Canadian Library Month and the Informed Society

While the surfing the internet to learn more about the beginning of national library weeks / library months in Canada after reading about Jack McLelland’s opposition to them, I discovered a digitized copy of the Shawinigan Standard from Wed., 1 April 1959 in the Google News Archive.  The paper’s editorial (ostensibly written by Doug R. Wilson, publisher, editor, and advertising manager), speaks on the topic of Canadian Library Week, but interestingly doesn’t mention culture.  To Wilson, Canadian Library Week is an important and necessary cause that will help to develop and maintain an informed citizenry since:

“The key to our democratic government is an informed public . . . The Canadian Library Week program should remind us of the relationship between reading and knowledge and our traditions of freedom (source)

I’ve transcribed the entire editorial below since it touches on the subject of democratic values and the informed society.  The progressive librarian in me believes that libraries, although being creatures of the state (or sorts), are strong defenders of the individual’s right to speak freely as well as the individual’s right to privacy.  Wilson’s editorial refers to traditions of ‘freedom’ – a slippery word, I know – but it’s still nice to see reading and civil liberties entwined together in the public eye, as it is here in 1959.

Canadian Library Week

Less than one Canadian in every three was reading a book at the time of the last survey by the Gallup organization

This is not a situation of which we can be proud; nor is the fact that only 61 per cent of our citizens have ready access to public library service, according to the most recent government survey.

Our reading record, by almost any yardstick seems to be about the worst among western nations, save for the United States.

Whatever the reasons for this dismal picture, we are fortunate that a move is understand to change it.  Our first Canadian Library Week is to be observed from April 12 to 18. The Week is actually the finishing touch to a two-month, nationwide, “Wake Up and Read” campaign to encourage more reading of all kinds by Canadians.

It is good to see public-spirited men and women from many fields tackling this problem in a practical way.  For the question of reading should not be left entirely to librarians and educators.  It is something with which every one of us should be concerned.

The key to our democratic method of government is an informed public.  Such a state will remain but a dream if only 15 per cent of Canadians over six years borrow books from their public library (another government survey finding).

This is not nearly good enough for a country that is more than 95 per cent literate, has more leisure time and a lager national income than ever before.

The Canadian Library Week program should remind us of the relationship between reading and knowledge and our traditions of freedom.  It should help re-kindle an interest in those of us who have lost touch with books; to open the way to new, worth while experience for others who have neglected the reading habit.

Canadian Library Week is drawing support from leading citizens in business and industry, libraries and publishing houses, newspapers, radio-tv, the educational and other fields.

But it deserves – and needs – the full support and active interest of all of us.

The Semantics of Subversive Librarianship

Let’s get political.

A large number of librarians, myself included, identify with left-leaning, progressive politics.  Whether we actively oppose GATS meetings, actively write against and criticize GATS negotiations, work to help the disadvantaged get the information that need to get a fair shake in life, or simply believe that public information access and dissemination is at the core of librarianship, these librarians are willing to merge their personal ethos with their professional lives.

Some of us revel in being labeled “subversive” for these politics.  The word’s connotations of public protests and discrete or grand actions to disrupt the status quo comfort us.  We’re the kind of people who want to make a difference in the world in our time, so being called subversive reminds us that we are in fact doing our part to fight social ills and defend civil liberties.    And we love the words spoken by Michael Moore (even if we don’t like the man – there are subversives who don’t appreciate all his work) on subversive librarianship.  Moore, a touchstone of progressive politics, praised the librarians of the Social Responsibilities Round Table who protested loudly against HarperCollins and ultimately ensured that Stupid White Men went to press after 9/11 with its criticisms of the Bush administration intact.  Humbled by the work of the librarian profession, Moore said:

I really didn’t realize the librarians were, you know, such a dangerous group.  They are subversive. You think they’re just sitting there at the desk, all quiet and everything. They’re like plotting the revolution, man. I wouldn’t mess with them. You know, they’ve had their budgets cut. They’re paid nothing. Books are falling apart. The libraries are just like the ass end of everything, right?

And there we are: praise from on high.  Affirmation that we are doing our part in the fight to protect civil liberties.  And we really are! Socially responsible librarians every day defend an individual’s personal freedoms, such free speech or a right to privacy.  It’s no surprise then, that I love the SRRT, the BCLA, Library Juice and other like-minded associations and endeavors.

I strongly believe that my personal moral code cannot be tossed out the window when on the job.  My professional code of ethics marries the ALA’s Code and the CLA’s Code, the guidelines of my employers, and my personal ethical behaviour. And to put it bluntly, I work only for organizations that encourage learning, information access and information rights, a freedom to read and a freedom to speak, and an open discourse with the community on the issues affecting it daily.   That’s not to say I’m marching with fists raised whenever I shuffle along from one building to another when on campus – I packed away my Doc Martens long ago – but I do ask on a regular basis if the actions in my daily life, let alone working life, are for the greater good of society, and I work to answer in the affirmative.

But I’m bothered by the fact that these actions and values are often considered “subversive.”  I largely agree with and understand that subversive actions can never come to an end because the very nature of subversiveness implies continued action as a watchdog of state and corporate interests, but I don’t appreciate the negative connotations that are brought to bear with the use of the term.  The word, “subversive,” has physical, if not violent connotations attached to it.  To subvert something is not to upset the balance or undermine an imperfect authority.  Rather, “to subvert” is simply “to overthrow.”  And to institute regime change is not the ends our endeavour to protect civil liberties.  In protecting civil liberties we aim to defend individual freedoms.  We aim to be openly critical of government and corporate interests of all political stripes in order to defend the interests of the individual and to protect the interests of those who can’t defend themselves.

I may be quibbling about semantics and rhetoric, but it’s a strong point that I believe warrants discussion in the wider community.  To use the word “subversive” is to use language which suggests that we are only muckrakers when we are in fact social critics and defenders of the same freedoms that people who often oppose our actions hold dear.  Couldn’t we just embrace the term “subversive” as our own and try to subvert the understanding of its use, you might ask?  I think we’re still trying to do this, but in doing so we find ourselves preaching only to the choir.  Those who have not heard our message or who do not agree with it do not understand any ironic ‘subversion’ of the word “subversive.”  Rather, we must be clear and concise with our message and our terms.  Just as I am pro-choice instead of anti-life (as some abortion opponents would have it), we should pronounce ourselves as pro-civil-liberties, or something to that effect, in order to help the world understand our message.  We’re not here to take down the government, overthrow our national institutions or destroy capitalism and all its vestiges.  Rather, we’re here to promote, defend, and maintain the rights of the individual.  Perhaps a term other than “subversive” would better explain this to others.

On that note happy holidays. And to all the subversive librarians out there, I hope I haven’t offended you.  This isn’t a personal attack.  This is more an attempt to start a dialogue on the words we use to describe ourselves and our actions.

Libraries, West Bend, and Civil Liberties

Going around the internet right now is the case of a local group of citizens in West Bend, WI, who disagree with the inclusion of GLBTQ texts in the local public library’s young adult collection and have therefore successfully petitioned for the removal of four trustees from the Library board. As widely reported in the press, West Bend residents Jim and Ginny Maziarka, who formed a private group called West Bend Citizens for Safe Libraries, objected that GLBTQ texts are “pornographic” (para. 11) and that walking into libraries with such texts is akin to browsing a local adult entertainment shop (para. 16). The Maziarkas raised a fuss, contacted their city council, and successfully had a few library trustees rejected from re-appointment.

A number of people and organizations have made note of the blatant discrimination and rights abuses that this action set in motion. On the face of things, this story is a solid example of discrimination against the GLBTQ community or of the imposition of purported “community morals” onto an entire generation of local youth who may be of a different, yet legitimate “moral” persuasion. I worry, however, that this controversy hasn’t struck a stronger chord with the general public. What we’ve read about, and what we’re seeing in West Bend is a potential chilling effect that can pressure a city council and public library board to bend to the will of one community subgroup at the expense of another. The entire controversy, predicated on the vocal pressure of one group, runs the risk of trampling the rights of the entire community to freely associate, inform, and be informed. In short (and as Lisa Chellman has duly noted), the Maziarkas might be toying with the citizens of West Bend’s freedom to speak freely.

The link drawn between the freedom to read and the freedom to speak isn’t always made clear in the public eye. When we talk about freedom of speech, we generally speak about our right to say what we want, when we want. We picture a person ready and willing to give his or her opinion on the subject of the day. Implied in this image but lost in the rhetoric, however, is the concomitant right to listen to what is being said. A right to speak, after all, is worthless if there is no subsequent right to freely listen to the speaker, read the book or to analyze the data for oneself. Demanding the removal of GLBTQ texts from a library (regardless of its categorization as YA or general fiction) is to censure those who care to speak on the subject as well as those who care to read it. It imposes the will of one group over another.

The Maziarkas’ maneuvering to pressure the library board (and ostensibly the library itself) to work only for their groups’ needs and desires negatively affects West Bend’s ability to inform itself on a given topic from the entire spectrum of information/literature available to it. Their group’s actions threatens the rights of not only the city’s youth and GLBTQ communities, but also the rights of the city as whole. Since the West Bend library must serve the community members, one should therefore expect to find books with GLBTQ plots as well as “traditional” relationship storylines.

What can librarians do to protect the interests of the entire community and to protect the free and unfettered flow of information? Having a solid collections and display policy is often a standard answer, and in the West Bend case, it might help to a certain degree. In cases such as these, though, when political pressure threatens to stifle debate and the information flow, it is important to be both political and civil. Remember that we serve the interests of the community. To that end, organize, and integrate. To the former, seek advice from other librarians who have been to the front when it comes to civil liberties. To the latter, become vocal and get involved in the community, and remind it why it needs to see all viewpoints – even the ones it disagrees with. Knowledge and understanding – regardless of one’s opinions and biases – is nurtured only through critique and debate. Remind the community, constantly, why this is so.

Librarians should be neutral about the information they procure. But they shouldn’t be quiet when it comes to civil liberties. Be vocal on civil liberties, especially on the freedom to read. Ours is a profession that has expertise in this basic tenet of our culture, so we shouldn’t shy away from expressing it.

Some more links on the issue:

Paul Everett Nelson, who provides a link to a local group who are protesting and petitioning against the original anti-free-speech action.

The National Coalition Against Censorship‘s original post reporting on the petition, from early April 2009.