jamie LaRue: [00:01:54] You know, in essence, it’s to be an advocate for free speech. And I think that falls into two pieces. One of them is kind of the fighting against censorship. And so a big piece I’ve learned of this job is support. There are a lot of librarians out there that find themselves under attack. I would say that mostly it’s concentrated these days in school libraries but someone comes in and there was a formal challenge and sometimes a lot of pressure was being placed on the librarian. They holler for help, and we try to support them. So that’s the first piece is like fighting censorship. The second one I think is a more positive spin and that’s an advocate for free speech. So this is the piece that kind of appealed to me after being in Douglas County for 24 years and being in consulting for two years, I got really fascinated into this idea about, “What are the big ideas of librarianship and how do we start communicating them not just to each other but out to that larger world?” And I think right now free speech is under attack in a lot of ways. And it’s good to be in a spot where we can try to change the culture in a way that makes it more open to, more responsive to, more willing to talk about things that are that we need to talk about.

Steve Thomas: [00:03:06] And I think it’s important to have this kind of office because of, when things come up in the wider culture like, with privacy now is kind of becoming a big thing with the encryption fight and with Apple’s fight with the FBI, the Panama Papers, all this kind of stuff coming out now and it is important that librarians understand our role in all that too, I think.

Jamie LaRue: [00:03:24] Well that’s right and I was talking to Lee Rainie from the Pew and he was talking about this report and he says you know there really are only three people that we still trust in America. And the first one is firefighters, the second is nurses, and the third is librarians. And I think it’s because we were not seen as having an agenda. You know, if your house is on fire the firefighters don’t say, “Okay, you a Democrat or Republican?” They just put out the fire. If you’re a nurse, when you come in, do they say “Well, that was a poor life choice.” No, they help fix you. And if you’re a librarian, it’s like if you come in seeking knowledge we help you seek knowledge and we help you keep it private, keep it confidential, to the best of our ability in this very complex world.

Steve Thomas: [00:04:06] And coming up pretty soon is Choose Privacy Week. Do you have a specific focus for that this year or is it kind of just overall just talking about privacy…?

Jamie LaRue: [00:04:18] Yeah, there is a specific focus and that’s really the rights of minors. And one of the things that we’ve done, minors… M-I-N-O-R-S, not “miners”…

Steve Thomas: [00:04:24] Coal miners!

Jamie LaRue: [00:04:24] What we have observed here lately is that… so you take something that starts being like it sounds like a good idea. So this would be the notion of anti-bullying and “no hate speech in schools.” And so then some teenager says something that may not be well-considered, might be a little bigoted side, but suddenly they’re kicked out of school. Or they post something on their Facebook page at home about something that’s not particularly school-related and they wind up being kicked out of school. So what we have now is kind of an encroachment into the private life of teens in their own private expression and it’s being turned around to punish them. And so we think that, let’s stop and think about minors’ rights and about which educational records get shared with whom, and when a library passes on some records to a third party, what rights do the minors still have once that record gets traded around among these various corporate partners?

Steve Thomas: [00:05:33] Like you said schools are kind of getting hit by this the most, school librarians and students like that, of having their privacy… “violated” might be a good word for it.

Jamie LaRue: [00:05:46] I think that’s exactly the word for it.

Steve Thomas: [00:05:48] Yes. Does the OIF have specific tools that they can provide to help out school librarians and other librarians to help spread the word about this kind of thing and to fight back?

Jamie LaRue: [00:06:00] Yeah, we sure do if you do a search for Choose Privacy Week. We’ve put up all kinds of toolkits here that help people, and I would say that I’ll start with the one that people often forget is just to be thoughtful about the records that you collect. Because what we’ve learned is that educational records are very discoverable. And so if you are a school librarian, think about the record that you’re maintaining to decide whether or not you should be maintaining it. You know, sometimes the best way to protect the privacy of a patron is someone comes in and ask you a question, if you have a record of the conversation, throw it away, because people… first of all minors are people too, and they investigate things that sometimes are difficult and it doesn’t mean that they’re engaging in terrible behavior, it means maybe a friend is, and they’re trying to read about it and think about it. So we need to protect that confidentiality of our young folks.

Steve Thomas: [00:06:54] And I think that’s important because I think a lot of times minors are discarded in those kinds of conversations where we just kind of pushed them off the side, so I like that the focus is on that this year.

Jamie LaRue: [00:07:03] Good.

Steve Thomas: [00:07:03] With privacy and things like that, you’ve got other groups like Alison Macrina’s Library Freedom Project trying to work on also getting the word out about that kind of thing. Are there other ways that the OIF is trying to get the word out about privacy and intellectual freedom?

Jamie LaRue: [00:07:22] Yeah. Back to the privacy notion is that what we’ve teamed up with the EFF, Electronic Freedom Foundation, to push this Let’s Encrypt project and the idea here is that when you do banking you see that the little lock, you’ve gone from HTTP to HTTPS. So it’s an encrypted protocol, a tunnel through the Internet where people can’t listen in on you. Well, we do a lot of fairly confidential exchanges across library Web sites: you’re putting in your PIN number, you’re putting in your library card number, that might give someone access to your entire patron record and your reading history. And so we think it’s about time that we step up our game and adopt the HTTPS protocol. So the way you do that is you have to kind of buy a certificate, or you DID have to buy it. Now you can get that for free. As Michael Robinson who’s the chair of our Intellectual Freedom Committee’s Privacy subcommittee, he says, “It’s free as in kittens”, meaning it doesn’t cost anything to get it but then you have to take care of it, and so the installation of that protocol can be a little tricky but do a search on that, Let’s Encrypt, and talk to your IT department, and we’re really hoping that we can make a splash with this and get as many as five to ten percent of libraries would be good, to adopt this protocol on their website.

Steve Thomas: [00:08:40] And I noticed the last time that I checked I think hopefully the ALA itself will start encrypting their Web site because I don’t believe their HTTPS yet.

Jamie LaRue: [00:08:49] Yeah, we’ve got everything that has to do with money, everything that has to do with private log-ins is pretty encrypted but there’s still a lot of stuff to be done. So yeah this is one of those, time to practice what we preach.

Steve Thomas: [00:09:01] Well it’s nice now that all these tools are coming out that make it free and low cost because that’s part of the reason I think libraries maybe didn’t jump on it before because it’s like where are we already have constrained budgets that it’s hard to prioritize sometimes.

Jamie LaRue: [00:09:13] Well, and here we are coming out of the recession and I think everybody feels like hey let’s take a breath and start figuring out which projects make sense and I would strongly urge your listeners to put this one pretty close to the top of the list.

Steve Thomas: [00:09:25] And do you know the story back… I know Judith Krug had created it way back fifty years ago or so now, what the story was behind why the ALA wanted to create the Office in the first place?

Jamie LaRue: [00:09:40] You know, that’s a really good question. No I haven’t had a chance to dig back to that. I think that what was happening, so this would put it put it back in the 60s right? So I think that the big struggle of the day probably came around this notion of in loco parentis. So, if your child goes off to a public library, do you have the same obligations as they do in a school where they’re kind of acting on behalf of the parent? And it became clear, and I think as a result of court cases and a lot of public advocacy that no, the public library is not in loco parentis. And so I think this goes all the way back to my early childhood, I can remember when I first got my library card, I was in a bookmobile and there was a blue line that was painted along the top of the third shelf, and I thought, “Oh, how cool.” And I saw all the kids’ books around here because we’re shorter. That made sense. And then one day I tried to check out something that was above the blue line and my librarian wouldn’t let me have it. And I was like, “Well what’s this about, how come?” And they said, “Well, you’re not old enough.” And so I remember I’ve talked to a lot of people of my age who remember that and that’s not true anymore. Now kids are encouraged to read anything that they can understand. And I think that’s good, that’s the beginning of a recognition that minors have minds too.

Steve Thomas: [00:10:58] Yeah definitely. One of the other big projects that OIF does is the… I’m blanking on the name… the challenge reporting…

Jamie LaRue: [00:11:08] The database, yeah.

Steve Thomas: [00:11:10] Yeah, so OIF does challenge reporting and you have the database and just recently put out the list of the top 10 most challenged books?

Jamie LaRue: [00:11:23] Yeah, 2015’s “Top 10 Challenged Books.” You know, and I should back up and say that this database you know we call it a database, but it is not a comprehensive scientific study. What it is is a combination of two things. First it’s a support database. So I mentioned that if a librarian gets into trouble and gives us a call, we gather as much information as they are willing to share. And often they are saying it’s confidential. They don’t want to lose their jobs. So that customer support, member support is a big part of the reporting. And then the other thing that we do is we try to we have all sorts of Google Alerts and we troll through the news trying to find anything that looks, you know, related to book banning or challenges to books. So it winds up being a snapshot of what’s going on in America, not comprehensive, but I think, illustrative.

Steve Thomas: [00:12:10] And what kind of books showed up on this year’s lists?

Jamie LaRue: [00:12:15] You know, as we take a look at it, we said we think that nine of the top ten had diverse content. So we had books like I Am Jazz, Beyond Magenta, and there was another one that escapes me right now… oh, Two Boys Kissing… that were either LGBT or trans you know so that’s kind of a longstanding trend and then we had a couple of books – one Habibi, the other one was Nasreen’s Secret School – that featured Islamic characters, you know Muslim characters, and so there was clearly some discomfort with anything in our libraries about the Islamic culture. And then, we had a couple of books that were also featuring what we think of as disabilities. So a really interesting book I just finished reading was the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, and this one where the main character is autistic and really interesting kind of a book about that. And then the number one book was Looking for Alaska that although the challenge was more that it was sexually explicit, offensive language, drug use, alcohol. One of the main characters, they are a secondary character, has severe depression. So again kind of falling into the disability. The one that, the book that seems to have gotten the greatest attention is the fact that the Bible was on the list this year. And I find that fascinating. In my mind, not at all surprising that it’s there. The Bible has been on and off the list of the books that we keep track of, meaning that it’s challenged around the country, then it disappeared for seven years. You know, nobody was reporting a challenge to it. And last year it showed up in the top 10.

Steve Thomas: [00:13:55] Can you talk about what the reasons that people were challenging the Bible, what were the reasons people were challenging that? It could be, we hear in the press we hear a lot of times about people challenging like Qur’ans or things like that but we don’t hear a lot about them.

Jamie LaRue: [00:14:09] Yeah and frankly, I was surprised that we didn’t have as many challenges to the Qur’an as we had to the Bible. And I think that really comes down to three things. The first one is, there is a lot of… there’s the mistaken belief that just owning the Bible in a school library or a public library somehow violates the separation of church and state. And that is mistaken. It’s been clearly determined that if I have a religious scripture in a library there for private study, alongside the Bhagavad Gita, the Book of Mormon, the sutras of Buddha, all those things are perfectly okay because we’re not establishing a state religion in that process. The second thing is I think we saw a spate of what looked to me like almost retaliation challenges. So this past year we saw the resurgence of this religious liberty kind of bill in Indiana, Georgia, Mississippi, where they adopt laws that seemed to overturn the protections for gay and lesbian and trans. And so someone gets angry about that and they come in and they say, “Well, if you’re going to deny me a house or deny me a birthday cake or whatever then I’m going to try to ban the Bible.” So kind of challenges on that level.

Steve Thomas: [00:15:27] Challenging the challenges.

Jamie LaRue: [00:15:30] Yeah, and I think that the third one is kind of interesting too and I find this one almost ironic. For instance, recently in Virginia, there was an attempt to pass a law that would have required parental notification of any book in an English class for like AP English in high school. It would have to say whether or not there was any explicit sex in it, and the strategy around that is people would stand up and say, “Well I’m going to read you this outrageous passage from Beloved by Toni Morrison” and the problem of course is that if you just pull excerpts from a classic book, and I would argue that Beloved is a classic, you lose the larger picture, right? Nobody read the whole book. Well that kind of same thing happens with the Bible. If somebody comes and says “You know the Bible is not appropriate for young people” and you say “Excuse me, why is that?” And they’d say, “Well,” and they would point to Lot’s daughters, where Lot offers them up to a gang coming, and they’re virgins, and he offers them up for a gang rape and later on there is, the daughters try to get drunk and have sex with them so they can have kids. And we had people say, “Well that’s not appropriate for young people.” So again it’s taking things out of context, it’s saying yeah it’s the Bible too, it’s a classic, and has the ability to challenge us and to inspire us, and like any book that tackles big themes sometimes the themes aren’t pretty.

Steve Thomas: [00:16:52] And one of the things that I liked from the first time we talked is that you had talked about where you had talked to some, when you were at Douglas County, you had had some interactions with some of your patrons about things that they wanted to take out of the library but you talked about that is really important to be respectful to the people that you’re challenging, that they are not just, “No you’re wrong and we’re right!” And that’s creating a respectful dialogue with people, to find out why they were wanting to challenge these things and try to work with them and make them understand our values not just, say it from above.

Jamie LaRue: [00:17:27] Well that’s exactly right. You know because it’s so easy for people to get arrogant on either side of the debate. And I think that in my mind, free speech means this fundamental respect for the dignity of inquiry. And I think that I had someone talk about this other day and they said you know, “How is it that you know doesn’t that just make you angry ones or religious conservative comes in and wants to challenge a book?” And I said you know I think that there is one area where both librarians and you know, very religious conservative Christians agree. And that’s that books are important, that the word is important, that we have kind of a shared reverence for the written word. And I really believe that that’s true. So what that means is you don’t know what you’re going to be thinking or believing next year. It behooves us all to be kind and to listen to each other.

Steve Thomas: [00:18:17] That’s great. Yeah because that’s a great observation because yeah, the reason that they want these things removed is because they feel the power of that is going to compel somebody do something bad, whereas I mean we have a different view of that but they really do see the power of that.

Jamie LaRue: [00:18:31] Well that’s right. You know that when you get raised to say that the book is, you know the Bible is holy, and it tells you things and you have to do them, that’s great, so you have this kind of reverence. But we know as librarians that just because you come in and read mysteries doesn’t make you a murderer. And it’s very seldom that somebody comes in and says, “I am a strong advocate for A and I want to read everything opposite to A.” They look for things that confirm their beliefs. So if you just read something that disagrees with your longstanding belief system it doesn’t overturn it overnight.

Steve Thomas: [00:19:02] Well and that’s one of the things I think that’s important about keeping that freedom to have all those different points of view on the shelf so that as people maybe do start to, especially when they’re younger people tend to do that more of, trying to expand their thoughts and get into new ways of thinking about things, and so having those on the shelf already and not, as we talked about earlier, not restricting minors from being able to look at those things that it helps open their minds when they’re young because yeah. Once you get older, yeah, you get kind of get entrenched in your beliefs and you just want to confirm that. The confirmation bias stuff.

Jamie LaRue: [00:19:36] Well that’s exactly right. You know the other thing, to go back to the idea about minors, often someone will say you know when they’re saying we need parental notification, “We have to protect our children from exposure to explicit sex.” Well you’ve got kids and you know that there are differences in age. Children can be anything from four years old to seventeen years old. And when you’re sixteen and seventeen and you’re in high school and you’re reading Advanced Placement books, you’ll be old enough to get married and to vote and to go to war the next year. And so surely the rights of a mature minor to investigate the world and saying you know they’re curious about it because they’re right on the threshold of it, and my belief is that reading is one of the safest ways to begin to explore the world and to understand what you might be getting into, what could be safer than a classroom? And as I always say, the safest sex is just reading about it.

Steve Thomas: [00:20:35] [laughs] We always tell people at my library that when they ask about whether they can restrict what their kids can check out and things like that, it’s like, well, that’s your responsibility as the parent to decide what is best for your child. You know, we don’t want to restrict that just a whole whole cloth over the entire community. If you want to restrict what child can check out, then be with your child when they’re checking out and don’t let them check it out.

Jamie LaRue: [00:20:59] That’s right. And only your child, you know, not every other child.

Steve Thomas: [00:21:03] Right.

Jamie LaRue: [00:21:03] And the other part that I find fascinating and sad. So if somebody says “Okay, we need to pass a law that the government will describe whether or not there’s explicit sex – government in the form of school librarians or English teachers – that you will give us a warning about any of these things.” And I always say, well, wouldn’t it just be easier to say, “Hey, son, what are you reading? You know, can we talk about that?” And I know that if you can establish this kind of dialogue with your children, and I worked very hard to do that with my own kids, that meant that if they read something that did disturb them they could come and talk to you about it.

Steve Thomas: [00:21:39] Right. Keep that dialogue open so that they know that they can talk to you.

Jamie LaRue: [00:21:43] Yeah exactly.

Steve Thomas: [00:21:44] Yeah because that’s when I was growing up, my wife as well, it worked well that we can do that with our children now to is, when we were growing up we were allowed to read whatever we wanted. I mean there was maybe some TV or movies that they would, because the visual images is a little harder to deal with, but book-wise we could read whatever we wanted and then yeah, you just ask if you have questions.

Jamie LaRue: [00:22:04] Yeah, I think that’s right. It’s true in our culture we have the sense that, if you read something it goes through a linguistic filter, right, and so it’s the pictures in your own head as opposed to if you look at a movie there’s some kind of more visceral image that’s communicated that kind of bypasses that linguistic filter. But my take on this one, and it’s funny is I’ve been talking to people who’ve been pushing back about this in a parental notification, I’m a big believer that librarians encourage you to read more. You know, we don’t we don’t think reading is dangerous. We think reading is good.

Steve Thomas: [00:22:42] I also want to talk to you about the Judy Krug Memorial Fund that gives out grants, and that application is coming up so I wanted to bring that up with you and it so people can do events during Banned Books weeks. Can you talk about that?

Jamie LaRue: [00:22:59] This is, you know, I’ve been in my job for 90 days so pardon the lack of depth of some of these responses. But, yes, this was a fund that was established to encourage greater visibility around Banned Books Week. This is to kind of honor Judy’s memory and her long work in this field. About all that I can tell you I think as I’ve seen that the description for what the grant applications I think are on the OIF landing page. So just do OIF and ALA and Google that up and it’ll come up and find the instructions there to turn in the applications. We’ve gotten a few of them and they’re all very very clever, very good. And in the past we’ve had things like trading cards of banned books, and it’s just a wonderful opportunity to begin this dialogue with your community.

Steve Thomas: [00:23:48] Banned Books Week isn’t until the fall but I was looking at the site and the grant application is May 15th, 2016 so…

Jamie LaRue: [00:23:54] Well, thank you Steve. I appreciate that commercial, but we have money to give away, so do sign up.

Steve Thomas: [00:24:01] Yes, go to oif.ala.org to find out more about that! And the last thing I wanted to ask you about and this I’m almost hoping this will be a done deal by the time this episode comes out, but what are your thoughts on Carla Hayden as Librarian of Congress?

Jamie LaRue: [00:24:18] I think it’s wonderful that we’re getting a librarian and particularly one that has fought a lot about the digital future of the library. Library of Congress as such as such an important institution and we need to be looking to them for leadership. Carla, you know, here I am in Chicago, she’s kind of a native girl, local girl makes good, you know, and you know, having that experience with the large system like Chicago public and Baltimore I think it would be wonderful. So I know that her hearings are coming up but I think it’s next week.

Steve Thomas: [00:24:52] Yeah I will actually be last week by the time this comes out.

Jamie LaRue: [00:24:55] So yes I’ll be listening in on that one to see how that goes.

Steve Thomas: [00:24:59] Well it’s nice if they’re going to do that they are doing it, you know, they’re livestreaming it. I don’t know if they always livestream hearings and we just don’t pay attention if it is not about librarianship but it’s nice that’s being livestreamed so you can watch it live.

Jamie LaRue: [00:25:12] Yeah.

Steve Thomas: [00:25:15] So the last question I wanted to ask is, what made you want to take on this job and what was appealing about it that made you want to take it on?

Jamie LaRue: [00:25:26] I think that this is the only job like this in the world. There are many national library associations around the world, there is no other Office for Intellectual Freedom. And I find that as I talk to many many librarians we have such a deep seated sense that this is our core value, this is the thing we believe. Anybody who comes into the library, whatever they ask, we’re going to do our level best to honor that to help them find things out. And a society that no longer values freedom of inquiry is one that is well on its way to tyranny. So I think that over the past say twenty-five, thirty years, America’s libraries have done a wonderful job of growing use of opening up our collections of, you know, growing the number of people that have library cards, increasing library visits, increasing the number of books in the home, all of those things are great, but we have not succeeded in growing support for the library mission. So what I’ve decided I want to do with this, the last half of my career, or however many years there might be in it, is I want to take that message to the people. I want to remind them that librarianship is a noble profession and that there is a fundamental dignity to human inquiry and we need to honor that.

Steve Thomas: [00:26:49] All right, well, thanks a lot, Jamie, and where can people go if they want to contact you to learn learn more?

Jamie LaRue: [00:26:54] I’m at jlarue@ala.org.

Steve Thomas: [00:27:00] All right. Thanks a lot Jamie.

Jamie LaRue: [00:27:01] Thanks Steve. Bye.


Jamie LaRue: [00:27:51] Yeah, I take my daughter to all of her soccer lessons and she would get up in the middle of the field and she would start writing messages to herself in the sky with her arms that should be all dreamy and the ball would be flying past her.

Steve Thomas: [00:28:05] My son does that where he’ll sit down and start pulling grass out when he’s playing tee-ball, he’ll sit down and start pulling grass out of the ground, and then at the last practice just a couple days ago, he’s changed now so, I guess he’s becoming a boy. He points up at the sky and sees airplanes and goes, “Bam bam bam bam bam!”

Jamie LaRue: [00:28:20] Okay, yeah, my son, the terrorist.