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January 29, 2004

Nat Hentoff Renounces ALA's Immroth Award


"It is hard for me to believe that the majority of rank-and-file librarians agree with the spinelessness of their governing council, which couldn't bring itself to ask the luminous Fidel Castro to let these people go. ... I now publicly renounce the Immroth Award and demand that the American Library Association remove me from the list of recipients of that honor. To me, it is no longer an honor. "

I congratulate Nat on what is not an easy thing to do--return an award. He did this to make a point, of course. And I agree with him: I don't believe the ALA membership is with Council on this issue, and I think more points need to be made--this time, within the profession.

Nat Hentoff nailed the ultimate hypocrisy of ALA on the Cuban issue: "But that very day, the governing council of the American Library Association shamed rank-and-file librarians across this country, many of whom have been vigorously and publicly resisting the section of John Ashcroft's Patriot Act that gives the FBI the power to search library records for the names of borrowers who have taken out books the FBI thinks may be linked to terrorism."

In fact, ALA Council archives show that in 2002, Al Kagan, the leader of the team who wrote the Cuba report, had bitterly castigated ALA for not going far enough in its condemnation of the Patriot Act. (Kagan had wanted ALA to condemn the entire Act, even though only portions of it relate to civil rights.)

As a librarian, writer, and civil libertarian, I have been very proud of ALA on the Patriot Act (including Carla Hayden's brave and timely comments last year, responding to Ashcroft's rude rebuff of our request for records). That's why I'm so puzzled by ALA Council's response to such a seemingly small addition to a lengthy report.

Again, I think the biggest problem is that we have lacked input and insight--and leadership--from moderates and progressives who believe in democracy and free speech everywhere. But that doesn't really go far enough in explaining the listless response from librarians who can get whipped up about the removal of a single book in a library in this country, yet turn away when we are discussing wholesale and systematic denial of civil liberties somewhere else.

I know Americans tend to have vast gullies of ignorance when it comes to other countries, but you don't need a degree in Latin American studies to conclude that civil liberties are not the strong suit of a country with a dictator in power for over four decades, a state-controlled press, a habit of jailing writers and journalists, and a particular animus for independent librarians and book collections. Is it such a thin and shaky limb we were expected to go out on to make the statement asking for the release of the political prisoners jailed in the spring, 2003 crackdown (whose total numbers, as of today, go up to 83, according to Amnesty International)?

And I haven't even written about ALA's past actions, including holding a "forum" that only recognized Cuba's "official" librarians.

The irony is that ALA, an organization that prides itself on leading the vanguard with respect to civil liberties in law and policy, has now distanced itself from the voices of reason on this issue: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International PEN, Campaign for Peace and Democracy, and some of the best and--tellingly--most consistent civil-liberties activists within our own organization, including Sandy Berman. In attempting not to go out on a limb (and risk what--the condemnation of a handful of pro-Castro librarians?), ALA now finds itself exactly where it didn't want to be--twisting alone, in the breeze.

The question is--what next? I won't turn to ALA for the answer; but Nat is setting an example I admire.

Posted by kgs at January 29, 2004 11:52 AM

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As a fellow ALA Councilor, (Councilor at Large), I regret that I could not be present to speak to this issue, and show a little backbone by voting with other Councilors, who voted for a call for release.
While I do not agree in all areas with many of my colleagues, this contradictory hypocrisy, is indeed baffling.
Out of touch with the rank and file - oh yes - big time, and not just on this issue. I couldn't even begin to address how politically out of touch most of our professional meritocracy is, with many facets of the public.
But, after this June, (my last ALA Council session), that won't matter, I'll be back in the rank and file, if I even stay an ALA member at all.
John D. Berry, Assoc. Librarian, Ethnic Studies Library, UC Berkeley, ALA Councilor at Large, Past Pres. - American Indian Library Association (AILA)

Posted by: John D. Berry at January 29, 2004 01:29 PM

Hi Karen-

I think we agree that Council and the membership of ALA are not in synch, but I think you are wrong about what the membership thinks. I spent seven years as a Chapter Councilor. I even hang out with many of the Chapter Councilors and have had a number of conversations about this topic.

For good or for ill, I think that most of the membership do not want ALA embroiled in "foreign policy" disucussions. Over seven years, that is the one consistent message I received from folks in my state. My sense from the many other Chapter Councilors, that the feelings are similar in most other states.

For a lot of ALA members this issue is right up there with "is it Council's role or the Executive Board's role to .... [fill in the blank]." They do care about salaries, library funding, protecting civil rights which are being eroded by legislation like the USA PATRIOT Act, and many other topics which ALA Council has discussed.

I arrived at Midwinter prepared to abstain on all issues related to Cuba, but was pursuaded by the hard work of the task force to support the report they issued in the form in which they issued it.

Mr. Hentoff, has lowered himself in my opinion by accepting the position esposed by a group with a political agenda without close examination.

Posted by: Michael Golrick at January 29, 2004 01:36 PM

Michael, that's your opinion--you are entitled.

I may be a lone voice on Council, and for all I know, (almost) a lone one in the profession. Time will tell. But I'm not a lone voice on this planet. As for what Nat accepted, throw Sandy Berman, Karen Schneider, John D. Berry, and a host of organizations in that pot. He's not coming at it from the right or left, and he's hardly a rube. Neither, for that matter, am I.

Nat is doing what he feels is appropriate to draw attention to this issue. I am, as well. You are upset by what he has done. Good--he's reaching you.

Posted by: K.G. Schneider at January 29, 2004 02:02 PM

Karen, you are not a lone voice in the profession. Let me at least assure you of that. Kudos to Nat for doing what he believes is right, and to you for pursuing such an important issue with ALA. It is a sad day when a professional body leaves its ethics and values at their national border.

Posted by: Sarah Houghton at January 29, 2004 02:35 PM