On Boycotts…

I have a very early memory – I couldn’t have been much more than 5 years old or so – of asking my mother to buy me Nestle Quik. “Nestle kills babies. We don’t buy from them.” she replied. End of discussion. (As an aside, I apparently have a reputation amongst my friends as being rather, shall we say, straight forward and direct. All I can say is, “you should really meet my mother sometime.” Heh.) Anyway, except for the occasional Crunch bar, no nestle product crossed my lips while I lived under her roof. I’m not sure that I’ve ever had Nestle Quik now that I think about it.

During Apartheid in South Africa I refused to drink Coca-cola.   Really, once you start consuming consciously, it’s hard to stop. There was a period there in my teen years that I carried around a little guide book called “Shopping for a Better Planet” or some such thing like that and double checked my purchases.  That wasn’t just youthful idealism, by the way… I still vote with my wallet.

  • I don’t wear certain brands of shoes because they’re unrepentantly made by 9 year olds in sweatshops.
  • I don’t buy certain store brands because they are unfair to farm labor.
  • I’ve been driving on past BP gas stations ever since this summer’s gulf oil spill.
  • Um, okay, I admit to still shopping at Walmart. Listen, you can take the girl out of Appalachia….

I’m not telling you this to prove I’m a good person. Because believe me, I’m not. I’ve got more skeletons in my closet than Ted Haggard could find pearls to clutch. Nor am I trying to prove my radical bona fides. I don’t worry overmuch about the opinion of others anymore and the older I get, the more I think that the most radical thing a person can do is join the system and change it from within instead of constantly complaining and agitating.

I really wish I was telling you this because my actions helped end Apartheid. Or rehydrated those babies. Or closed those sweatshops. But they didn’t. They don’t. They won’t. This isn’t the Montgomery Bus Boycott where 75% of the riders participated. This is just me. Just me. And the amount I spend on sneakers each year would buy me just about one share of Nike stock.

So why do I bother?

Because even though I’m not part of the solution, I’m not part of the problem. And that little bit is enough. For me, anyway. And on those rare occasions when my shopping habits come up, or someone offers to give me some pirated media, or I refuse to accept vendor swag, I have an opportunity to educate others about issues I care about. Maybe they join in. And do the same. And maybe soon 75% of Nike’s customer base disappears.

Crazier things have happened.

I received a very thoughtful and persuasive email this weekend from a boycott supporter encouraging me to change my stand on the boycott. I still feel like an intruder in these conversations and no one was more surprised than I that my original HCOD math blog post took off like it did. I almost didn’t post it because it was more or less just me thinking out-loud. Hmmm. I wonder how much public libraries really do contribute to the publishing industry bottom line? Oh. That is much less than I thought. Much less. Bummer. A boycott probably is not going to work in this area of libraries either. Back to square one of figuring out solutions, I guess. But, in my tradition of practicing open-notebook science with this blog, I figured that I may as well post it and see if anyone had corrections that would educate me. (And they did. Turns out their numbers were even less than mine.) Who knew that so many people would pay attention to admittedly inaccurate numbers from someone with no first hand knowledge of how public libraries actually work?

Now, don’t get me wrong. I still don’t think a boycott will really impact Harper Collins to a noticeable economic degree. Nor do I think that even if it did (or the political pressure of being mean to libraries becomes a public relations disaster), a “win” of removing the 26 checkout limit would still leave libraries with licensing agreements and eBook format conflicts that are not in their long-term best interest. Nor do I understand why a boycott is limited to Harper Collins…OverDrive seems like it would be a better tactical target for many reasons.

Furthermore, I still think a boycott is overly confrontational at this stage of the game, the eReader User Bill of Rights doesn’t go far enough, and I do think there’s a great danger in “Boycott Harper Collins” becoming about as effectual as people slapping a magnetic ribbon on their car. So if nothing has changed, why am I writing about it again? Well, for one thing, because I could be entirely wrong. Especially because I could be entirely wrong. Like I said, this was a pretty persuasive email written by someone who is much more in the know about these sorts of things than I am. They had many facts and figures showing how a boycott could be effective.  While I am quick to roll my eyes at people who seemingly exist to amp up drama and bring obnoxious rhetoric into a discussion that should remain professional,  I believe that many who are making the decision to boycott don’t fall into this camp.  They are doing so after a long and thoughtful consideration of all the facts and I respect their decision.

Like I said, these facts didn’t convince me, but ultimately, I don’t really have to be convinced. I don’t make purchasing decisions for my library, not that my library uses OverDrive or purchases Harper Collins titles anyway. I don’t actually purchase that many books for my personal use either. I’m not even a fan of Harper Collins’ prize winning author Neil Gaiman. (No, not even Sandman. I know, I know… I tried to like it, I swear!) And I’m really not trying to convince you, Gentle Reader, one way or another what to do with regards to this boycott.

I’m writing about this again – even though I swore I was done – because of one thing that the writer said that absolutely chilled me to the bone. The email posited that librarians were hesitant to join the boycott because it wasn’t a 100% guaranteed win and didn’t solve all the problems with libraries and eBooks. That this was yet another libraryland case of perfect being the enemy of good.

Oh, man, the fear of failure in libraryland is a major burr under my saddle.

My mentor in law school had a framed poster of a quote from Teddy Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” speech hanging in his office. It’s one of my most favorite quotes ever.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

I spent many a sad hour staring at that quote, trying to take it’s message to heart. For those of you have never had the pleasure of attending, law school is primarily about failing. Over and over again. You get knocked down and then pick yourself back up just so you can have someone kick your ass again the next day. Lather, rinse, repeat.  For three years.  Now that I’m a professor, I keep a copy hanging on the wall of my office, both to serve as inspiration to my students and to constantly remind myself that there’s nothing wrong with failing.

That’s true, you know… Failure is never fun but it’s also not the end of the world. The more you do it, the easier it gets. And each time you do it, you learn something new and make your efforts better for the next go-around.

Maybe the Harper Collins boycott is a bad idea. Maybe it’s a good idea. I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that it’s an idea. If it works it works and if it doesn’t, well… then we all know in the future that a boycott is not a viable option.

Join the boycott if you want to. Don’t if you don’t. Do what your personal beliefs tell you is right thing to do. If you can sleep well at night knowing that you spent your libraries’ funds on Harper Collins eBooks, that’s between you and yours. I certainly hold no judgment either way. And you can be angry if you want to as well. But then you must also get active. And whatever you do, don’t sit around waiting for the perfect solution to land our laps before you decide to get involved.

Know this: no matter what, a boycott of Harper Collins will never be enough to solve all problems libraries face when it comes to eResources. When it fails – it could be an if, but I’m pretty sure it’s a when – don’t you be personally defeated. Pick yourself up and then try something new. Learn from your mistakes. Take the energy and allies you’ve gained in this effort and apply it elsewhere. Work to find other solutions. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Harper Collins is just one cog in a huge machine that we need to fix. The only way it will NEVER get fixed is if we all sit on our hands and do nothing.

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  2 comments for “On Boycotts…

  1. March 6, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    Thank you for this post. I was surprised at such disagreement over the boycott. In my mind those who opposed it seek to the camp of what’s the point we ate screwed anyway why are you surprised and I didn’t like that. On the economic issue, this won’t impact Harper Collins, it’s a small amount of money. However, with their actions and overdrive moving their collection to a separate section it may create a chilling affect. Librarians would ve more reluctant to buy ebooks from them in the first place and if their revenue dips as a result of the plan, then the plan fails and they lose money on the decision.

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