The Truth about Fearless Librarians
Steve Fesenmaier writes "Several recent events have made me write this essay. First there was Attorney General Ashcroft's direct attack on the American Library Association and librarians in general, calling them hysterical about the effects of the Patriot Act. If Ashcroft had bothered to actually talk to a few librarians personally, he would have discovered that very, very few were actually shredding their records and going bonkers about the Patriot Act.Certainly a handful of librarians - the handful that are members of ALA's Socially Responsibility Roundtable - have been writing stories for their websites - library juice and librarian.net for example. Few of those librarians are library directors and probably have actually done little in their own libraries. ALA has indeed challenged recent computer filtering laws, and finally lost. But everyone knows that librarians in Minneapolis won a court case AGAINST the library administration for NOT FILTERING, claiming sexual harassment by patrons was tolerated. The fact is that almost every librarian I know supported filtering in every way EXCEPT they were worried about the costs of the filters, and the hassles.
In my twenty-five years as a librarian I have found only two or three librarians who in any way are concerned with the Library Bill of Rights. One is Sandy Berman who proposed to the ALA Council at his farewell presentation that it be extended to library employees. Nothing happened.
Ashcroft was truly dealing with a tempest in a teapot when he wasted his time attacking librarians. 99 % of them fully support what he has done, along with President Bush. OK - maybe not 99 % - how about 90 %?
Library boards library directors and administrations have shown few signs over the last century of standing up for the U.S. Constitution. Even the officially sanctioned ALA Banned Book Week is a total joke. Judy Krug and the ALA Office of Intellectual Freedom have never lifted a finger in support of libraries truly expanding their collections to include the full political spectrum. They use banned kids books like Harry Potter or other obvious works that one or two libraries have had to fight for against local far-right or far-left wingers - never telling the public that the Library Bill of Rights is supposed to MAKE all American public libraries collect materials covering the full range of beliefs about all subjects. The Library Bill of Rights is a total joke.
That is why the NY Times editorial recently by Margaret Talbot, "Subversive Reading" (NY Times Magazine, Sept. 28, 2003) is utterly ludicrous. Librarians, including myself, e-mailed it and posted it all over the place. I don't know what library she uses, but very, very few libraries even in NYC have actually stood up publicly against the Patriot Act. According to Karen Schneider, webmaster for the Librarians Index to the Internet, all 50-state library associations have passed resolutions. As Jessamyn West notes, webmaster for librarian.net, you wouldn't know it from checking the ALA website. West also notes on her website that Talbot "included the text of my signs, not the signs themselves, and they cited my weblog, and not my name." Since West just got her first library job in years recently, she herself was never in any position to actually post the wonderful anti-Patriot Act signs she created. I posted one of them where I work and it was taken down almost instantly. Talbot has written a fantasy about some other world - one I also wished I lived in.
Another recent media event aroused my interest. Nat Hentoff, a real hero of mine for decades, was interviewed by Amy Goodman for her "Democracy Now!" radio show. Hentoff did not have much time, but he did fit in a brief discussion of Talbot's article, and similarly spread the fantasy that many American librarians are actively fighting against the Patriot Act. He also stated that ALA's leadership had failed to stand up for imprisoned Cuban librarians despite the overwhelming support of the average "heroic" librarian to joining Amnesty International and other groups who are exposing their plight.
The facts are that the 100+ members of ALA Council have known about the Cuban librarian problem for six months, and despite the controversy, the COUNCIL has refused to take a stand against Castro. I am a member of the group calling itself Friends of Cuban Libraries, headed by Robert Kent of NYPL, and I have not received any response from ALA people at all after several e-mails. I very much doubt if the average American librarian has any awareness whatsoever of the Cuban librarians being imprisoned, and they could care less. There certainly is no petition I am aware of sponsored by librarians against Castro. There is a petition on the web for people like Howard Ziff and Noam Chomsky, etc. against Castro.
I would like to believe, like Talbot and Hentoff, that American librarians have finally decided to take a stand against our current Administration. I know otherwise. A small handful of librarians from SRRT have stopped the ALA Council from siding with the imprisoned librarians in Cuba. A small handful of librarians have gotten state library groups to pass meaningless resolutions against the Patriot Act. As far as I know, NO LIBRARY BOARD, NO LIBRARY DIRECTOR OF A MAJOR LIBRARY including past President Mitch Freedman, a friend, have publicly refused to implement the Patriot Act when the FBI called.
Most librarians I know would rather work at a Wal-Mart, do their jobs, go on vacation, and continue their middle class lives. During 25 years in West Virginia, working with all 176 libraries on a daily basis, I have not seen any director actually stand up to filtering let alone the Patriot Act. One person in our state did stand up to a governor who wanted to filter libraries before it was necessary, and she did get librarians, mainly academic librarians, to stand up against that act of censorship. She rightfully won a national IF award from ALA for her efforts - involving just a handful of people here.
One last note - as Robert Kent has written the NY Times, it is a contradiction for ALA to stand up against the Patriot Act without taking a stand for the miserable victims of Castro. One of the leading supporters of Castro actually has used Ashcroft's arguments in support of the Cuban librarians being imprisoned - he says, "All countries have a right to prevent people controlled by foreign agents from spreading dissent." I just wish that Ashcroft would give those SRRT people the same treatment Castro has given his dissenting librarians - 20 years in prison!
Friends of Cuban Libraries