The Passing Parade: Cheap Shots from a Drive By Mind

"...difficile est saturam non scribere. Nam quis iniquae tam patiens urbis, tam ferreus, ut teneat se..." " is hard not to write Satire. For who is so tolerant of the unjust City, so steeled, that he can restrain himself... Juvenal, The Satires (1.30-32)

Saturday, February 18, 2006

THE ALA AND THE INDEPENDENT LIBRARY MOVEMENT: The trouble with being Orwellian, other than it doesn’t pay very well and requires the practitioner to wear some fairly unfashionable clothing in public, is that to do a proper job of it you can’t have the non-Orwellians pointing out to all and sundry just what it is you’re doing. In the Orwellian universe, life tends to go much more smoothly when the assembled multitudes of proles chanting the praises of Big Brother don’t think too much about what they’re saying. The mass bleats of war is peace, freedom is slavery, and buy term life insurance all work best when there is no smarmy troublemakers around to tell the multitudinous proles that they are spouting absolute rubbish. Hence the aggressiveness of the Orwellian state; for it to completely dominate its captive population the state must eliminate anyone or anything that might disturb the façade of lies, half-lies, and intimidation such states rely on to maintain their control. In a society like ours, however, the Orwellian faces an entirely different problem: there are all too many people willing to point out that they are spouting nonsense. Mr. Michael Gorman, the president of the American Library Association, learned this the hard way in San Antonio last month.

Before I go on, and in the interests of full disclosure, I should mention, for those of you who don’t know this already, that I am a librarian, a real one, complete with the master’s degree from an ALA-accredited university, so let’s not have any semantic quibbles here, and that for years I was a dues-paying member of the ALA. I never ran for an ALA office and I was content to support the organization’s good work in fighting censorship and to get a better deal for American librarians. I left the organization a few years ago because of the ALA’s constant support of every left-wing position on every political issue that came down the pike, issues that often had nothing to do with libraries, librarians, and librarianship, and its willful blindness on an issue that did. That issue is the independent library movement in Cuba.

If there is any personality quirk that distinguishes the Orwellian from the broad mass of their fellow creatures it is this: the ability to believe both parts of an oxymoron equally. You can see this mindset at work in the ALA’s position on the Cuban independent libraries. The ALA, which stands foursquare against any parent who wants to remove the works of Judy Blume or Mark Twain from their school library will say nothing, do nothing that publicizes the plight of the independent librarians, first, because they are not “real” librarians, second, these libraries are not “real” libraries, and third, there is no censorship of library books in Cuba. That’s right, there is no censorship of library books in Cuba; you read it here first, folks.

To return to Mr. Gorman and his discomfiture, non-Orwellian reality came in the person of Andrei Codrescu, who gave a speech at the ALA’s Midwinter Conference in San Antonio. In his speech, which you can read here, Mr. Codrescu defended the independent librarians and compared Castro’s Cuba with the Ceaucescu dictatorship in Mr. Codrescu’s native Romania, blasting the ALA’s position on this issue as hypocritical. To say that this has put the ALA’s institutional knickers in a twist is something of an understatement; the grand panjandrums who run the ALA are not used to having their good opinion of themselves disturbed.

In replying to a letter from Robert Kent, the co-chair of Friends of Cuban Libraries, Mr. Gorman breezily dismisses Mr. Kent’s concerns about the independent library movement, as well as the concerns about the movement from such “foaming right wingers” as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Cornel West, and Nat Hentoff. Mr. Gorman goes on to say that he is “old-fashioned enough to think it is both rude and devious to accept an invitation to speak on a topic and use the opportunity to attack your host.” Mr. Gorman’s statement is perhaps scarier than he may realize. The supporters of the American library as an institution must wonder what sort of future can there be for the library when the organization created to defend it and the traditions of free speech, free expression, and free thought that it embodies cannot or will not recognize the vicious assault on all of these traditions occurring a scant one hundred miles from the United States. The very idea that an organization dedicated to protecting a person’s right to read what they want should play lapdog to a tyrant who holds the basic mission of that organization in undisguised contempt is nothing short of sickening. And yet this Orwellian situation is the reality facing American librarians today, and those of us in the profession must wonder if the ALA’s commitment to the principles espoused in the Library Bill of Rights* is absolute or merely conditional, that condition being support for a leftist ideology. It is difficult, at best, to credit the ALA’s commitment to the value of free expression when it so willingly looks the other way when the Cuban government tramples that same value underfoot.

And the American Library Association is looking the other way. The first step in the ALA’s willful blindness is semantic: the Cuban independent librarians are not “real” librarians, which is to say, they do not have a master’s degree in library or information science, and therefore do not merit our concern. This, frankly, is baloney piled on top of balderdash and garnished with poppycock. As Mr. Kent quite rightly points out in his letter, James Billington, the Librarian of Congress and the man who runs the largest library in the world, does not have a library degree; Dr. Billington is a professor of Russian history. Neither does the president of the National Library of Cuba, Eliades Acosta, nor does the president of the New York Public Library, Paul Leclerc, for that matter—Dr. Leclerc is a professor of French literature—and yet I would assume that the ALA believes that the organizations these three men head are “real libraries” worthy of its respect despite the fact that none of their leaders has a library degree.

Second, the independent libraries are not worth of the ALA’s notice because they are not “real libraries.” This, of course, brings up the whole question of just what constitutes a library. A warehouse full of books is not a library, and neither is a bookstore, although I am willing to go along with the notion that if bookstores are not libraries, they are the next best thing, and neither is; what make a library different is that the materials in the library are for use, to slightly paraphrase S. R. Ranganathan. Providing the user with what they want is the driving force of the library as an institution, and since many library patrons have an incomplete idea of what they want, and since one idea often leads to another, the library helps when it can provide the broadest possible range of materials available on a subject, which stands at odds with the Cuban government’s belief that it and only it is the sole arbiter of what the Cuban people ought to think about any given subject. Not everyone in Cuba agrees with this, however, and if a library is a collection of materials organized for the use of the patrons before it is anything else, then it does not matter if these books are housed in the architectural glories of the Library of Congress or the New York Public Library or in a private home, and it does not matter if the person who organizes those materials for the patrons to use has a degree in library science from a ALA-accredited university or simply the love of reading: that place is a library and that person is a librarian.

Then there is the third reason for the ALA’s disinclination to say anything about the Cuban independent library movement: it is unnecessary, because there is no censorship of library books in Cuba. The ALA knows this because the association’s former president, John W. Berry, went to Cuba in 2001 and 2002 at the head of two ALA sponsored missions and could find no evidence of censorship in Cuba’s libraries. Every so often, I find, that clearing your mind of the daily hurly-burly and returning to basic principles help me see past the tumult of events and understand what is actually going on around me. In this case, one must ask, who actually rules Cuba? The answer, as we all know, is Fidel Castro and the Cuban Communist Party, a self-selected nomenklatura with no interest in sharing political power with anyone outside their group. This group maintains itself in power by rigorously controlling every aspect of Cuban life, both private and political, and by a constant surveillance of the country’s population, treating any tendency, thought, or word that does not support the government’s hold on power as counterrevolutionary and therefore something they should punish harshly, which, of course, is exactly what happened to the independent librarians. In 2003, the Cuban government arrested seventy-five librarians, sentencing them to terms of twenty-eight years in Castro’s prisons, and this in a country, Mr. Berry assures us, that does not censor library books.

As for Mr. Berry’s charge that “there is some evidence that it’s really the U.S. Interests Section” behind the library movement, and the United States is involved in a plan “to destabilize the Cuban government”, well, I’ve checked my calendar and it says 2006, not 1962, and I am reasonably certain that John and Robert Kennedy are still dead. Mr. Berry does not define what he means by “some evidence;” if he means that the Interests Section is handing out books to the independent librarians then what of it? There is no censorship of library books in Cuba; I know this because Mr. Berry tells me so, and he went to Cuba twice in order to find it; and so the Cuban government shouldn’t care one way of the other whether or not if the populace is reading the Spanish language translation of The Federalist Papers or Stephen King’s newest shocker or an examination of the Cuban political system by someone with no vested interest in whether that system survives or not.

And who provided Mr. Berry with the “some evidence” of American nefariousness? If he got the information from the American Interests Section in Havana then why doesn’t he say so? Or could it be that his source is the Cuban government, which is hardly a disinterested party here? And why would the United States want to destabilize Cuba? Fidel Castro is the avatar of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Patriarch, the ancient dictator of a sclerotic dictatorship, one of the last true believers in an obsolete and disproved 19th century economic theory now going the way other such 19th century quackeries as phrenology and the Welsh origins of the American Indians, a tyrant whose grip on power the United States helps, not hinders, with this long-lasting embargo. Without the embargo, the Cuban government would have no reason to curtail the individual liberties of the island’s citizens, no excuse for fifty years of economic and political mismanagement, no excuse, period. The embargo provides Castro and his minions with an all purpose excuse for their failures to make good on the promises of the Cuban Revolution; if the United States government really wanted to destabilize the Cuban government then it would lift the embargo tomorrow and to do so unilaterally; any attempt to negotiate the embargo away with the Cuban government will always falter—the leaders of that country know better than anyone just how much they need to keep the embargo in place in order to deflect popular discontent away from themselves. So no, Mr. Berry’s contention that it is all the fault of the evil gringos doesn’t wash, and his statement that there is no censorship in Cuban libraries goes beyond the incredibly absurd into the actually insulting. A totalitarian state, by definition, accepts that there is no source of truth outside itself, and cannot accept that the people have a right to access information that may contradict the state’s version of the truth; in order for the proles to believe that freedom is slavery, there can be no one to tell them that this is not so.

For those who wish to learn something about this situation, please follow this link to the Friends of Cuban Libraries website. Mr. Kent has a collection of articles and other information about the Cuban independent library movement and the hypocrisy of the ALA in its dealings with that movement, as well as its craven sucking up to the dictatorship in Cuba. This is, for me, perhaps the most disheartening aspect of this whole sorry business. The ALA once stood for the protection of the right to free thought and expression everywhere; today leftist ideology and hypocrisy rule at ALA headquarters in Chicago, and the American public must sit and listen to this organization constantly whine about nonexistent threats to American liberties from the present Administration while ignoring and then excusing the actual crushing of Cuban liberties. If you are a member of the ALA and you do not like where the association is heading, then I strongly urge you not to renew your membership. Once it becomes clear to the leadership that they and their chumminess with Fidel Castro is causing disaffection among the people they claim to speak for, then perhaps there can be some positive change in the association; losing members and their dues is a sure fire way of getting the attention of almost any organization.

I'd like to thank Mr. Kent for bringing this latest information to my attention; I have written about the independent library movement previously, but to be honest, I haven't kept up with the situation, and again thanks to Randy at Beautiful Horizons, for the mention and for getting the word out about this issue.

*Library Bill of Rights
The American Library Association affirms that all libraries are forums for information and ideas, and that the following basic policies should guide their services.

I. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.

II. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.

III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.

IV. Libraries should cooperate with all persons and groups concerned with resisting abridgment of free expression and free access to ideas.

V. A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.

VI. Libraries which make exhibit spaces and meeting rooms available to the public they serve should make such facilities available on an equitable basis, regardless of the beliefs or affiliations of individuals or groups requesting their use.


Adopted June 18, 1948, by the ALA Council; amended February 2, 1961; January 23, 1980; inclusion of “age” reaffirmed January 23, 1996.


  • At 3:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Ah, yes, the Orwellization of seemingly apolitical associations...Bravo that you dropped out of the ALA bec. of their Leftomania! Ditto here with the MLA.

    Keep fighting the good fight! ;)



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