Once you learn to read you will be forever free - Frederick Douglass

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tis the Season - Love Your Library

1982 U.S. Postal Service Stamp
Recently, The Obsessive Reader mentioned to an educated, cultivated person that she - The Obsessive Reader - was on her way to the library.
"What are you going to the library for?"
I could not disguise my astonishment.  "To check out books!"
"Oh," replied my conversational friend with a sigh.  

It turns out that she had simply forgotten that we are surrounded by libraries, places she had been well acquainted with all her life.  My friend had studied at her humble local  public library from elementary school through high school.  After that, she relied upon her college library.  She'd spent a lifetime buying books, building a modest library at home.  What has happened that people who grew up in libraries, discovering the world in reference section encyclopedias, passing the time with Highlights magazine or clutching record albums or their favorite kind of story on the walk home - what has happened that even these privileged and obsessive readers have abandoned libraries in their maturity, and certainly don't go out and agitate for libraries as a political issue?

So many people rush to big chain bookstores for their reading material, and now during the Christmas season, for gift-buying.  I guess they've all forgotten these wonderful repositories that are not only free sources of reading, learning and knowledge - but essential to civic life.
Obsessive Readers ought to be in the trenches over the threats to public libraries all across America.  I don't care what you think about Wikileaks or President Obama's tax plan.  Libraries are not a luxury or a fad;  the free and open access of citizens to knowledge and information is at the core of our democracy and our culture.  Free texts for school children.  Internet access in low-income communities. Magazine subscriptions in remote rural areas.  Free DVD check outs.  Research databases.  Reference librarians.  And, let's not forget, books.

Hieroglyphics from the Papyrus of Ani, an example of the Egyptian Book of the Dead

Humanity first began preserving written knowledge on stone tablets in repositories 5,ooo years ago in ancient Mesopotamia.  Today, we call this place Iraq.  Archeologists have found evidence of papyrus documents in Egypt's ancient city of Thebes, now a United Nations World Heritage Site, where lie the Valley of the Kings and the Valley of the Queens.  It was the ancient Greeks perhaps who invented what we now call book culture;  creating literary works and the market to produce them in quantity and sell them to buyers.  The Great Library of Alexandria, Egypt was the greatest library in the world around 300 B.C.  With three quarters of a million scrolls, it was supported by a literate civilization and influenced the development of libraries through history. 

Centuries later, even prior to the American Revolution, libraries had gained a purchase in the colonies.
The oldest library in America began with a 400-book donation by a Massachusetts clergyman, John Harvard, to a new university that eventually honored him by adopting his name. Another clergyman, Thomas Bray from England, established the first free lending libraries in the American Colonies in the late 1600s. Subscription libraries - where member dues paid for book purchases and borrowing privileges were free - debuted in the 1700s. In 1731, Ben Franklin and others founded the first such library, the Library Company of Philadelphia. The initial collection of the Library of Congress was in ashes after the British burned it during the War of 1812. The library bought Thomas Jefferson's vast collection in 1815 and used that as a foundation to rebuild.
American libraries took quite a long time to become the symbols of literacy and civic culture that they are now.  Like all public institutions, libraries were racially segregated under laws passed and enforced by government.  In the South, African Americans paid taxes that supported public libraries, but were barred from entering them.  Some municipalities constructed "colored" libraries, usually at the insistence of black citizens who wanted access to library services. The rules differed from place to place, but it wasn't until after the transformation caused by the civil rights movement that libraries became truly open and free. 

Pura Belpre
Despite this history, there were important African American book collectors such as David Ruggles (1810 - 1849) and Arturo Schomburg (1874 - 1938), and Daniel Alexander Payne Murray (1852-1925), Assistant Librarian in the Library of Congress for forty years.  There are also pioneers such as Pura Belpre (ca. 1899 - 1982), first Puerto Rican librarian in the NY Public Library system, and; Alfred Kaiming Chiu, (1898 - 1977) who founded libraries at Harvard, University of Minnesota and the University of Hong Kong and established a unique classification scheme for Chinese and Japanese books.
中国 经学类 哲学宗教类  历史科学类  社会科学类  语言文学类  美术游艺类  自然科学类  农业工艺类   总录书志类

Richard Wright (1908 - 1960)
Throughout our country's history, Americans of all kinds evinced a hunger for reading that can often be appeased only at the public library.  One of The Obsessive Reader's favorite stories in this vein can be found in Richard Wright's novel, Black Boy.  After he dropped out of high school, Wright became an avid reader, devouring books between odd jobs. At one point, he was particularly struck by the writing of H.L. Mencken.  Determined to get around the Jim Crow library rules, he borrowed the library card of an Irish co-worker, forged notes to the librarian, pretending he could not read and that he was picking up books for the Irishman. "Dear Madam: Will you please let this nigger boy have some books by H. L. Mencken?" 

Libraries are rapidly changing.  For instance, you can find extraordinary materials from library collections online;  repositories of texts, images, moving pictures, audio.  Some of The Obsessive Reader's favorites include:  Project Gutenberg which provides text copies of entire books whose copyright is in the public domain;  Internet Archive where you can hear and read transcripts of oral histories, books read aloud, see films and other extraordinary multimedia resources; The Library of Congress Digital Collections with beautiful prints, photographs, historical newspapers, performing arts and much more; and, Digital Schomburg, the New York Public Library's online collection of images, full-length books, exhibits and other material from the famed African American collection.  These are just a handful of online libraries, but it's important to remember that what you access online is only A FRACTION of what you can find in the library buildings where these collections are housed.  Everybody talks about digitizing books, digitizing everything, but there will always be the desire for a place to borrow books, sit in silence, meet other readers, and ask a librarian a question.  

Given the importance of libraries, as we enter the Christmas season, The Obsessive Reader has some ideas for gift-giving this year.  
  1. Fight for public libraries by supporting the American Library Association.  
  2. Donate money to the public library of your choice.  
  3. Donate money in a friend or relative's name to a public library  - a two-way gift.
  4. Volunteer at a public library to help with book shelving or reading to children.
  5. Take a young person to the library and help him/her get his/her very own library card. 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Book Lovers! Beware Government Suppression

Daniel Ellsberg
 If you're an Obsessive Reader, I hope you'll join me in supporting Daniel Ellsberg's call this week for a boycott against Amazon.com because of the way Amazon caved in to the demands of conservative members of Congress after the site allowed Wikileaks to use its server.  I know, I know, how convenient it is for you to use Amazon, but think about it.  It's bad enough when the government pressures online publishers, but when an outfit such as Amazon, still essentially a book seller, folds, Ellsberg is right to decry it, as he did on his website December 3, in An Open Letter to Amazon.com. 
I’m disgusted by Amazon’s cowardice and servility in abruptly terminating today its hosting of the Wikileaks website, in the face of threats from Senator Joe Lieberman and other Congressional right-wingers. I want no further association with any company that encourages legislative and executive officials to aspire to China’s control of information and deterrence of whistle-blowing.
To refresh your memory, Ellsberg, a Marine Corps veteran, Harvard scholar, consultant to the Defense Department and Rand Corporation analyst, along with Rand co-worker Anthony Russo, released " the top secret McNamara study of U.S. Decision-making in Vietnam, 1945 - 68" later known as the Pentagon Papers.  He and Russo managed to photocopy the 7,000 page study and deliver it surreptitiously to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the New York Times, Washington Post and 17 other newspapers.  Those papers published key elements of the study in 1971 and Ellsberg and Rousseau were tried on twelve felony counts, facing a possible 115 year federal prison sentence.  The trial was dismissed when government misconduct against Ellsberg was revealed, and became part of the impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon.

Ellsberg and Tony Russo during Pentagon Papers trial
Actually, I don't use Amazon.com to buy books - never did - because I support independent booksellers as often as I can.  When I order a book online it's usually because it is out-of-print or extremely difficult to find.  And, in those cases, I use abebooks.com or alibris.com.  Ironically, Amazon bought abebooks.com about two years ago, but abebooks is still an association of independent booksellers, and your order will be directly placed with the bookseller whose volumes you choose to purchase.  While the independent book sellers gain from Amazon's wider distribution, unfortunately, purchases with them will help line the pockets of Amazon. Alibris.com is privately and independently owned. 

Now that, as Salon.com writer, Glenn Greenwald, put it, Amazon.com is allowing the U.S. government to dictate what you can read on the Internet, does that mean we have forgotten the lessons of the U.S. in Vietnam, or the USSR in Afghanistan - when the U.S. armed the Taliban against the Soviet military?  Who would have thought that as a culture we would be back again at the point where an act of whistle-blowing in the conduct of an erroneous war is deemed treason.  
Alexander Liakhovskii Archive, New York Times,  March 12, 2009
Soviet helicopters in Afghanistan after an attack on a camel caravan

The threats coming from the right-wing and government officials over the Wikileaks scandal resemble Newspeak in George Orwell's 1984 in which ''All words grouping themselves round the concepts of liberty and equality were contained in the single word crimethink."

By the way, last time I checked, Wikileaks could be found at