AN INTERVIEW WITH PATRICE McDERMOTT
Marylaine Block interviews the ALA Washington Office's Associate Director of its Office of Government Relations
Patrice McDermott's job is tracking federal policies dealing with public access to government information and coordinating ALA's responses and actions. She represents ALA in many coalitions, works with ALA membership groups concerned with government information policy, and presents ALA's views on these issues to the media, in speeches, and at conferences. Her work for ALA is similar to work she previously did at OMBWatch, a government watchdog organization. Her professional background also includes stints at NARA, the Office of Intellectual Freedom, and Georgetown University.
MB: It's pretty unusual for someone to get a Ph.D. and then go back to school for an MLS. What led you to that decision?
PMcD: I finished my doctoral work in the mid-to-late 70s and finished my Ph.D. in 1982. My primary focus in the degree work was on political theory, and the dissertation was on feminist and anti-feminist thought. That that was not a great time for getting academic jobs, and was even worse if you were a feminist.
When I began to look around for ways to ‘re-tool' my degree, librarianship seemed to be a good prospect. My original intent was to become a subject bibliographer. That way, I thought, I could use my education and get to read a lot.
MB: Yeah, right. Instead, you've been working on intellectual freedom and public information issues one way or another since 1986 when you started at the Office for Intellectual Freedom. What's the origin for your passion for these issues?
PMcD: I have always been interested in things political and I came of age in the late 60s. That was a critical time for the crystalizing of many of my political and intellectual passions. The feminist movement of the 60s and 70s was particularly important, but that was combined for me with a strong commitment to the First Amendment.
The feminist movement at that time was kind of dogmatic about the way you had to dress and talk and think, and it was disheartening to realize that the people you agree with can be as repressive as any other agencies; if anything, it's even more oppressive coming from them. One of the things I became conscious of in my studies, and later in working on political issues, was a tendency among Americans to think there is ONE TRUE WAY to believe and behave. I am more inclined to believe that nobody owns the truth, and that people with diametrically opposed views on many issues can nonetheless share common concerns -- witness the fact that among ALA's partners in the fight against the USA PATRIOT Act is Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum!
When I went to library school, the fit was just natural with the principles of the library profession. While I was working on my degree, I took an information policy class, which gave my political science/theory training a new focus. During my degree program I also worked at the Carter Presidential Library Project (an archive of the presidential records of President Carter) and became more aware of federal government information issues.
MB: How do you make legislators aware of how ill-considered legislation adversely affects libraries and public access to information?
PMcD: There's a variety of ways. Probably the most effective is to get librarians and friends of libraries in a Member's district/state to contact her/him and make that case directly. Those of us in DC can take them the facts and make the arguments, but it is the voters who really have an impact.
MB: Who are your go-to people in Congress when there's a law that needs to be passed or defeated or amended?
PMcD: That really depends on the issue -- some are consistently good on funding issues, some are good on civil liberties issues. More often than not, though, we're not working directly with the senators and representatives as much as through the contacts we've developed over time with congressional staff members.
MB: How do you establish your credibility as an expert whose views should be considered when legislation is drafted and hearings are held?
PMcD: Having been around for a long time helps, and I've worked both sides of government information issues since I started at OIF in 1986. I worked for NARA from 1990 to 1993 on the issue of permanence of digital documents. I also worked for OMBWatch, where I did legislative liason work on public information, censorship, FOIA, e-government, and other policy issues. Having been involved for so long in building coalitions and presenting our views to Congress, I've come to know many of the players, in government and in various lobbying groups and professional associations (though Washington is always a challenge in that people come and go a lot).
And don't underestimate the credibility that comes from representing a non-partisan organization. Our allegiance is to issues and policies, not to parties, which makes it easier for us to build coalitions that cross all ideological lines.
MB: Are you working with states whose governors have zeroed libraries out of their budgets?
PMcD: We are willing to help out in those states where we are asked to assist and where we have the resources to do so. It is the state library associations and others, such as the state librarian, in the states who take the lead on those issues.
MB: Talk a little about the pleasures and frustrations of the work you're doing right now, if you would.
PMcD: I occasionally think about chucking it all over, because working on the federal government, whether the legislative or the executive branch, is a series of starts and stops, and it often feels like we are stopping more than starting. But I cheerfully took a fifty percent cut in pay from my government job to work with OMBWatch and ALA on these issues; I realized that I functioned better as a gadfly on the outside than I did trying to change things from within. I realized that working with like-minded people, both inside and outside the government, is really rewarding. You enjoy the successes you do achieve and know that nothing is ever permanently settled, so a loss is never completely final.
MB: Yes. I believe the corollary to Yogi Berra's famous statement is that the game ain't over even when it IS over.
PMcD: I really don't think that there is much that is as important to an open society and an accountable government as public access to government information. Working to ensure and to strengthen it really is a pleasure, however wonkish that sounds. Similarly, the times we are living in contain great threats to individual privacy and liberty, and working to ensure that we don't lose our civil liberties and that the power of government is appropriately contained is a tremendous challenge. I get to work with amazing people in the library community, in the nonprofit public interest community, and in government on all these issues.
My biggest frustration is that it's really hard to set aside time to think and write more than issue briefs. When you take issues seriously for a living, there is always a danger of taking yourself too seriously. Fortunately I have plenty of good relationships where we can both work and laugh, and I can turn off the work and switch back to being just me.
MB: Thanks so much. I really appreciate the work you do, as well as your willingness to tell my readers about it.
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Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both.
James Madison. Letter to W.T. Barry, Aug. 4, 1822.
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