125Article: CNet / Librarians March to the Left
- Sep 28, 2005The following article was forwarded to me -- I think that it will interest
some of you:
The Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated September 30, 2005
The Loneliness of a Conservative Librarian
By DAVID DURANT
Much has been made of the left's domination of college and university
faculties. Yet in terms of political composition, the library
profession makes your typical Ivy League faculty look like the Heritage
Foundation. Had the 2004 election been confined to librarians, I firmly
believe that the presidential race would not have been between Kerry
and Bush, but between Kerry and Nader.
When David Brooks did some research into political donations by
profession for his September 11, 2004, column in The New York Times, he
found that for librarians "the ratio of Kerry to Bush donations was a
whopping 223 to 1." By contrast, the corresponding ratio for academics
was 11 to 1. As one of those rarest of beasts, a conservative
librarian, I can attest firsthand to the stifling left-wing orthodoxy
of modern American librarianship.
The problem is not that most librarians have liberal or leftist views.
It is that the overwhelming prevalence of such views has created a
politicized atmosphere of groupthink and even intolerance, in which
left-wing politics permeate the library profession and are almost
impossible to avoid.
In conversations with colleagues, on library e-mail lists, and at
professional conferences, liberal and leftist attitudes are shoved in
your face. Because most librarians are left-of-center politically, they
automatically assume that you are as well. After all, only benighted
Red State theocrats could possibly have voted for Bush. You quickly
learn to keep your opinions to yourself, except among colleagues whom
you know well.
To be fair, the situation wasn't always this bad. When I entered
library school, in 1997, the political composition of my chosen
profession was the last thing on my mind. I had a vague sense that the
majority of librarians might be liberals or leftists, but it was hardly
something I worried about. I pride myself on my ability to coexist with
all kinds of people, and I try hard not to let my politics get in the
way of my job or personal relationships. Besides, I had gone to
graduate school, so I was used to being a token conservative.
I started work at my current institution in 1999 and have had no
problems about politics with any of my colleagues. It's true that out
of roughly 30 professional librarians here, you can count the number of
us who are politically right-of-center on one hand, with a finger or
two left over. Still, my colleagues have treated my heresy with respect
and good humor.
But in the wake of 9/11 and the war in Iraq, librarianship as a
profession no longer simply leans to the left; it has become openly
politicized. By 2004, to work in a major American public or academic
library was to find yourself in a left-wing echo chamber.
One of the most disturbing aspects of the situation is the way in which
the supposedly nonpolitical American Library Association has become a
platform for left-wing partisanship. The ALA's Council, its elected
governing body, is dominated by left-wing activists who recently passed
a resolution calling for the United States to leave Iraq.
It is, of course, the right of the vast majority of my colleagues to
hold positions I disagree with. But it's a very different matter when
the major professional association in librarianship takes openly
political stands on issues that have no direct bearing on the field.
Proponents of the resolution on Iraq argue that abandoning the country
to Al Qaeda would allow us to spend lots more money on libraries here
at home. I believe that allowing radical Islam to run rampant in the
Middle East would be utterly disastrous for libraries and intellectual
freedom, both here and abroad. It is for individuals to choose between
those positions; a professional organization like the ALA has no
business adopting such a blatantly partisan resolution.
The open politicization of the ALA has also trampled on the
association's commitment to intellectual freedom and diversity of
opinion. The ALA's Social Responsibilities Round Table, for example,
has become the exclusive plaything of radical leftists, and they have
made it abundantly clear that those holding differing viewpoints are
not welcome. For instance, conservative posts to the SRRT e-mail list
are treated with open hostility.
The ALA's annual conferences have become akin to MoveOn.org meetings,
where Bush bashing and liberal groupthink are the order of the day. At
the association's June 2003 convention, in Toronto, the lineup of
speakers included Ralph Nader, U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders, Naomi Klein,
and Gloria Steinem. That was merely a warm-up, however, for the
blatantly political event that was the 2004 convention in Orlando, Fla.
The featured speaker in Orlando was Richard A. Clarke, once a member of
the Bush administration and now its bitter foe. Others included E.L.
Doctorow, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Amy Goodman, the left-wing radio
host. The highlight was a special benefit showing of Michael Moore's
Fahrenheit 9/11, which drew a capacity crowd of over 2,000. The
association's own magazine, American Libraries, described the
proceedings with the headline "Opposition to Iraq War Pervades ALA in
The politicized atmosphere in Orlando included clear intolerance toward
dissenting viewpoints. Whitney Davison-Turley, a liberal, spoke at the
membership meeting against a resolution condemning the war in Iraq,
arguing that it was inappropriate for the ALA to take a stand on the
issue. Her comments got a hostile response. Later she wrote:
"Protecting the freedom of speech is a core tenet of librarianship, and
this tenet was violated during the Membership Meeting. Shaming
alternative opinions into silence is the same as placing a gag over our
mouths, and this is not what librarians supposedly stand for."
The issue on which I am probably most out of step with the bulk of the
library profession is the USA Patriot Act. Section 215 of the act gives
the Federal Bureau of Investigation the authority to obtain a court
order granting the agency access to business and other types of records
as part of "an investigation to protect against international terrorism
or clandestine intelligence activities." The section has become known
as the library section -- despite the fact that it never uses the word
"library" -- because it gives the federal government the theoretical
ability to obtain patrons' library records. Section 215 also states
explicitly that such an investigation may "not be conducted of a United
States person solely upon the basis of activities protected by the
first amendment to the Constitution of the United States."
Section 215 is not without its flaws, and I firmly believe that
ensuring the privacy of library transactions is an important priority
for our profession. However, much of the reaction among librarians to
the USA Patriot Act has been over the top. As an example, some
libraries have put up posters that warn patrons the FBI can view their
library records. That is little short of fearmongering.
For one thing, the FBI and other law-enforcement agencies have always
been able to obtain library records after getting a subpoena. In
addition, the available evidence indicates that FBI agents aren't
exactly trampling each other in a rush to scrutinize libraries'
In a study released in June, the ALA reported the results of a survey
of more than 1,500 public and 4,000 academic libraries about requests
for information from law-enforcement agencies. A large majority of the
libraries that responded to the survey reported receiving no such
requests; only 137 formal and 66 informal requests were reported since
October 2001. Of that total, 73 came from federal agencies; the rest
were from state or local law enforcement. The survey does not reveal
how many of those inquiries were related to terrorism investigations,
nor does it provide any figures from before 9/11 for comparison. Most
important, the requests were almost certainly in accordance with
earlier laws, given that at the time, the Justice Department said
Section 215 had never been applied in a library or bookstore setting.
(Section 505 of the act was evidently used this summer, according to
recent reports, in the only known instance of the act's provisions
being applied to library records.)
Why do I not agree with most of my colleagues that the USA Patriot Act
is a grave threat to privacy? Because my fundamental worldview differs
so starkly from theirs. I believe that the primary threats to our
freedom are named bin Laden and Zarqawi, not Ashcroft and Gonzales. My
main worry is not FBI agents with subpoenas but the supporters of a
totalitarian ideology of death that represents the antithesis of
everything our profession is supposed to stand for.
At least five of the 9/11 hijackers used computers at public or
academic libraries to plot their atrocities. As important as it is to
protect the privacy of library patrons, protecting the lives of our
fellow citizens and the safety of our country is even more important.
A large number of American librarians simply don't see things that way.
Many of them honestly believe that the war on terror is merely a
pretext to allow the FBI to fulfill its long-held dream of wantonly
rummaging through libraries' circulation records. The idea that, under
some circumstances, granting law-enforcement agencies access to library
records might save lives is inconceivable to those librarians. Not all
librarians opposed to the USA Patriot Act feel that way. It would be a
mistake, however, to pretend that the sentiment doesn't exist in our
Librarians are supposed to stand for intellectual freedom, diversity of
opinion, and providing access to materials that represent all points of
view. How can we do that when many of us are intolerant of dissenting
views? Allowing our profession to be a bastion of orthodoxy of any kind
defeats our purpose.
Do I think that the situation will change? I have to admit to a certain
amount of cynicism and disillusionment. After three years of feeling
that I am not wanted in my profession, I have grown increasingly
alienated. I am so tired of having left-of-center politics thrust on me
that I have retreated into my work, cutting myself off from much of the
broader profession. When I do go to a professional meeting, I sit
silently. When the conservative-bashing starts, as it so often does, I
know better than to complain.
I have responded in the only ways I can: To protest the ALA's growing
politicization, I allowed my membership to lapse and have no intention
of renewing it. In June 2004 I started an obscure blog, Heretical
Librarian, where I can finally express the opinions that I would never
dare voice among librarians I don't know.
Ironically, I rarely write about library issues per se, but blogging
has provided me with a welcome forum for laying out my own beliefs.
Some might ask what right I have to complain about politicization when
I talk mostly about political issues on my blog. My response is that
that's exactly why I started the blog: It's a personal site where I
claim to speak for no one but myself. I can voice my views in a venue
that is separate from my professional responsibilities. That is an
approach other librarians might want to consider. Besides, when I look
at groups like Radical Reference or Librarians Against Bush, I feel
more than justified in blogging not just as a conservative, but as a
I do see one positive development: A growing number of librarians, not
all of them conservative, are calling for our profession to leave
politics alone and focus on librarianship. As Steven Bell recently
suggested in Library Journal, the ALA should either invite speakers to
its meetings from across the political spectrum, or not invite
political speakers at all.
The solution is not to replace left-wing with right-wing
politicization. Rather it is to leave politics to the individual. Just
as we should collect and provide access to materials representing a
broad range of beliefs, we should welcome diverse viewpoints within our
David Durant is head of government documents and microforms at East
Volume 52, Issue 6, Page B12
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