Saturday, December 29, 2007

Book Reflection - Books on Trial

I just finished reading Books on Trial: Red Scare in the Heartland, by Shirley Wiegand and Wayne Wiegand. The book description on Amazon reads:

Between the two major red scares of the twentieth century, a police raid on a Communist Party bookstore in Oklahoma City marked an important lesson in the history of American freedom. Shirley A. Wiegand and Wayne A. Wiegand share the compelling story of this important case for the first time. They reveal how state power--with support from local media and businesses--was used to trample individuals' civil rights during an era in which citizens were gripped by fear of foreign subversion.

Richly detailed and colorfully told, Books on Trial is a sobering story of innocent people swept up in the hysteria of their times. It marks a fascinating and unnerving chapter in the history of Oklahoma and of the First Amendment.

If you have an interest in any of the things listed above I highly recommend it.

I was very interested to see all the different types of organizations which came out in support for and opposition to the defendants in the case. It seems a lot of individuals as well as groups were vocal and ranged in philosophy from the KKK to various worker's unions. But one group that was amazingly quiet during this period were librarians. And the Wiegands spelled it out that absence for those who didn't notice it, on pages 188-90:
Despite the potential impact of the cases on library services and collections, however, the nation's library community was noticeably silent. The American Library Association had approved a Library Bill of Rights in 1939, but had not yet mobilized efforts to combat censorship[...]
In the December issue of P.L.C. Bulletin (organ of the leftist Progressive Librarians Council), Ralph T. Esterquest, of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, expressed his surprise at how librarians seemed "unmoved by the fact that...fascist methods are today the official means of suppressing a free people" in Oklahoma[...]"Let us should to our readers,[...]Read-Read-Read! Fine out what the pygmy minds have forbidden you to know."

So what happened in the psyche of America's librarians that turned them into the anti-censorship-intellectual-freedom-beasts at which Esterquest hinted?

I tried to figure out an answer to this question a couple years ago when I was one of several librarians interviewed for a doctoral student's dissertation entitled, How government mandated policies affect those responsible for their implementation: the USA PATRIOT ACT and Academic Libraries. In fact prior to this reflection on the Wiegand's book I hadn't really thought about the dissertation or tried to track it down. As I told the researcher for the dissertation - there was a time when librarians, by and large, followed the loyalist line - regardless of what that line was, but my educated guess was World War II changed the hearts and minds of librarians and how they viewed their role in being vocal during times of book 'censorship', challenges and even a wider world of social injustices. After all WWII did that for a lot of people...

There are those who ask why should librarians and library groups make policies or public statements regarding topics outside the realm of librarianship or even why ALA goes full force regarding banned material. And they are good questions -- and ones I've found myself asking on occasion. I mean don't we have enough issues in libraries? Do we really need to go sticking our nose in other people's messes? Perhaps we are making up for lost time and for not speaking up in the past. Or because we are in a service field we are wanting help anyone we can in any way we can -- and at times it is just words of support.

I try very hard to keep my political/personal me away from the professional me - because I don't want to isolate anyone that I might be able to assist. However, reflecting on Books on Trial and reading through the dissertation for which I was interviewed has provided me with a resolution for this coming secular year.

I resolve to encourage friends, family and colleagues to more civic participation - regardless of what color their political affiliation (red/blue/neon green) -- because all that matters is that they participate and realize we all have a stake in it.

What do you think?

6 comments: said...

What an interesting post. I think the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom has tipped too far in the other direction. Nowadays, you do as the OIF directs or you are personally attacked. The self-arrogated censorship police will even use censorship themselves to force their own views on communities.

Consider, for example, the case of the twelve Minnesota librarians who sued the library for which they worked and won in the EEOC, then the library settled the civil suit for $435,000, the limits of the library's insurance coverage.

The civil complaint in that matter was just made public in the past month. The main character in that story, the library director, was an ALA intellectual freedom big wig and Minnesota Coalition Against Censorship bigwig. You have got to read the complaint to see the shocking facts on which I based my statements.

Please read Adamson v. Minneapolis Public Library.

Adri said...

Thanks for the comment!

I believe this article, by Adamson, is the situation you are talking about.Click here for article from 2002

If what Adamson states in her article is correct then the administration was ill-prepared to handle the situation. And the staff didn't feel empowered to make their work environment a safe place for themselves or their patrons. A sad statement if true. (since I haven't read all the court records I'm working on partial info so share links if you got them - the more unbias the better)

When I was a brand new librarian - probably a month on the job I had a stituation where a patron would come to my 2nd floor collection to use the computers to look at graphic pr0n. After I had the unfortunate experience of viewing a rather large "money shot" I didn't hesitate to take action. I walked up to him and told him the collection (gov't docs) could be used by Minors at any given point in time and it would be illegal (according to state statutes) for minors to see what he was viewing and he really needed to take his recreational activities elsewhere. And he left. End of story.

Of course maybe I was just stupid, grew up around too many males, protected by the ivory tower of academia, or perhaps I was censoring him (I'm sure there are folks who will say that) --

But I would do the same thing today if confronted with the same situtation. There's a time a place for everything -- and a gov't docs collection isn't for that -- well unless it the Monica Lewinski transcripts.... :) said...

Yes, that is the story to which I was referring. The new news being that the civil complaint has been placed online in the past few weeks. This was done by David Burt of US v. ALA fame and more. I merely took his PDF version of the complaint, converted it to HTML, and placed it online without changes. Even the original grammatical errors are included. You can't get more unbiased than that.

Read the complaint through. You will quickly get the impression that this was not a case of an "administration ill-prepared to handle the situation." On the contrary, the impression I got was that this was an administration superbly prepared to do exactly what it did, namely, use any means necessary to suppress local control over the library. Three years this carried on. Only the EEOC's intervention prevented this from dragging on forever as it does in numerous other communities.

And look at paragraphs 52 and 53 to illustrate the steamrolling of local interests by the ALA/ MnCAC bigwig, Mary Lawson, emphasis mine:

52. MPL and Lawson were notified of the terrible impact the policy of unfettered Internet access was having on the staff and patrons as soon as the problems began to manifest themselves. As noted above, on April 10, 1997, Nancy Corcoran sent to Lawson a memo specifically raising concerns about the policy. Ms. Corcoran's memo described in detail the conduct of the "regulars" set forth above. It described clearly what she saw to be the issue of workplace harassment. In her memo she set described her own emotional distress in dealing with conduct of these patrons, the concerns of staff that administration will not support them if the staff confront the hard-core pornography users, and requested that MPL become a leader in upholding "standards of public decency and protecting its employees from such harassment."

53. Lawson's reply emphatically rejected any effort to remedy the situation. She specifically rejected the idea of public decency playing any role in Library policy, declaring "The public library's foundation rests on support of the First Amendment, the free flow of information not on upholding standards of public decency..." She further flatly refused to adopt a policy that would comply with Minnesota law regarding criminally obscene material. She stated "I cannot agree, however, that a written policy outlawing obscene material in the library or the uses of screening software for the Internet is appropriate for the Library." Lawson in formulating her policy position, choose to ignore the fact that the Minnesota legislature had already declared "obscene" material to be illegal.

Based on that, and based on Mary Lawson's high positions in those self-arrogated censorship police organizations, I do not buy the argument that Lawson's was an "administration ill-prepared to handle the situation." Rather, she was superbly prepared to flout community standards and even state law, and she did so for years.

Further, for all those years this dragged out in the public, no one not once took Lawson aside and helped her not to be "ill-prepared"? Three years of being "ill-prepared"? The ALA did not have the resources to help her even as it reported on the story from time to time?

Understandably, you are being very generous to assume MPL administration was "ill-prepared" for the situation. I do not expect you to make any public statements otherwise. Just think for yourself about the issues I raise and whether they might be even partially valid.

Here was Mary Lawson flouting Minnesota law in 1997. In 2001, Judith Krug of the ALA's OIF decried a Florida librarian's flouting the law when she turned a 9/11 terrorist's presence in a library into the police despite Florida library privacy laws. [ "A Nation Challenged: Questions of Confidentiality; Competing Principles Leave Some Professionals Debating Responsibility to Government" by David E. Rosenbaum, The New York Times, 23 Nov 2001. ] The ALA cannot have it both ways.

Flouting the law is not an administration being "ill-prepared." To what? Ill-prepared to follow the law?

Adri said...


Individuals can be ill-prepared in a myriad of things. And as my grandpa says, "Some folks will cut their nose off to spite their face". I contend the administration in the case you bring up was ill-prepared in so much that they couldn't see how their utopian vision of access to information fitted in to the reality of a particular public library's deviant patron behavior.

Actually it goes hand in hand with what Books on Trial revealed of those who worked for the 1930 - 40s US Communist Party. In Books on Trial the CPUSA members held on to the purist ideal of communism and how it could help the working man hit hard during the Depression, as well as, the blacks faced with Jim Crow laws in Oklahoma and throughout the US -- many turned a blind eye to, didn't criticize, and or couldn't comprehend the oxymoron-ness of the CPUSA affiliation to the Stalin Soviet Union. In fact of all the tried individuals (save for 1) eventually left the CPUSA but continued their works for the public good. And while the CPUSA members turned a blind eye to Stalin those prosecuting them in the OKC legal system turned a blind eye to the witch-hunt, violation of civil rights, unlawful trial conduct, etc that they were engaged in...both sides got lost in their zealousness.

Please don't think I'm comparing ALA to the CPUSA (although I'm sure some view them of the same ilk) -- instead I'm trying show that, at times, individuals on both sides of an issue let their ideologies get the best of them and sometimes it takes an EEOC lawsuit or an unjust trial of innocent individuals to encourage everyone to make a reality check.

And thank you for the comments – I always enjoy a lively exchange of ideas! Oh and I do agree 'Just think for yourself about the issues I raise and whether they might be even partially valid.' said...

Excellent post, again. Based on what you said, I may buy that book.

In the meantime, see if "The Internet and the Seduction of the American Public Library" is of any value to you, your work, and the subject generally. said...


I'm reading that link you gave me. It's Adamson herself detailing the details, and it's even worse (as in containing more damning details) than the complaint.

People, go read it.