In almost all the 45 libraries studied here, and probably hundreds and hundreds more across the country, we have failed our professional duty to seek out diverse political views. [...] These books are not expensive. Their absence from our libraries makes a mockery of ALA’s vaunted ‘freedom to read.’ But we do not even notice that we are censoring our collections. Complacently, we watch our new automated systems stuff the shelves with Henry Kissinger’s memoirs.
—Charles Willett, Founding Editor, Counterpoise, and retired librarian [remarks presented at the Fifth National Conference of the Association of College and Research Libraries]
Over the years, I have tried mostly in vain to get libraries to subscribe to the 501 c3 nonprofit journal I’ve been publishing on literature, democracy, and dissidence since 1998. To date, I’ve managed to obtain 15 institutional subscriptions. Compare that to the well over 500 obtained by Agni and Poetry magazine. As a result of one attempt, Watertown Free Public Library ended up issuing a three-month trespass order without warning or due process. That was the only time I’ve ever been to that library. One would suspect I must have had done something terrible like issue violent threats, swear belligerently, or make sexual jokes. But none of that occurred. Hard to believe? Perhaps not.
More recently, on June 19th 2012, I was sitting in Sturgis Library (Barnstable, MA), described by former library trustee Kurt Vonnegut as a “clapboard tomb.” There I was in a corner alone in a room quietly working on my laptop, something I’d been doing there about five times per week for a year and a half. The director, Lucy Loomis, and no less than three police officers suddenly entered. When I asked what I’d done, the director said: “you’ve been critical of me, you don’t like it here, so now you can’t come here anymore.” Actually, I did like the library, though did not like the director’s blatant hypocrisy.
One of the officers made the trespass announcement. I asked for how long. He asked the director, who said “permanently”. I asked for a written document. The director said there was none. It was verbal. I asked why three officers were necessary and mentioned I didn’t carry a weapon. At that point, one of the other officers [Officer Foley] grabbed my arm, twisted it around my back, then frisked me. I was not resisting arrest. I was not put under arrest. (Days later, I’d discover Foley was a training officer who was training one of the other officers present, using me as a live training dummy.) And that was that. For me, what happened was unbelievable. No warning at all! And no due process whatsoever. So, what was my “crime”?
Outside, one of the officers told me to go to Town Hall, when I asked where I could go to lodge a complaint. A day later, that’s what I did. But Town Hall told me it had no jurisdiction over the library and that I should go to the police station or contact the president of the library committee, Ellie Claus. Unsurprisingly, the president would not respond to my correspondence. She was a good friend of the director. At the police station, I was able to obtain a written record of the police action. But on it, there was no mention of the duration of the trespass order. The officer, who had taken the director’s phone call, told me the director had said I “made her feel uncomfortable,” had “said inappropriate things,” and that it had been an “ongoing concern.” And that was all. The director hadn’t mentioned I was critical.
If politically-correct proponents one day have their way, making someone feel uncomfortable might indeed become a criminal offense. Fortunately, it is not yet thus. Besides, shouldn’t a library director have a little spine? Was her remark not a bit childish? After all, I do not have a criminal record, have no tattoos or visible scars, and do not walk around naked. In fact, over the year and a half I’d been going to Sturgis Library I rarely ever spoke to the director, though in the beginning of that period I’d asked her to consider subscribing. She’d said, no, arguing the library was a “family friendly place” and that there was “too much negativity.” So, is democracy now family unfriendly and negativity? And what about all the sex and violence DVDs the director had been purchasing for the library? Unfortunately, people in power positions are often impervious to logic and reason.
During that earlier period, I’d placed one flyer on a car windshield in the library lot because that car had a bumper sticker: “Everything I Learned Was from Reading Banned Books. Celebrate Banned Books Week.” The car belonged to a staff member who complained to the director. Is it not mind-boggling that a staff member with such a bumper sticker would complain about a flyer that mentioned sarcastically that perhaps libraries should also celebrate banned periodicals?
The director then asked to speak with me in private. She said that I was no longer permitted to leave flyers on library grounds, including the parking lot. She also told me that I was not allowed to speak to staff about that. So, I contacted one of the local papers, The Barnstable Patriot, which to my surprise interviewed me and published a story on my intellectual conflict with the director (click here for link)
Nevertheless, I did not contravene the director’s orders, fearing indeed she’d resort to banning me from the library if I did. And I needed the library for the internet for my job as adjunct online instructor. Over the year and a half that followed, I almost never spoke to the director. Now and then, when she addressed me, it was brief small talk.
So, what had I done to merit the sudden permanent trespass order? Quite simply the week before I’d sent two open letters to about 25 of the library directors of the Clams Library System of Cape Cod in a last ditch effort to get just one of them to subscribe and thus get the journal into the system. The only director to respond was the director of Sturgis Library, and as mentioned not in writing, but with three police officers. How can such a thing happen in the year 2012, some 40 years after the great push for freedom during the Sixties?
The argument I’d put forth in those two open letters was, as far as I can tell, fool-proof and quite simple. Perhaps that’s why not one director responded with a reasonable point-by-point counter argument.
A. The library’s own policy clearly stipulates in writing that “Libraries should challenge censorship […].”
B. Sturgis Library banned my flyers and even rejected a free subscription offer.
C. The library’s own policy stipulates in writing that “Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view […]”.
D. Sturgis Library banned the “point of view” expressed in the journal I publish with regards poetry, a point of view that stood at direct antipodes to the point of view expressed in the one literary journal it subscribed to, Poetry Magazine. And now it permanently banned my point of view, regarding Sturgis Library, from Sturgis Library.
Was that so complicated? One of my subscribers, Timothy Bearly, who does wear a lot of tattoos, understood it and noted perspicaciously:
Unbeknownst to the library brass, this [the permanent trespass order] validates everything you have posted about them. They inadvertently proved your point by banning you from the library! As you said, how hypocritical for them to celebrate banned books week... then they ban you! Perhaps they became so enraged with the irrefutable logic [in the two open letters], they resorted to the only tactic they had at their disposal.
Now, just how uncomfortable did the director make me feel by suddenly appearing with three police officers? And just how uncomfortable does she make me feel now, knowing that in the town where I live I can no longer frequent the publicly-funded library and am forced to pay taxes that help fund it? Arguing “uncomfortable” and “inappropriate things” clearly serves to divert attention away from the initial argument: the library’s egregious hypocrisy regarding its own policy and actions.
Finally, the American Library Association, which I contacted, responded that it had no jurisdiction over libraries. Sadly, it was totally disinterested in what had happened. Its Office of Intellectual Freedom, which evokes Orwell’s 1984, did not respond. PEN New England (“defending free expression everywhere”) did not respond. Poet/professor Fred Marchant, former director of PEN New England, did not believe my assertion that PEN did not respond. The explanation for the non-response, however, was evidently that current director Karen Wulf was friends with Joan Houlihan, whose Concord Poetry Center I’d criticized a number of times. Moreover, Marchant is a friend of Houlihan’s too. Cronyism is the oil that makes the lit milieu in Massachusetts function. The ACLUM did respond, requesting further information but could not stipulate whether or not it could help. It has limited resources. Eventually, I spoke with one of its intake lawyers at her request. Later, she mentioned a group of lawyers met and decided one of them would call the library director. Thus, I await with a sparkle of hope. Nevertheless, the director’s ploy will most certainly be the he-made-me-feel-uncomfortable and said-inappropriate-things card. I await to discover what precise things I’d said were inappropriate and if that actually holds weight vis-a-vis freedom of expression.