The Loneliness of a Conservative Librarian

Posted: 11/16/2005 8:22:00 PM
Author: David Durant

Volume 52, Issue 6, Page B12
Issue dated September 30, 2005

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 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 Orlando."

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' circulation records.

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 profession.

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 conservative librarian.

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 profession.

David Durant is head of government documents and microforms at East
Carolina University.
Section: Libraries
Volume 52, Issue 6, Page B12