Patty Dineen, an NIF colleague and fellow blogger on the deliberative-democracy.net blog recently posted a thought-provoking essay about how two recent NY Times articles led her to issue a charge to America’s Libraries. One article noted how procedural two-stepping (not Patty’s term, but I “Texified” it for my Austin readers) had stymied the Senate’s ability to even begin to deliberate the war in Iraq. The second article, Baghdad Day to Day: Librarian’s Journal, was about the posting of Saad Eskander, the director of Iraq’s National Library and Archive in Baghdad, on the British Library’s website. According to Dineen, “This is his summary—for the month of December—of the war’s toll on his staff: 4 assassinations, 2 kidnappings, 66 murders of staff members’ relatives, 58 death threats, and 51 displacements.” Hence her alarming title.
Well, as someone who works at the LBJ Presidential Library, a member of the National Archives and Records Administration, that second story also hit me hard. I pictured the people I work with and the images were disturbing. I’m sure my colleagues would keep working under unthinkable conditions. Many of them have been at the library since day 1. They are fiercely loyal to the institution, its mission, and heritage. They promote and protect President Johnson’s legacy, the library’s leadership, and the Johnson Family. But they are also deeply committed to the transparency that President Johnson adamantly insisted upon in his dedication speech. The LBJ Library is the only presidential library that does not charge an entry fee. With minimal training and certification, any member of the public can gain access to any document from the Johnson Presidency that has not been deemed classified for security purpooses. When I read Truman Library Could be a Model for Bush, an article that extolled the openness of the Truman Library, I was pretty proud to be associated with another presidential library that could also be a model of openness.)
Several years ago, I had an amazing three hour private tour of the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg, the librarian showed me many things that obviously made her quite proud. But I heard a special sense of pride when she told me that the library had never closed even in the worst of times throughout Communism! I can imagine librarians in the U.S. fighting for the right to say that nothing ever caused them to close their doors! (Part of the culture of the profession?)
Here’s an excerpt from the book about the National Library that I brought home from St. Petersburg.
“In the eighteenth century the national libraries of the European states did not seek to serve readers; they were cut off from the hurly-burly of life beyond their walls. The national library of Russia, by contrast, was conceived and organized not only as a book repository, but also as a generally accessible library – and in this, according to Alexei Olenin, one of those most involved in its creation, lay its originality. It was founded “for the benefit of lovers of learning and enlightenment” and intended for “the social enlightenment of Russian subjects”. Its establishment undoubtedly marked the start of aa new chapter in the history of scholarship, culture and education in Russia.
The Public Library in St. Petersburg became in effect the second Russian university and almost all those who brought glory to Russian science or made immortal names for themselves in literature, art, and the humanities over the following century and more could be said to have been its graduates.”
So back to Patty’s blog and her charge to America’s Librarians.
- In solidarity with the librarians of Iraq, and for the benefit of the American public, give people a way to gather and talk about what is happening in Iraq
- Begin a nation-wide effort to use libraries as centers for serious, non-agenda driven conversation about Iraq and our role there (past, present, and future)
- Put a process and materials in place for libraries to use
- Train (online or in person) facilitators to help people use the process
- Send out the word to media, the public, and yes, even the elected officials who by now might welcome somewhere to go to be able to listen to people who are willing to talk together about this problem
We (a wide variety of libraries) are making progress on Patty’s recommendations about “giving people a way to gather and talk”, but we have a long way to go toward beginning a “nation-wide” dialogue about anything. In the meantime, I pledge to work on the process and materials and the online training using our Virtual Room. You can see our coming events on the Texas Forums home page and an archive of our library and civic engagement workshops at: http://www.opal-online.org/archivecivic.htm