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Author: Deborah Lines Andersen
Title: Open Forums
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
April 2004

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Source: Open Forums
Deborah Lines Andersen

vol. 7, no. 1, April 2004
Article Type: Benchmark

Open Forums

Deborah Lines Andersen

April 2004

Benchmark: a standard by which something can be measured or judged.  [1]


.01 An Information Policy Case Study

.02 ALA and Information Policy

.03 Possible Arguments for Censorship

.04 Evaluation in Public Forums

.05 The Case of Software Evaluation in a Public Forum

.06 Policy for the American Association for History and Computing and for Its Journal

.07 Notes

.01 An Information Policy Case Study

In summer 2003 a proported information policy situation arose after the American Library Association (ALA) summer meeting. The basic story is that a group of librarians gave a presentation about a proprietary software product. They were not particularly complimentary about that product and there were in the audience representatives from the company that created it. Needless to say, the representatives were less than pleased with the presentation and even more upset that the committee of ALA that sponsored this talk had a habit of putting presentation slides on its website after annual meetings.

The software people asked that ALA pull these slides, or at least post a rebuttal on the same website. ALA checked with its lawyers who basically said that there should be no evaluative materials on the website —positive or negative. In fact, so the story goes, the lawyers felt that the association should not sponsor conference programs if they discussed a specific product or vendor —positively or negatively. The slides were pulled from the website.

Even if this story were to be urban legend, or if some of the facts are something other than those related above, there is a fascinating information policy issue present in this text. It has implications not only for the American Association for History and Computing, but for all associations that have annual meetings, for all organizations that post materials to websites, and for journals, electronic or paper, that published articles and reviews. How free are any of these entities to post evaluative materials based upon the opinions of readers, contributors, and editorial staff? What are the implications of pulling information from a public forum? Under what circumstances is this appropriate?

The purpose of this column is to raise issues for this community of scholars. What are the policy implications for this journal, and, by extension, for the American Association for History and Computing?

.02 ALA and Information Policy

The American Library Association is an exceedingly strong advocate of open access to information. Its website presents cases and policy documents that call for free, unbiased information access.  [2] Its code of ethics, in particular, states

Ethical dilemmas occur when values are in conflict. The American Library Association Code of Ethics states the values to which we are committed, and embodies the ethical responsibilities of the profession in this changing information environment.

We significantly influence or control the selection, organization, preservation, and dissemination of information. In a political system grounded in an informed citizenry, we are members of a profession explicitly committed to intellectual freedom and the freedom of access to information. We have a special obligation to ensure the free flow of information and ideas to present and future generations.  [3]

ALA's statement of Intellectual Freedom/Censorship begins by defining intellectual freedom as "the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It provides for free access to all expressions of ideas through which any and all sides of a question, cause or movement may be explored. Intellectual freedom encompasses the freedom to hold, receive and disseminate ideas. It is a core value of the library profession and a cornerstone of democracy." In the same document censorship is defined as "a change in the access status of material, based on the content of the work and made by a governing authority or its representatives. Such changes include exclusion, restriction, removal, or age/grade level changes."  [4]

If the story is true, by removing these slides from its website ALA was indeed censoring this information —according to its own definition of censorship. It was not allowing for the free flow of information. Since ALA's code of ethics is a powerful statement —one to which I believe professional organizations such as AAHC should subscribe, it behooves all organizations to think about how information flows around and through them. An informed citizenry should wonder under what circumstances it might be appropriate to exclude, restrict, remove, or change information.

.03 Possible Arguments for Censorship

There are times when excluding or restricting information is appropriate.

  • Private sector organizations have well-guarded trade secrets. The recipe for Dr. Pepper is a mystery to all except a select few for a reason. Market share depends upon unique products.
  • Although newspaper reporters would like to know all the details of a crime the moment it occurs, police investigators have the right to withhold information if its release would affect the investigation and subsequent arrest of a suspect.
  • The US military does not broadcast its every move in a battle even if the American public would like to know exactly what is happening. It does not publicize strategies, or the specifics of new weapons development. Military secrets are secret.
  • Schools keep children's school records private. They are available to teachers, administrators, and the child's parents or guardians. When a child becomes 18 school records are not even available to parents unless the child gives written permission.
  • Medical records are another case of personal information that is protected by law. Citizens must sign permissions to release that information to insurance companies.

Removing or changing information is more problematic. Newspapers will print retractions or corrections if they have made a mistake in dealing with the facts of a situation. Letters to the editor often comment upon news of previous days —disagreeing, objecting, or correcting are well within the scope of any daily newspaper. Newspapers stake their reputations on getting the facts right.

Newspapers also stake their reputations on being open forums that present all sides of an issue —informing the public so that it can make informed decisions. Elections are wonderful examples of information forums. Newspapers present the views of all the candidates and allow citizens to decide. Candidates disagree. They see the world through a variety of lenses and try to convince the voting public that their particular viewpoint is the right one. We enjoy these debates, as long as we keep to the facts and keep from slinging mud at each other.

Political candidates and elected officials are often criticized and, because of their responsibility to the public, subjected to more scrutiny than an average citizen. In some ways they have less privacy than would make most of us comfortable. Public office makes their lives less private.

Just as with individual politicians, individual public sector organizations have to answer to their public constituents —individuals who pay taxes and expect services. Organizations such as libraries are expected to make informed decisions about purchases and services so that citizens will receive benefits from their tax dollars. It is bad public management to buy products that are not the best for a public sector organization and its constituents. Public sector organizations need evaluative materials in order to perform their public functions. Private sector organizations such as universities and libraries must also make informed decisions about purchases and policy.

Where does this leave the private sector firm that finds one of its products evaluated in a public forum, be it a presentation at an association meeting or a review article in a web-based journal? Where does this leave association policy makers or the editors of the journal?

.04 Evaluation in Public Forums

Public forums abound that make evaluative statements on a daily basis.

  • Newspaper columns rate movies according to ranking systems. My local paper uses one through four stars. Once a week it publishes a grid of recent movies with ratings of other papers in the region. One of these rating symbols is a little bomb with a fuse. Should the movie producer sue the newspaper for this negative publicity?
  • solicits reviews from readers. It posts these reviews so that other customers can make decisions about purchases. EBay has a rating system for sellers. Buyers can rank the sellers according to how well they represent their merchandise and how promptly they deal with communications and shipping. Should Amazon or EBay remove these evaluative pieces because they might negatively or inaccurately portray a particular book or seller?
  • Journals actively seek reviewers for recently published books. Reviews are evaluative. The individuals who write them are asked for their honest opinion of a work, based upon background and experience. If an author is unhappy about a review she can write a letter to the editor. Should these reviews, good or bad, be removed in favor of flat summaries of recent works?
  • Occasionally tabloid newspapers will make statements that are so egregiously off base that people do sue. These people are often movie stars who believe they have been libeled and that their careers will be negatively affected by inaccurate information. Sometimes individuals sue for invasion of privacy. A jury decides that a nude photos taken through a telephoto lens, or wedding pictures published without permission really are stepping over the line. Settlements against publishers create a line in the sand.

The examples above all have policy implications —for newspapers, for private sector organizations, for public officials, for movie stars, and for journals and their editors. This is at best a tiny list of the stakeholders who might find themselves engaged in debate surrounding excluding, restricting, removing, or changing information. How do these examples shed light on the case in question?

.05 The Case of Software Evaluation in a Public Forum

In the ALA case there were at least three information policy issues. The first was whether an association could sponsor an evaluative forum, seeking opinions from users about the merits of a particular proprietary product. The second policy issue had to do with making this evaluation even more public, by posting presentation slides to a public website. The third policy issue has to do with policy. Did the organization have a policy for dealing with formal debate and allowing opposing sides to be heard?

Sponsoring Evaluative Forums

Why do individuals go to association meetings? Part of the answer is that they go to meet people, make connections, and find out what others are doing. They also go to hear presentations about new research and to be guided by what others have to say. Conference attendees go to learn what works and avoid costly mistakes that others have made when something does not work.

What would happen if presenters could no longer evaluate products, either positively or negatively? They would still meet people and make connections, and they would probably share stories of what works and does not work, albeit not in public forums with PowerPoint presentations.

Making Evaluation Public

Why do organizations publish proceedings, journals, or materials on websites? These venues allow others who did not attend a conference or who work in different parts of the world to be exposed to pertinent information. They create open public forums for anyone who would like to participate in scholarly exploration and discourse. They create an informed citizenry. People can disagree but that is part of creating this informed citizenry.

Creating Policy

What happens when someone disagrees with the statements made in a public forum?

Sometimes, as in the case of movie rating systems, creators of proprietary materials will let the bombs go by because the same newspaper also publishes the four star ratings that get everyone to go to the movie. They accept the criticism and benefit from the praise.

If the information is inaccurate, one could ask that it be changed or that a correction or retraction be printed. A newspaper's staff will look into the facts and decide if an error has occurred. This is the newspaper policy model.

If the disagreement is more fluid, perhaps because there are truly opposing views on an issue, then an organization might publicize both sides of an argument. This is the model of political debate. Academic journals often have heated and very interesting debates when reviewers and reviewed authors participate in point-counter-point letters to the editor. Academic journals have policies that allow for debate. They give authors the chance to respond to criticisms or evaluative statements. Rather than stifling debate, they provide an open forum for more debate, for more information to reach interested readers. They have editorial policy that allows for this debate.

.06 Policy for the American Association for History and Computing and for Its Journal

By now it should be absolutely clear where this column is going on this issue. As an academic society and a scholarly journal, we must subscribe to the free flow of ideas. To that end, listed below are four potential policy statements that the American Association for History and Computing and its journal might consider in dealing with evaluative materials.

  • Policy 1: Allow no exclusion or restriction. To exclude, restrict, remove, or change information because it might upset someone is simply not conscionable. This is not to say that materials we print can be libelous, or patently false. We subscribe to protecting the privacy of individuals. We hold our authors to high standards of research ethics in respect to human subjects and their rights, and to presenting information fairly and without personal bias.
  • Policy 2: Treat evaluation as a positive value. We will continue to evaluate. We will continue to give out prizes for best article, book, and software product every year. We will continue to publish reviews of books and software in the journal. We believe that our readers and authors benefit from these evaluative occasions.
  • Policy 3: Encourage letters of dissent. We encourage individuals to write letters to the editors, which we will publish in our open forum. One of the strengths of an e-journal is that we have the ability to create links —from one point of view to the other, so that our readers can move back and forth between writers and become better informed about issues and opposing sides of an argument.
  • Policy 4: Convene panels with opposing viewpoints. We encourage panels at our conferences that will air opposing points of view on topics, be they historic interpretations or evaluations of software products.

Our readers expect that we will give them information they can use to find what is best and to avoid the mistakes that others have made. This is the nature of informed discourse. To eliminate judgment is to eliminate reasons for our existence as a society and a journal.

.07 Notes

1. "Benchmark," American Heritage Dictionary, 4th ed., 2000.

2. See the American Library Association website at

3. See the American Library Association's Statements on "Ethics" at

4. See the American Library Association's statement on "Intellectual Freedom/Censorship" at