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The library and modern society in the 1980s – and beyond: Responses to mass media, mass society, and technology (Part Six)

By Mark Wegierski
web posted June 25, 2012

(Original drafts of this essay go back to November 1985 – author's note.)

What are the implications of these anti-Brave New World and anti-1984 stances in regard to the censorship and intellectual freedom issues which have so absorbed the library, especially in the post-World War II period?

It must be said at the beginning that the issues of censorship and intellectual freedom, though related, are not identical, and do not mean (should not mean?) the same thing for libraries and the general society. It must be said that the issue of censorship and/or intellectual freedom as presented in the literature is rather unrelated to the more serious issues and problems of late modern society. In the 19th century (or earlier), the censor was a Power to be reckoned with. The library was uninterested in this issue, or on the side of the censor:

A review of library literature reveals relatively few articles on intellectual freedom prior to the 1930's, and many of the articles that did appear supported censorship and only quibbled over the degree and nature of it. Typical was the opinion of ALA President Arthur E. Bostwick, whose inaugural address at the 1908 Annual Conference included these remarks:

"Some are born great; some achieve greatness; some have greatness thrust upon them. It is in this way that the librarian has become a censor of literature… Books that distinctly commend what is wrong, that teach how to sin and tell how pleasant sin is, sometimes with and sometimes without the added sauce of impropriety, are increasingly popular, tempting the author to imitate them, the publishers to produce them, the bookseller to exploit. Thank Heaven they do not tempt the librarian." [19]

The chuckles this passage probably evokes points to the sort of society we are living in today. In fact, we see in modern society an almost exact antithesis of the earlier. If we look at the situation outside of liberal polemics, we see that the censor in current-day society is usually a lonely and embattled individual, or a relatively unimportant group, which dares to challenge the status-quo on a particular item or issue, and gets massive criticism for it. Of course, such an individual or group will sometimes attack blindly and stupidly, driven to distraction by what they perceive as a seemingly insane society. That the desire for the removal of a few books should drive the media into a tizzy, with dire warnings of (their trivialized view) of 1984, shows only how insecure they feel. Of course, certain liberal groups are also in favor of censorship for their own reasons. The formula calling for "no fascist, racist, sexist, or homophobic materials" could be used as a pretext for the suppression of any more traditional works, including all of the so-called Great Books of the West. However, the thoroughgoing enactment of such strictures in regard to library collections is hopefully relatively infrequent.

As far as intellectual freedom, there is a contradictory situation. The university and the library today are far from being so-called politically neutral institutions where merit and competence are the only criteria for acceptance. It could be argued that the situation of so-called right-wing intellectuals is rather precarious. There is an inherent tendency in liberal democracy to impose a whole set of values on the so-called rightwing. A right-wing intellectual would call these egalitarianism, anti-elitism, denial of moral categories, secularism, and the total welfare-state. On the other hand, the situation of left-wing intellectuals is far more comfortable. In the 1980s, Cathy Laurier, then a member of the Moscow-line Communist Party, was elected as a student representative and continued to defend Soviet imperialism in print. Indeed, for some right-wingers on certain campuses, the phrase "intellectual freedom" has a rather bitter irony to it. They have long ago learned to keep their mouths shut to complete their academic studies without too much incident. Freedom of expression should mean freedom of expression for all. The making of a "politically incorrect" statement in some academic settings today is all too frequently followed by such things as character-assassination or slander against the "offender" – or sometimes even the near-destruction of one's present or incipient career.

Thus, the issues of censorship and intellectual freedom as defined in the literature largely miss the central essence of what is really going on today, especially on certain campuses.

Let us quote one of the freedom of information pamphlets:

The sort of double-think, Newspeak, and reality control practiced in the Soviet Union and made famous in Orwell's 1984 does not really work anyway. There is a limit to how much of this can be done even in a dictatorship; and the limit is lower in a society where enough freedom remains so that the individual can refresh their recollection from some unofficial source the government has been unable to expunge. Neither legislatures nor Congress really can undo a deed, unsay a word, or unwrite a line. They can put some obstacles in the way of those seeking truth. That, fortunately, is the limit of their power. [20]

It could be said this is an over-optimistic appraisal of the information situation of late modernity. The fact is that the current-day news and entertainment media constitute an incredibly powerful force for shaping reality and identity. What can possibly counter-act the various biases of the media?

In the book, Censorship: 500 Years of Conflict, there is offered a picture of a society, which, albeit with a slightly different emphasis, might well be accepted as the picture of the late modern, so-called "soft totalitarian" society.

One limitation, I think, is his [Orwell's] incapacity to imagine a society which is not on the Stalinist model. Yet an American-West European totalitarianism would likely to be constructed on a very different model from the Stalinist model. After all, the principle of 1984 is simply that the state must become a highly efficient technological prison in which all the prisoners are reduced more or less to the status of automata. The essential requirement from them is that they hold no critical thoughts about the prison or its warders. Orwell's description shows that so long as they fulfill this desideratum nothing else matters very much… [21]

Given the reality of the power-relations between those clinging to some forms of tradition, and the dominant forces in society today, the passage seems a rather accurate indictment of status-quo, "conservative" liberalism.

So the question remains: "What is to be done?" Given the situations outlined above, it seems that nothing can arrest the arrival of the hypermodern society. As far as the issue of book selection goes, one should try to be rigorously fair. It means that books should never be rejected purely because they are "right-wing". Also, a core collection should be created of a thousand or so Great Books of the West which no library should be without. It is on the level of scandal when a large branch public library has under the category of philosophy two or three works of real philosophy, the rest being items with such titles as "You and the Occult", "The Bermuda Triangle", or psychology self-help books. [22] This does not speak well to the intellectual level aspired to in our society. In direct contrast to the ideas prevalent in public library thinking today, the author hopes that even the public library system could be a bastion of intellect.

So, to recapitulate the core of my argument: modern Western liberal technological society is moving into a hyper-technological, hyper-liberal, hypermodern, post-Western society. The extension of the trends of technologization, popularization, and politicization will tend to mean the end of the library as a place for the "quiet stir of thought". The ultimate trajectory of the Library is likely to be as a computer center/social services center/social advocacy center, fully meshed with the corporate/media/social services network. Physical books are likely to eventually molder away or be used for so-called "socially-useful" functions (e.g., as an energy resource).

It is argued that this ultimate trajectory can be arrested only if there is a movement towards a society that can integrate the best aspects of premodern and modern society, not merely move into the extremity of the hypermodern. That is, not the Negation, but the Negation of the Negation. If this is indeed the moment of decision, people within the institution of the library must seriously and realistically think about the world around them, lest they find themselves and their institution highly attenuated, or abolished. ESR

Notes (rendered continuously) (refer to later bibliography for full titles)

[19] Intellectual Freedom Manual, p. xiv

[20] Freedom of Information Retrospective, p. 48

[21] Censorship: 500 Years of Conflict, p. 126

[22] This discovery was a disheartening moment for the author.


Works on Library Philosophy and Theory

Carlson, William Hugh, In a Grand and Awful Time. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1967.

McCrimmon, Barbara (ed.), American Library Philosophy: An Anthology. Handen, Connecticut: Shoe String Press, 1975.

Rawski, Conrad H., Toward a Theory of Librarianship: Papers in Honour of Jesse H. Shera. Metuchen, New Jersey: Scarecrow Press, 1973.

Shera, Jesse H., The "Compleat Librarian" and Other Essays. Cleveland and London: The Press of Case Western Reserve University, 1971.

Works on Censorship and Intellectual Freedom

Freedom of Information Center, Freedom of Information Retrospective. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri, 1978.

Jones, Frances M., Defusing Censorship: The Librarian's Guide to Handling Censorship Conflicts. Phoenix, Arizona: Oryx Press, 1983.

The New York Public Library, Censorship: 500 Years of Conflict. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Office for Intellectual Freedom, American Library Association, Intellectual Freedom Manual. Chicago, 1974.

Office for Intellectual Freedom, American Library Association, The Speaker, A Film about Freedom: Discussion Guide. Chicago, 1977.

Works of Philosophy and Cultural Analysis
Bradbury, Ray, Fahrenheit 451. [1953].

Brantlinger, Patrick, Bread and Circuses: Theories of Mass Culture as Social Decay. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1983.

Grant, George, Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism. Toronto: Macmillan Ltd., 1965.

Huxley, Aldous, Brave New World. Penguin Modern Classics, 1975 [1932].

Ortega y Gasset, Jose, "The Mission of the Librarian." Antioch Review, v. 35, 1963, pp. 133-154 [1935].

Orwell, George, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Penguin Books, 1984 [1949].

Mark Wegierski holds (among other academic degrees) a Master of Library Science.






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