Librarians at the Gates | The Nation


Librarians at the Gates

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A librarian responds to the Cuba Library initiative included in this report.

The $3 Million Book

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Joseph Huff-Hannon
Joseph Huff-Hannon is an independent writer and producer, and a 2008 finalist in the Livingston Awards for Young...

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The Iranian president encounters members of US peace groups and religious organization.

Large donations rarely come without strings attached, and a $3 million pledge to St. Andrews Episcopal School in Austin, Texas, was no exception. Cary McNair, potential donor and parent of two students at the school, objected to the inclusion of Brokeback Mountain in the school library, and asked for its removal. Annie Proulx's short story about a secret love affair between two men was recommended reading in the curriculum of a senior English class at the school.

Lucy Collins Nazro, head of the school, refused the request, and McNair's pledge was rescinded earlier this year. The American Library Association recently honored Nazro, along with library board member Kathryn Runnels, with its Award for Intellectual Freedom for 2006. "Lucy Collins Nazro represents the daily struggle that librarians and administrators face in building inclusive curriculum and collections," said ALA Award Committee chair Laura Koltutsky. Every year the ALA celebrates banned and challenged books by publicizing cases such as this, and providing librarians around the country with legal and professional advice on how to counter these various attempts at censorship.

An Atypical Archive

The word "archive" is likely to conjure images of a staid collection of documents, books or historical memorabilia--safely stored away for posterity's sake. Not so with the National Security Archive, an independent nongovernmental research institute and library located at George Washington University, whose raison d'etre is the un-archiving of documents the federal government might prefer never saw the light of day.

"We have a unique combination of functions," says Thomas Blanton, director of the archive since 1992. "We are a library of materials, a center for investigative journalism, a research institute, a public-interest law firm and a publisher. We are also the single largest submitter of FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests to the CIA and the State Department."

Since its founding in 1986, the archive has won numerous journalistic awards and has been responsible for unearthing some of the most damning and illuminating secret government documents pertaining to US foreign policy; Kissinger in China, Iran/contra, CIA cooperation with military governments in Latin America and the more recently crafted Justice Department memos on interrogation techniques. "Understandably, this makes them uncomfortable," says Blanton. "We are a challenge to their information monopoly. Our mission is at odds with their mission--which is to keep those files closed."

Thus the recent lawsuit National Security Archive v. Central Intelligence Agency, filed by the archive on June 14 in Washington, DC, District Court. In October 2005, the CIA abruptly adopted the authority, despite judicial precedent to the contrary, to decide what constituted "news" or not, so that "non-newsworthy" FOIA requests could be tied to potentially large and prohibitive fees for the search and review time required to unearth the requested documents. "We believe we are the real target of this policy shift because we submit the majority of requests," Blandon says. "Given the timing--when the intelligence community is under serious scrutiny about its activities--this appears to be an effort to shut down the public debate. But it is really shortsighted. They really don't have a leg to stand on."

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