Is there a history of librarian collusion and resistance to repression?
June 29, 2013 1:28 PM   Subscribe

In this New Yorker blog post, Internet Archive's Brewster Kahle mentions this in an answer: "Libraries have had a long history of dealing with authoritarian organizations demanding reader records—who’s read what—and this has led to people being rounded up and killed. As a librarian, you take this very, very seriously." Is there a concise history of this somewhere?
posted by history is a weapon to Education (4 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
posted by clavicle at 2:50 PM on June 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

See also.
posted by clavicle at 2:53 PM on June 29, 2013

Concise, probably not. I read Brewster saying that and I had to think for a moment about what exactly he was talking about and I'm still not totally sure. "Intellectual freedom" is probably the googleable term as far as it's used in librarianship. Toni Samek has written a lot about the history of librarianship and social justice issues and her books are very readable. There are a few notable organizations who do a lot of work in this area

- The Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association
- The Progressive Librarian's Guild
- Counterpoise Journal
- Library Juice Press

LJP has a number of books out that might be relevant starters including Information and liberation: Writings on the politics of information and librarianship. For something that is a little less cholarly seeming, Matthew Battle's book Library: An Unquiet History touches on a lot of these points in a more "for laymen" way. My talk that clavicle linked to is a bit jokey but there are some worthwhile points specifically that the burning of the Library of Alexandria (and similar actions towards libraries in Palestine and Iraq) are really a sort of pogrom of a cultural memory and should be interpreted and viewed as such.
posted by jessamyn at 4:29 PM on June 29, 2013 [6 favorites]

I don't know if this is one of the examples Brewster Kahle had in mind, but it's a story worth telling anyway. In the nineteenth century, the British Museum Library was very welcoming to foreign refugees: not surprising when you consider that the Principal Librarian, Anthony Panizzi, was himself a political exile who had been forced to flee Italy as a young man. The 1866 Handbook for Readers stated firmly: 'The fact of a man's being a political exile does not exclude him from the Reading-room of the British Museum.'

By the 1890s the Library had become a haven for the Russian exile community in London, and had begun to attract the attention of the Tsarist secret police. Some of the exiles believed that the Library was passing their names and addresses to the Russian authorities, which is why Lenin registered under a false name when he applied for a reader's ticket in 1902. Olive Garnett, whose father Richard Garnett was Keeper of Printed Books, was friendly with some of the exiles and tried to convince them that the Library was not giving information to the police:
Felix Volkhovsky told me a long story about a supposed spy in the B.M. reading room who supplied the Russian refugees' names and addresses to people in Paris who sent circulars to them. This was discovered because two Russians had taken names for the B.M. only and they were addressed by these. I assured him that the B.M. existed only to assist the public not to deliver them up to the police. (Olive Garnett's diary, 9 Feb 1895)
But the Library's political neutrality was put to the test in 1897 when Vladimir Burtsev was arrested in the Reading Room and charged under the 1861 Offences against the Person Act for advocating the murder of Tsar Nicholas II. (Fun fact: the 1861 Act is still being used today to jail people for supporting terrorism.) Burtsev was sentenced to 18 months in prison, and the Museum Trustees (probably under pressure from the government) agreed that he should be permanently banned from the Reading Room. However, the story does not end there. When Burtsev was released from prison he applied for a renewal of his reader's ticket, and in January 1900 the Trustees agreed that he could be readmitted.

The Russian exiles remembered the BM with gratitude. Lenin wrote that 'there is no better library than the British Museum'. Trotsky referred to 'ma sympathie déjà ancienne pour le British Museum'. (Trotsky, by the way, also got his reader's ticket under a false name, and covered his tracks so successfully that his application form still hasn't been identified in the archives.) I think of this whenever I hear people complaining that the British Library is letting in the wrong sort of people and should tighten up its admission policies so that 'genuine researchers' (i.e. tenured academics) don't have to rub shoulders with 'general readers'.
posted by verstegan at 4:15 PM on July 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

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