Librarians at the Gates

Librarians at the Gates

At a time when free expression and the right to privacy are under attack, librarians are on the front lines protecting our constitutional rights every day. Here are five who are making a difference.


Courage, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. And in an era of increasing controls on the gathering and dissemination of information, many Americans are unaware of the courageous stands librarians take every day.

The day-to-day challenges librarians face are inherent in the job description: defending access to controversial or banned books, staving off budget cuts, and creating and expanding programs to draw more citizens into one of the few remaining genuinely public commons in American life. While the ethic of secrecy often prevails in the gathering and dissemination of corporate and governmental information, the work of a librarian is imbued with just the opposite. Be it in the capacity of archivist, reference librarian or information technology professional, a common thread is the profession’s dogged commitment to safeguarding books, research and information to make knowledge more widespread, not less.

In the past few years this dedication has become more important than ever. With the federal government ever more intent on spying on its own citizens, and on classifying, concealing and manipulating larger swaths of information and intelligence, librarians and library custodians are on the front lines protecting freedom of inquiry and our right to privacy. And where right-wing groups, both local and national, have campaigned for censorship, librarians have also stepped up to the plate to defend minority points of view in their collections. Anecdotes there are aplenty, too many to document here. The following are but a few profiles of courageous individuals in the field who exemplify the democratic values and the independent spirit of the profession.

Reforming Libraries From Within

“Libraries are not a government entity, and librarians are not the immigration police. Our mission is to serve the community, and we are getting organized,” says Loida Garcia-Febo, assistant coordinator for special services of the Queens Library in New York City and president of the northeast chapter of Reforma, an organization of librarians focused on developing library services and programs that meet the needs of the Latino community.

With the recent passage by the House of Representatives of HR 4437 (the Sensenbrenner bill), which would make it a felony for a librarian to issue a library card to an undocumented immigrant, Garcia-Febo and members of Reforma around the country swung in to high gear. In Queens, Garcia-Febo directed a public relations campaign using bus and newspaper ads, to assure the local community that the library would keep its doors open to everybody. Garcia-Febo also helped develop a Librarian’s Tool-Kit for responding to anti-immigrant sentiment.

“When I came over from Puerto Rico, I realized how important libraries are to immigrant communities here, for everything from literacy classes, job postings, readings or as a place for kids to do their homework,” Garcia-Febo says. “That is why they need to continue to provide full, equal access, regardless of background or legal status.”

Librarians 1, FBI 0

According to the Washington Post, since the passage of the USA Patriot Act in 2001, the FBI has issued more than 30,000 national security letters (NSL). These letters allow the Feds to require banks, Internet service providers, other companies–and libraries–to produce personal information on Americans, without a court order. To date, only one NSL has been challenged in court–by librarian Peter Chase and three of his colleagues in Connecticut.

“I really didn’t understand, until my attorneys explained it to me, that the Patriot Act can be aimed indiscriminately at anyone,” said Chase, director of the Plainville Public Library in Plainville, Connecticut.

Chase is one of four Connecticut librarians who, with the help of the ACLU, sued the Department of Justice last year after receiving an NSL demanding the forfeiture of library usage records for that state. This May the FBI withdrew its request and rescinded the gag order that had kept Chase and others from talking to the press. “What is important about this case is the precedent it set–that when the federal government issued us those NSLs and then dropped them, it lied about this being a matter of national security,” Chase said.

The $3 Million Book

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.”

The Cuban Library Controversy

One person’s martyr is another’s terrorist, and while it may seem extreme to discuss librarians within this context, when discussing librarians and libraries in Cuba the conversation quickly turns to extremes. Take the case of the independent library movement.

Founded in 1998 by Ramon Colas and Berta Mexidor in Las Tunas, a small village on the eastern part of the island near Santiago de Cuba, and starting with a library located in their home, the project expanded to include 103 independent libraries and 182,000 registered patrons by 2003. “Although a few libraries in the capital have somewhat balanced selections, these are of course the libraries that the government showcases to journalists and tourists,” says Colas, who now lives with his wife, Berta, in Jackson, Mississippi, after arriving in the United States as political refugees in 2002. “Most libraries in the country have nothing by Cuban or foreign writers who are critical of the regime; no Mario Vargas Llosa or Susan Sontag, nothing by such important Cuban writers as Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Reinaldo Arenas, Daina Chaviano. Our goal was to offer access to a diversity of viewpoints that did not exist in your typical Cuban library in the countryside.”

“They moved to the US after their children began receiving threats. Before that Ramon was arrested and detained, and the government forced Berta to apply for a divorce, on account of Ramon’s ‘anti-revolutionary’ activities.” This from Robert Kent, librarian at the New York Public Library, ALA member and co-founder of Friends of Cuban Libraries, which bills itself as an independent, nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting intellectual freedom in Cuba. “In 2003, when the Cuban government cracked down on political dissidents, it jailed fourteen librarians in a series of one-day trials that meted out, on average, prison sentences of twenty years or more. The most common charge was for ‘dangerousness.'” Numerous public intellectuals and writers–Ray Bradbury, Nat Hentoff, Katha Pollitt, Noam Chomsky and Andrei Codrescu among them–have spoken out strongly against the 2003 crackdown. Amnesty International has designated the imprisoned librarians as “prisoners of conscience.” Library associations around the world have drafted forceful statements of condemnation. Not so the ALA.

“So far we have not allowed our good name as the largest library association in the world to be used as an instrument of US foreign policy toward Cuba,” states Mark Rosenzweig, an ALA councilor-at-large. Rosenzweig alleges that the Friends organization has strong intelligence connections, and that many if not all of the independent libraries and librarians in Cuba are funded by USAID. “The project is part of the Bush ‘transition for Cuba’ plan, a front for the stated US policy to destabilize Cuba. These people are neither ‘independent’ nor ‘librarians.'”

“All we are asking of the ALA is that it has the intellectual courage to hold Cuba to the same standard as other countries,” remarks Colas. “We think it’s a matter of principle. Our opponents think it’s a matter of politics.”

Thank you for reading The Nation!

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read. It’s just one of many examples of incisive, deeply-reported journalism we publish—journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media. For nearly 160 years, The Nation has spoken truth to power and shone a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug.

In a critical election year as well as a time of media austerity, independent journalism needs your continued support. The best way to do this is with a recurring donation. This month, we are asking readers like you who value truth and democracy to step up and support The Nation with a monthly contribution. We call these monthly donors Sustainers, a small but mighty group of supporters who ensure our team of writers, editors, and fact-checkers have the resources they need to report on breaking news, investigative feature stories that often take weeks or months to report, and much more.

There’s a lot to talk about in the coming months, from the presidential election and Supreme Court battles to the fight for bodily autonomy. We’ll cover all these issues and more, but this is only made possible with support from sustaining donors. Donate today—any amount you can spare each month is appreciated, even just the price of a cup of coffee.

The Nation does not bow to the interests of a corporate owner or advertisers—we answer only to readers like you who make our work possible. Set up a recurring donation today and ensure we can continue to hold the powerful accountable.

Thank you for your generosity.

Ad Policy