Jonathan Gurwitz: U.S. librarians fail to speak out for oppressed peers
Posted: 07 February 2006 07:48 AM   [ Ignore ]
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San Antonio Express-News


Michael Gorman, the president of the American Library Association, was mugged recently in San Antonio. Gorman was in town for the ALA’s annual midwinter meeting.

Ordinarily, I would be horrified to hear that a visitor to this fair city had been the victim of such a misdeed. But in this case, it’s the ALA that’s committing the crime and the truth that fittingly mugged Gorman.

At the ALA’s President’s Program on Jan. 22, Romanian-born author Andrei Codrescu delivered the keynote address about the importance of books, libraries and librarians.

“I was born in a place where people were forbidden to read most of what we consider the fundamental books of Western civilization,” he told the audience. “Not only were we forbidden to read authors like James Joyce, but being found in a possession of a book such as George Orwell’s ‘1984’ could land one in prison for years.”

Codrescu spoke about the librarian who changed his life — Dr. Martin, a retired professor who had managed to accumulate a collection of works blacklisted by the communist authorities. “Books forbidden by an authoritarian government are the only reason I am now standing before you,” he said.

Codrescu recounted how, in those dark days in Romania, the ALA — along with the ACLU and the Helsinki Federation for Human Rights — offered a beacon of hope for democracy and freedom. Then, by President Gorman’s lights, Codrescu’s speech turned down a criminal path.

Codrescu recounted the plight of independent librarians in Cuba. In 1998, Ramón Colás and Berta Mexidor began the Independent Libraries Project on the island. Like his beloved Dr. Martin, they risked imprisonment to create a network of private libraries to make available works otherwise unobtainable in Fidel Castro’s dictatorship. Through the end of 2002, 103 libraries provided books to 182,000 registered patrons.

The risks to the librarians were and are real. Human rights groups have deplored the imprisonment of scores of librarians in Cuba’s gulag. Amnesty International calls them prisoners of conscience. As early as 1999, the International Federation of Library Associations, based in Denmark, called on the Cuban government to “put an end to the intimidation of the Independent Libraries in Cuba.”

Yet the leadership of the ALA, basking in freedom 90 miles away in the United States, has refused to this day to defend their librarian colleagues. Investigations by the ALA have found no conclusive evidence for repression of intellectual freedom in Cuba, no marauded libraries and no imprisoned librarians.

“It’s an outrage,” Robert Kent, a librarian in the New York Public Library and ALA member, told me. “A small group of extremists has engaged in a systematic effort to mislead, deceive and ignore the public about this issue.”

Kent co-founded the Friends of Cuban Libraries in 1999. For his efforts on behalf of Cuban librarians, left-wing ideologues have attempted to smear him as an agent of the CIA.

Codrescu, in his speech in San Antonio, chided the ALA. “Am I hallucinating? Is this the same American Library Association that stands against censorship and for freedom of expression everywhere? This organization cannot logically ignore imprisonment and torture of librarians — act against provision 215 of the Patriot Act and approve of Fidel Castro’s order 88, which denies all the rights we cherish.”

The Library Journal reports the speech “earned strong, if not unanimous applause.” It also reports on Gorman’s criminal indictment of Codrescu: “I was mugged. He did not deliver the speech he told us 10 days earlier that he would deliver.”

“Several librarians congratulated me on saying what needs to be said — kind of whispering congratulations,” Codrescu told me in his thick accent. “They should be in solidarity with librarians in Cuba. Cuba is Romania in 1968. Actually, it’s worse off, more dictatorial, more of a police state.”

There are certainly victims in this story, but Gorman is not one of them. The trespass and the travesty here is that the ALA, under his leadership, has refused to defend the imprisoned Cuban librarians.