education of a wordsmith
When I first joined the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee as an intern in the fall of 2003, I wanted to make a good impression and show that I was eager to participate. Before I had attended my first meeting, there was a request for volunteers to draft a document. Little did I know that it was being drafted in response to an extremely touchy situation and that my participation on the task force would lead to my inbox being flooded with e-mails accusing me of being a shameful accomplice to criminal activity. It was the first time I ever received such e-mails from total strangers, though (thanks to my continuing involvement with intellectual freedom activities) it wasn’t the last. It was also an education about the true power of words, especially when it comes to crafting policy statements.
Anyone who has spent time at IFC meetings knows that we delight in language and explore multiple possibilities and potential meanings before settling on the official wording of the documents we create. Whether it’s the formal tone of an Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights or the more direct language of our toolkits, you can rest assured that every word – nay, every element of punctuation – has been reviewed by multiple people and, in some cases, discussed for days, weeks, months, and even years before it leaves our committee. Though that may seem a tad excessive (and, perhaps slightly overstated to make this point more dramatic), it’s how we ensure that the words say what we mean. Our goal is to produce documents that (1) state our principles and (2) are useful to librarians in defending the implementation of said principles. Do we ever make mistakes? Never! Rarely! [What about “seldom”? “Sometimes”? I’m not sure if I like the direction of this phrase. We always try to focus on the positive. OK, I see people crafting alternate language — let’s give them a few minutes and see what happens. [time passes] OK — let’s try this:] Even after investing so much time and energy in our documents, we often return to them to make changes, clarifications, and explanations. The issues we address are moving targets, and what may seem like an adequate answer today will likely need revision as our understanding of those issues evolves. [Yes, that’s better. I’ll entertain a motion that we accept that section as revised. For the record, it’s the final two sentences (formerly the 5th) of the new penultimate paragraph. OK, Trina moves and Barb seconds. All in favor? Opposed? Abstentions? Great. Let’s move on the next sentence.]
Two documents will be coming forward for approval at our upcoming annual conference. One is a long-overdue revision of the Libraries and the Internet Toolkit that was spearheaded by our insanely fabulous Emerging Leaders and will be reviewed and (presumably) approved by the IFC. The other is a new Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights tentatively titled “Prisoners’ Right to Read” that has been in the works for more than a year and will be brought to Council for adoption at its final meeting. These documents represent hundreds of hours out of the drafters’ lives and are testaments to how the IFC uses both internal resources and external partnerships to do the work of the Association.