The Abandoned Librarians


As I’ve been reporting in this column, there has been a fierce civil war within the American Library Association as to whether that body—the largest organization of librarians in the world—will help free the 10 librarians locked up in Fidel Castro’s gulag for the next 20 or more years for making available to Cubans such subversive documents as the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and George Orwell’s 1984.

At its mid-winter meeting in San Diego, the ALA was finally going to reveal whether it would live up to its principles. On January 14, the day the decision was to be made, Carla Hayden, president of the American Library Association, in a letter to The San Diego Union-Tribune, proudly set forth those ALA principles:

“ALA and other library associations around the world have a long-standing commitment to intellectual freedom and access to information. It is a fundamental value that is near and dear to the hearts of all librarians, library workers, and library supporters. . . . ALA stands committed to the freedom to read freely.”

But that very day, the governing council of the American Library Association shamed rank-and-file librarians across this country, many of whom have been vigorously and publicly resisting the section of John Ashcroft’s Patriot Act that gives the FBI the power to search library records for the names of borrowers who have taken out books the FBI thinks may be linked to terrorism.

Karen Schneider, a member of the governing council, proposed an amendment to the section of the final report on the proceedings of the mid-winter meeting that concerned Castro’s imprisonment of the librarians along with 65 other independent journalists and human rights workers. She said, “In calling for the release of the people arrested in [Castro’s] March 2003 crackdown, we join Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, President Jimmy Carter, journalist Nat Hentoff (recipient of the 1983 ALA Immroth [Intellectual Freedom] award), and other organizations and individuals who champion free speech everywhere.”

In her amendment, Karen Schneider emphasized that demanding Castro free these prisoners of conscience “is consistent with ALA policies, including ALA Policy 58.8, which affirms our support for Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression[,]’ . . . and especially [ALA Policy] 58.1 (2) . . . to ‘support human rights and intellectual freedom worldwide.‘ ” (Emphasis added.)

And this is how the vote went down on Schneider’s amendment to free the prisoners, some of whom are of an age that makes it likely that, unless liberated, they will die in the gulag for the crime of thinking and acting as free individuals in a dictatorship.

Karen Schneider’s amendment was overwhelmingly voted down by the 182-member ALA council. Only about five hands were raised to support it. Next week, I will report on praise from a high Cuban official for the ALA’s rejection of the Schneider amendment.

So much for the ALA leadership’s devotion to “free speech everywhere.”

It is the leadership I accuse of hypocrisy, of being whited sepulchres. As a reporter on intellectual-freedom issues, I have known and respected many librarians around the country as they fought, sometimes in peril of their jobs, against censorship by local politicians, library boards, and right-wing and left-wing politically correct pressure groups.

It is hard for me to believe that the majority of rank-and-file librarians agree with the spinelessness of their governing council, which couldn’t bring itself to ask the luminous Fidel Castro to let these people go.

In the ALA’s final report, there is a classic sanctimonious, Uriah Heep expression of “deep concern over the arrest and long prison terms of political dissidents in Cuba.” But nothing about unlocking the cells. Gee, maybe ALA president Carla Hayden and other members of the hierarchy will send the prisoners, including the 10 librarians, a quote from Fidel Castro when he was imprisoned by the dictatorship that preceded his. Wrote Castro: “In prison, there were no rifles for training, no stone fortresses from which to shoot. Behind those walls, our rifles were books. And through study, stone by stone we built our fortress, the only one that is invincible: the fortress of ideas.” (Emphasis added.)

In their filthy cells now, Castro’s own prisoners might take some comfort clutching that quotation in the small hours of the night. Surely their guards would not confiscate as contraband a quotation from the Maximum Leader himself! Or would they?

After sentencing the independent librarians, Castro’s judges, in a number of cases, declared the confiscated library materials “lacking in usefulness” and ordered them burned. Will the American Library Association hold a memorial service?

Keep in mind that every year the ALA sponsors Banned Books Week in libraries around the country, with exhibits of books that have been censored, and sometimes even burned. (Harry Potter was incinerated by a right-wing American preacher a couple of years ago.) By invitation, I have spoken during Banned Books Week at libraries in various towns and cities. Will any library invite me this year during Banned Books Week (from September 25 to October 2) to tell about the bonfires of books from formerly independent Cuban libraries?

Karen Schneider, in her scorned amendment to the final report, mentioned my support of her amendment, and that I had received the prized ALA Immroth Award for Intellectual Freedom. The citation reads: “For courageous and articulate advocacy of the First Amendment as an author, speaker, and activist for human rights” (June 1983).

I now publicly renounce the Immroth Award and demand that the American Library Association remove me from the list of recipients of that honor. To me, it is no longer an honor. Someone I know in the ALA, who was at the San Diego meeting, explained to me that some members of the council whispered privately that they agreed with the amendment calling for freeing the librarians but had to vote it down because they didn’t want to be vilified as being “on the wrong team.” They have put themselves in their own prison.