Last week’s AL Daily linked to a story giving a very favorable impression of the ALA during World War I. It’s a brief outline of the organized efforts by the ALA to provide American soldiers with wartime reading.
It’s all true, of course, and the ALA was responsible for getting millions of books and magazines into the hands of soldiers, but something bothered me about the upbeat ending: “The Armistice ending the Great War was signed on November 11, 1918, but in the end, I think we can confidently say ‘Knowledge Wins.’”
Something nagged at me, but it took a while for me to remember what. Then I recalled a book I’d forgotten I’d even read: An Active Instrument for Propaganda : the American Public Library during World War I, by Wayne Wiegand.
That book tells a slightly less upbeat story about the role of public libraries during World War I, and, as one reviewer puts it, “the picture that emerges is not a proud chapter in American library history.”
Librarians did indeed send books to soldiers, but they wanted to send wholesome books. Wiegand notes that “contemporary literary convention considered pornographic authors such as Zola, Daudet, and De Maupassant.” Not that there were probably a lot of soldiers who wanted to read Zola or Daudet, but those that did would have been out of luck.
And then there’s the censorship, lots and lots of censorship. Much of this was actual censorship, with the government actively suppressing German or pro-German literature and librarians leaping in to help them. All over the country librarians were removing books that didn’t seem patriotic enough.
Books from libraries were burned, and rarely a librarian would protest. Heck, one librarian who didn’t want to buy war bonds was fired.
One rare hero was John Cotton Dana, librarian of the Newark Public Library. When one busybody identified a number of books she wanted removed from the library for not being patriotic enough, Dana responded, “Liberty of thought can only be maintained by those who have free access to opinion.” That’s because Dana was just amazing all round.
There was also a shift in attitudes towards immigrants, of which there were a lot before the war. Before WWI, libraries had purchased material the immigrants could read. During WWI, the goal shifted to Americanization of the immigrants, especially, one assumes, those shifty German-Americans.
While it’s fine to celebrate the good actions of libraries and the ALA, and getting books to soldiers is a good thing, it’s also important to remember the dark times. In this case, the dark times actually preceded a complete change in public library values from “patriotic” suppression of books to the intellectual freedom libraries support today.
It wasn’t until 1939 that the ALA produced a “library bill of rights.” While there were early stalwarts like Dana, it wasn’t until WWII and after that librarians really began championing intellectual freedom as a library value. During WWI they were too busy championing government propaganda.
It’s hard to imagine libraries being quite so jingoistic today. I make fun of the OIF sometimes because some librarians still have the mentality that they’re fighting the sort of censorship that doesn’t really exist anymore, but it sure existed then. Some rube wanting to get rid of gay penguin books in the public library isn’t the same as the government actively censoring books and newspapers and citizens burning books from the library because of “patriotism.”
The fact that censorship of non-government documents is just about dead might explain the other value librarians have been championing in recent years: privacy.
Today, the problem isn’t censorship. Anyone can publish anything they like, as long as they don’t mind the NSA reading it. Fortunately, censorship is more or less dead. Unfortunately, privacy is as well.
I don’t see what libraries can effectively do about it, but at least they’re on the right side of the debate, unlike back in WWI.