catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 7 :: 2006.04.07 — 2006.04.21


Confessions of a fundamentalist librarian: Negotiating heresies

I am a librarian.


I am also a conservative.

Shut up!

When I tell people I am a librarian, often a joke about ?Shhh-ing? will be forthcoming. And about being a conservative librarian? Well, I don?t really confess that too often. In fact, if you are conservative and a man of the cardigan, ?shut up? is an imperative you may well be advised to take to heart. It is not a matter of losing one?s job, but if you are looking for a job, it might behoove you to stick to the weather or baseball at the post interview lunch, especially if you have also just said the words, ?I?ll have a Sam Adams.?

On many levels it is imperative that librarianship be a liberal profession and that its practitioners have open minds, minds open at least far enough to not attempt to restrict what patrons read based upon one?s own beliefs or convictions. This is what the battle against censorship is all about, to ensure that marginalized and minority voices, or popular voices that happen to brush some interest group the wrong way, get a fair chance at being read.

When it comes to adults, I have no problems with this framework. However, enshrined in my profession?s Bill of Rights, is Article V:

A person?s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.

This is one place where it gets tricky for me, where I need to negotiate the first of my heresies. When it comes to children, I think the abridgement of rights to view certain materials a library might own may be a very good idea. The issue is not a simple one. What one set of parents might forbid and want restricted for their children, other parents might be fine with allowing their children to read. And, no, I do not want librarians to have to be in loco parentis, i.e. stand in parents. Though, sadly, as an aside, it is this very concept which is central to any notion of it taking ?a village to raise a child,? which is all but precluded in our postmodern culture on any scale larger than the family or a church, or similar religious family.

At the very least, though, I have no problem with restricting children from reading or viewing material, such as pornography, which they are not legally allowed to buy, as defined by state or local statutes. So, even though I have been waffling on this issue for years, and even though the solution is clunky and imperfect, yes, I think there should be filters on computers in the children?s section. Yes, I think that books that contain pornographic images (and admittedly the term ?pornographic? itself is a hard standard to pin down) should be off-limits to those under the age determined by local statute.

This is one of the reasons I have chosen to be an academic librarian. In the libraries in which I have worked, the majority of patrons are adults and what they read and view is entirely their own business, within the limits of the law that is. And, in truth, though we librarians are all about free speech and against censorship, many librarians will not go to the mat to protect even an adult?s right to view pornography in a public place. In fact, unless privacy screens have been purchased, intentionally to circumvent this problem, many librarians will tell patrons they cannot view such materials in public under the competing strictures of sexual harassment policies. The irony is delicious, and I am thankful for it.

Even if I have found my niche in librarianship, this does not mean it has always been a comfortable one. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in a piece called ?The Loneliness of a Conservative Librarian,? David Durant begins by citing research about the political inclinations of librarians:

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.

Furthermore, having political positions and opinions which Durant himself labels ?heresy,? has had somewhat of a sadder personal toll:

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.

As I have described in a previous article in this magazine, I am not crazy about conflict, and so my response has been similar to Durant?s. In fact, largely for these reasons, I did not even join my professional organization, the ALA. And, though I was not a librarian at the time, during the course of the 2000 presidential election, my then-thin skin was pricked time and again to the point where, well, I just simply decided to not let my skin show. I took my heart from my sleeve and tucked it safely away and rolled my sleeves down altogether.

To be fair, over the past six years there have been other, more personal reasons, why I have not had the heart for conflict, not even the heart to expose my heart for dialog, really. That has begun to change. Also, ironically, on several issues my views would not be considered ?conservative? by many. Though I have not read his book by the same name, I suspect that I would classify as one of Rod Dreher?s Crunchy Conservatives (I think the Iraq war has been ill-advised, think animals in factory farms are treated wickedly, and am staunchly pro-life, just for starters). And though the concept of ?compassionate conservatism? has died the death of a thousand cuts, I am a member of a church which I like to think tries to practice it, and without the need to have it named. Even so, on political and cultural issues, despite acquiring a thicker skin and having a stronger heart, I still largely maintain the separation of church and stacks.

With all this drama, one might reasonably ask why I chose to be a librarian at all. Sometimes, in echo of Rob from High Fidelity, I wonder whether, ?I became a librarian because I like cardigans or do I like cardigans because I became a librarian?? In truth, though, and if you are a librarian please feel free to laugh here, I did it for the money. My then boss told me she got an $8,000 a year raise when she got her MLS and that was enough for me.

In addition to that rather mercenary reason, however, (and that would be a mercenary with rather simple needs), I became a librarian because I enjoy librarianship. I enjoy the philosophical underpinnings and implications of subject headings, the naming of things, which, if Genesis is to be believed, was humankind?s first intellectual exercise. I enjoy exploring the linguistic structure of information and finding the most effective combination of keywords to get the most useful results. I enjoy serving people by teaching them how to fish for information for themselves, creatively coming up with metaphors that explain complex, and, yes, at times rather dry concepts. This means that sometimes I fail spectacularly like a tattooed youth pastor who is inorganically, truly tragically hip. I even find great satisfaction in the simple act of helping people get email accounts, and in so doing, throwing my little bricks into the expanse of the digital divide, to build that bridge to more equal opportunity.

Finally, I like being a librarian because I like negotiating heresies. Not only my own of being a conservative in a largely liberal field, but in fairly negotiating those I am presented with every day. Being a reference librarian at an academic library allows me to interact with opinions that are heretical to my own on a regular basis as I help people with research. And, oftentimes in these interactions, or ?reference interviews? as we call them, we librarians have to help midwife thoughts and questions that are still embryonic in our patrons? minds. I have to be careful that the questions I ask help discover and not determine the shape of my patrons? thoughts, of the questions they ask, and, ultimately, of the answers they articulate. I guard my patrons? embryos of thought, making sure they are not frozen in neglect or dissected and transformed to some use that I might deem more appropriate, however noble I think that use might be.

And before my metaphor completely subverts my claim to being an impartial doorkeeper and guide, a charge which I take very seriously, yes, I will?

Shut up!!

Neil E. Das is a reference librarian at Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey, Illinois, where in the ruefully short winters upon arriving at work he likes to, ala Mr. Rogers, take off his jacket and put on one of two cardigans, brown or blue. Brown usually wins.


Dreher, Rod. ?What is a Crunchy Conservative?? Commentary. All Things Considered. 10 Mar. 2006. National Public Radio. 30 Mar. 2006.

Dreher, Rod. Crunchy Cons. National Review.

Durant, David. . Heretical Librarian.

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