Recently reporter Tracy Beanz posted a video in which she notified her followers that she had been banned from Facebook and Twitter, one of many thousands of people de-platformed this month for their political views. The video has certain artistry to it, though unintentional. The video appears to have been shot in near darkness, explained away by Beanz as the best quality video she could manage at the time, but the near-darkness neatly puts the viewer in mind of jail cells and attics. Although Beanz’ voice is agitated throughout the video, it breaks just once, the emotion too much to control. While running through a list of small out-of-the-way platforms where she can still be found, she mentions the name she posts under, and her voice breaks on the simply factual line, “Same thing. On every platform, it’s the same exact thing”. While she only meant that she uses her own name across all platforms – “Same thing. On every platform, it’s the exact same thing.” — the line, taken on its own, out of context, seems to have another meaning at this historic time. The shakily spoken line seems to encapsulate the frustration of the times and a realization many are now having that every door that can be shut by the tech giants is being shut.
It would be nice to believe that some venerated organization devoted to free speech issues, or benefiting from a stance of supporting free speech, might publicly denounce the cross-platform banning of such large numbers of voices. Speaking as a librarian, however, I can tell you that the American Library Association checked out a long while ago on free speech issues, and when authoritarian censorship comes to town, they will be no help. To understand why, it might be a good idea to review some events of importance from the year 2013, events that will give you some sense of the library world.
In 2013, the Federal government’s healthcare system takeover, known as Obamacare, was still being adamantly opposed by huge factions of the public and their Republican representatives. It was a politically charged issue by any measure. In that charged climate, the American Library Association announced that they would help promote the government health exchanges, thereby lending a hand to the Federal government/the Democrat administration. They chose sides.
I won’t be the first to note regarding this controversial move by the American Library Association that there is such a thing as ALA’s “Library Bill of Rights.” One of its passages states that “libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues.” That’s pretty clear wording: “All points of view” — pro and con. Libraries have traditionally provided material for people of all political affiliations or made that admirable claim. Of course, advancing one party’s political agenda is not presenting all points of view on a subject, nonetheless, the American Library Association weighed in on the left-wing side of the national argument over healthcare.
It was announced at ALA’s conference in 2013 that the Institute of Museum and Library Services would partner with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid to help patrons navigate and enroll in the healthcare exchanges. An account by Lindsay M. Boyd of the Washington Times of the 2013 conference described the attitudes of many of the ALA conference attendees:
“On the third day of the conference it was announced that the American Library Association planned to partner with the White House to tout the benefits of Obamacare… The Library Association announcement came as a surprise to many of the conference attendees, but for many if not most, it must have been a pleasant surprise… for example, several panel discussions included intense, uninformed diatribes against the National Rifle Association and the Heritage Foundation, and libraries’ responsibility to counter their influence… the following day, a group of librarians from both public and private institutions brainstormed about how library computers could be rigged to censor or possibly omit information.”
To further add fuel to the fire that the Library Association’s decision to promote Obamacare was political in nature, was that President Obama himself thanked librarians for their support in a video played at the conference. This sounds political even on its surface but more than that, as covered by the Washington Examiner, the White House vetoed all public airing of the video, so what exactly was said by the President to the conference attendees is a bit of a mystery. Maybe nothing was said in the video of an expressly political nature, but then maybe something was. The fact that the White House vetoed public access to the video is just another example of what others have described as the least transparent White House since Nixon.
What was witnessed in 2013 was a telling point in the history of American libraries. A library patron could never tell by looking at a librarian if they might be the kind to violate their stated ethical code by censoring materials or violate their stated ethical code by gearing the library’s collection against certain political interests. It suddenly became painfully easy to gauge whether librarians actually walked the walk or if their talk of libraries being repositories for all viewpoints was merely a marketing angle. When the book burning begins in your town, as it already has, librarians’ faces will be among those circling the flickering light.
The Library Association’s current sin of omission – being a silent backseat rider to the great censorship issue of our lifetime – isn’t, I believe, wholly due to their disinterest in free speech issues, but as 2013 illustrated, it is due in part to their being in agreement with big tech over which voices are censored. If any naïve person is still counting on the Library Association at some point to encourage its members to hit the streets en masse to protest rampant internet censorship of select ideas, deliberately skewed search results, or cancellation of fringe voices, I don’t know what to say. It’s been a long while since Burgess Meredith played a librarian in The Obsolete Man, that famed Twilight Zone episode.
I’ve been in the profession for nearly 30 years, I’m closing in on the end of my career and I can only say with certainty that I’ve met a single librarian who held freedom to information as his life’s work, Gerald Shields.
Gerald Shields was, at the time I knew him in 1989, Dean of the Department of Library and Information Studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo. His ongoing battle over censorship was summed up in an incident during an introduction to libraries’ studies course I took with him that year. There was a conversation Dr. Shields had with a student in that class that remains a vivid memory.
Dr. Shields must have been talking about the ethical requirement librarians have to fight to keep disputed materials in their collections. He recounted how a library board member had once objected to a certain book being in the library’s collection while talking with a library director. Shields recounted how the library director had walked over to the card file – which is what we used years ago to search for books in a library collection, before online catalogs – had walked over to the card file and ripped the book’s card from the file. There was no discussion, no argument for the book, only an instantaneous decision to withdraw the book from the collection.
Dr. Shields then asked a random student how she would have handled the situation. The student answered that she would have pulled the card as well. Dr. Shields, not quite sure he’d heard this student openly admit to what it sounded like she had, in a massive lecture hall filled with her fellow students, rephrased the question and asked her again. He got the same answer. She knew exactly what she was saying. Keeping on the good side of her library board – the people who could make her life hard or easy — outweighed any ethical requirement to fight for a book or viewpoint.
It was at a moment like that I imagine Dr. Shields wondered what his life’s work had been for.
Rich Gagnier has been a public librarian for nearly 30 years. He has no particular interest in writing about politics, and will probably stop soon, so it would be a stupid waste of resources for any intelligence agency to “off him” for anything he might write. He also varies his route home from work daily and would not make things easy for you.