A case for library/archives boycott and divestment: ExLibris

David Staniunas
9 min readJan 3, 2024
al-Maliha village, looking northwest, 1944 (Palestine Remembered) / Jerusalem Technology Park, 2023 (Wikipedia)

[Note: this is the text of my portion of the 2022 SAA panel, Responses to archival fragmentation inside and outside Palestine. You can watch my head on a screen here.]

We’ve heard about the structural and ideological obstacles to liberation for Palestinian archives, and we’ve heard about post-custodial approaches to documenting Palestinian life in diaspora. I’m here to talk through another response to the dispossession and fragmentation of Palestinian history — adhering to the call of Palestinian civil society for boycott and divestment from Israel. It’s my hope that you’ll continue to think about the political economy of archives well after we’re through here.

Professional organizations’ boycotts / SAA precedent

SAA’s Committee on the Status of Women worked for a boycott of states that didn’t ratify ERA. SAA did not move the annual meeting from Chicago in 1980, but SAA moved the annual meeting site in 1982 to Boston, stayed in ERA ratifying states until 1986.

Texas in 2017 banned adoption by LGBTQ people. California invoked AB 1887, which prohibits state funds going toward discriminatory regimes, meaning state archivists could not travel to TX on their employers’ dime. SAA kept conference in Austin in 2019 mainly owing to cancellation fee of $140,000. Council vote was tied, the president cast the deciding vote.

In our sibling organizations, the Association of Asian American Studies endorsed BDS in 2013; first organization to do so.

The American Studies Association moved to hold the BDS line in 2013, with 66% of membership in favor.

But, it only moved to prohibit “formal collaboration” with Israeli universities, or sponsorship by Israeli universities, and also preserved the right of ASA members to travel to Israel and to “disagree” with ASA.

“U.S. scholars are not discouraged under the terms of the boycott from traveling to Israel for academic purposes, provided they are not engaged in a formal partnership with or sponsorship by Israeli academic institutions.”

Four ASA members sued the organization in 2016, supported by Kenneth Marcus, a Bush and Trump administration figure who specializes in using the 1964 civil rights act to bully Palestinian educators. (His organization is a $200,000 operation that routinely has $400,000 a year in expenses.) The suit was dismissed in 2019. ASA continues to post statements of solidarity with Palestine, here’s 2021.

The executive council of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) boycotted in 2013. In an act that was similarly non-binding on members.

The Middle East Studies Association moved a BDS resolution in 2021, was passed by referendum of the membership in March of 2022. It has big carve-outs for state anti-BDS laws.

“Whatever new policies and practices will be adopted by MESA as an organization in relation to this resolution will be consistent with MESA’s bylaws as well as relevant US federal, state, and local laws, as the resolution itself states, and as the Board of Directors would be required to do given their fiduciary responsibilities toward the organization.”

ALA Council, with impetus coming consistently from the Social Responsibilities Round Table, has passed a series of resolutions deploring the destruction of Palestinian libraries. In 2002, following Israel’s crackdown against the second Intifada, ALA passed “Resolution on the Destruction of Palestinian Libraries, Archives, and other Cultural Institutions” (CD#18.8 of 2001–2002). Council again acted in 2009 passing a resolution for the “protection of libraries and archives in Gaza and Israel” and urging “the US Government to support the United States Committee of the Blue Shield in upholding the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict” SRRT notes that the resolution was “amended to the point of uselessness.”

A 2015 resolution on the destruction of libraries and schools in Gaza was defeated in Council. SRRT withdrew another 2015 resolution on divestment from Caterpillar, HP, and Motorola. A 2021 resolution on destruction of schools and libraries in Gaza was defeated by ALA’s International Relations Committee. Ironically, a resolution on the destruction of schools and libraries in the Ukraine passed the annual meeting and was then overwhelmingly approved by Council.

A 2022 resolution upholding the right of librarians to engage in boycotts was defeated in Council overwhelmingly.

The lay of the land for librarians, archivists, and historians seeking to accompany the cause of Palestinian liberation is not friendly. Divestment resolutions can’t get off the ground because organizations like ALA, which has a $65 Million dollar endowment, don’t report out what firms they hold shares in. Boycott is either shot down as a permissible action, or is so riddled with institutional holes that it’s meaningless, or is something you get sued for. And hotter button items can emerge: look at how folks acknowledge the depredations against the people of the Ukraine, while totally dismissing the plight of the people of Gaza, in particular.

What is likely

SAA is not likely to endorse BDS; at the 2018 annual meeting a petition of 90 people was received by Council calling on it to examine its funding streams — this after the 2017 meeting held the Liberated Archives Forum with sponsorship by Hewlett Packard. The last signatory to the petition signed as “Anti Semite”; Council never acted on the petition.

Screencap of someone calling us antisemites in 2018

SAA like any other professional organization is going to balance stakeholder activism with fiduciary responsibility. This approach led us to keep the 2011 conference inside a boycotted hotel.

What does corporate engagement look like?

The way the organization acted in 2011 is indicative of an intentionally neutral approach — corporate engagement. In this kind of action, a group with a stake in a boycotted corporation campaigns inside of it to effect some kind of change

As an example of the limits of corporate engagement let’s talk about TIAA-CREF.

In the early 2010s, a number of grassroots groups began calling on TIAA-CREF to get out of its positions in Elbit Systems, Israel’s chief drone maker.

In case you haven’t heard of Elbit, its Hermes drone was widely used in Israel’s war on Lebanon in 2006 and on Gaza in 2008–2009.

“In the 23-day assault on Gaza, missiles fired from drones were directly attributed to the killing of 78 Palestinians, including 29 children, and wounding 73 others. The Hermes has sensors so precise that they enable a drone operator to read a license plate number and determine whether a person on the ground is armed. Infrared sensors provide imaging by day and night.”

The drone operators are not mistaking civilians for combatants, they haven’t been for decades. They’ve been targeting civilians precisely.

Anyway, TIAA CREF started to hear calls to get out of its position in Elbit beginning about 2010. At that point they had shares worth $1,000,000. As of March 2022, TIAA-CREF had 31,197 shares of Elbit, and had grown their footprint from the prior quarter. The shares are worth $5,196,886

Professional wealth managers, when they hear a call to get out of a bad position, and I’ve heard them say this, say “We want to stay in so that we can have influence. You don’t have any influence if you’re not at the table.” This clearly is not the case with so-called shareholder activists and TIAA-CREF, which is continuing to profit from the murder of Palestinians.

So just to repeat: Adherence to the BDS line is the bare minimum called for by Palestinian civil society. If you want to work with Palestinians, or Palestinian organizations, this is the baseline. Establishing boycotts inside our professional organizations is an outside possibility but our results have been mixed. Getting major institutional investors to divest from Israel — even from the most obviously bloodthirsty corporations! — is not working. What to do?

What one action could look like

Action outside of the sphere of the professional organization or the institution, then, would have to be taken, something like a BDS pledge among practitioners alone.

Let’s talk about a test case.

Hebrew University of Jerusalem built an ILS called Aleph and spun it into a for-profit venture Aleph-Yissum through its technology transfer office in 1983. ExLibris was organized in 1986 to market the Aleph software.

State financial support was given to libraries adopting Aleph as part of creating a national union catalog in Israel, effectively giving Aleph nigh-monopoly status in Israeli universities:

“The Government Planning and Grants Committee for Higher Education Institutions reconsidered its previous decision and decided to support the creation of a national decentralized catalog, to be carried out through coordinated computerization in Israel’s university libraries. Financial support was to be given to participating universities under two conditions: (1) university libraries were to implement only one software program — the ALEPH integrated system — on uniform equipment in order to ensure maximum coordination , and (2) the software was to be developed and maintained centrally, by ALEPH Yissum. In return they would be able to acquire the ALEPH software at a reduced price as one package deal for all the university libraries in Israel.”

It got into 200 libraries worldwide by 1995; that year ExLibris and Aleph-Yissum merged.

Their headquarters is in the Malha Technology Park in southwestern Jerusalem. The park is built on the ethnically cleansed Palestinian village al-Maliha. The Irgun assaulted al-Maliha on July 15, 1948 emptying the village of 2250 inhabitants.

A 2020 library systems report in American Libraries magazine had nearly 3000 American academic libraries using either Alma, Voyager, or Aleph, ExLibris’s current and legacy ILSes.

There are 1394 members of the ExLibris Users Group North America, including the entire University of California system, the City University of New York, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Southern Methodist University, Harvard, Brown, Bryn Mawr, Agnes Scott College, American University, and the Arab American National Museum!

Sam Popowich got to the point last year:

“The major obstacle, I think, would be to convince (pressure, force) library leadership, university administration, and the university’s lawyers that BDS is the proper course of action here. It is hard not to feel some complicity with the Israeli state’s murder of Palestinians — including children — as long as we quietly and uncritically continue to widely license and deploy software from an Israeli company.”

Sam has a stronger estimation of librarians’ and archivists’ collective power than I do. I think the threats to a mass/organizational approach are serious — see ASA’s lawsuit. University lawyers are not a breed to stick their necks out, and if a move incurs risk — even if the cost is, as in AHA’s case, the cost of four years of lawyer-hours tied up in litigation — it’s to be avoided.

But for people who feel complicit in the ongoing depredations of the State of Israel against Palestinians, quietly and uncritically doing our business is not an option.

So what to do?

I’m going to walk through some hypothetical scenarios. For a lot of reasons, this is my official disclaimer that neither my employer, nor the PC(USA) is calling for any of these actions to occur. These are observations about tactics that have been used in the past by labor organizers, civil rights workers, and so on:

Educate the workforce

Hopefully that’s what we’re doing today. ExLibris’s footprint is vast, everybody’s deep into it, and I guarantee you nobody connects it to the occupation of Palestine. Building a network of individual practitioners who are invested in the cause of Palestine is a possible early step.

Slow work / work to rule with Alma libraries

While an overt boycott of Alma libraries would be bound to raise red flags among our colleagues — apologies to my friends at Agnes Scott College but I will not be replying to your emails — and prompt blowback, slowing work or working to rule might begin to prompt questions from our colleagues without arousing cries of discrimination. One could respond to ILL requests late, hold off on emails, take it easy on interinstitutional collaborations, by all means still doing our jobs, but adding one layer of friction.

Time to update the ILS and shop around?

How old is your ILS and does it effectively serve your clients? I’ve seen some very small institutions that have ponied up for a big ExLibris package when they could get by with a smaller community-resourced ILS like Koha. It could be time to examine the costs and benefits of migrating out of Alma. Your supervisors will love the initiative toward austerity, which is an added bonus.

Even if now is not the right time to migrate, maybe remember this text for when the next migration comes around?

Similarly, we’re all in a position to advise other maybe smaller institutions who are looking at ILSes. Keep this in mind when you’re called upon for advice.

Perennial reminder

A broader point worth touching on, especially as you enter the conference’s exhibit hall and hear pitches from vendors, is that you are in control of the dollars you spend in your institutions. You may not believe it but you are. Library and archives software vendors are our clients; we are not theirs.

Get friends

Finally, no action at all is going to come together without us finding like-minded practitioners, and so if that is you, come join us in Librarians and Archivists With Palestine.



David Staniunas

Records Archivist at Presbyterian Historical Society | opinions =/= policies | not acid-free