Libraries and Propaganda
Our most recent symposium (Mis)Informed: Propaganda, Disinformation, Misinformation and Our Culture offered a deep analysis of the mechanisms by which incorrect information spreads, particularly in our hyper-connected era. We also discussed, to an extent, what can be done in response.
Hoping to help us all feel a little less adrift in these incredibly complex issues, I created a physical timeline of events in which libraries and librarians interacted with propaganda, either as a distribution mechanism or as an active combatant against biased information.
It’s tempting to believe that the internet has given rise to disinformation, but, in truth, various methods of persuasion date back centuries (snake oil, anyone?). Our timeline begins in 1914, but could certainly start at an earlier date. With just a century’s worth of events, the double-decker timeline runs the length of 22 feet and is made of twine, card stock, binder clips, and command hooks (my preferred medium seems to be office-supplies-I-found-lying-around).
A few things struck me when I was doing research for this project:
- I found lots of examples of libraries dealing with propaganda in the 1910s and 1940s (i.e. times of war), but not so many in the 1920s and 1990s. This leads me to believe that peace and prosperity alleviates the need for persuasion on a mass scale (though this claim needs a ton more research before I’ll fully sign on to it).
- Libraries were seen as distributors of government propaganda in the early- to mid-20th century, but were actively silenced during the Red Scare and the Patriot Act.
- There’s a misconception that segregation fell away once federal legislation put an end to separate-but-equal mandates. This just isn’t the case. Libraries resisted integration hard, and it often fell to people of color to do the work to push toward inclusion.
For the sake of inquiry regarding the intersection of libraries and propaganda, as well as whether libraries can or even should claim to be neutral entities, I’m sharing our timeline here in digital form.
Thanks, Nora Almeida and Jen Hoyer, for your help with this project!
Libraries and Propaganda: A Non-Exhaustive Timeline of Resistance and Cooperation
Thinking about propaganda broadly (as is necessary — the term falls out of favor in the mid-20th century), when do libraries serve as vehicles for distribution? When do they resist? When are they silenced?
From acts of individual library workers to broad movements in the profession, this timeline demonstrates the involvement and engagement of libraries in the cultural conversation.
This timeline is not and, we’d argue, will never be complete. What is missing? What would you add? Leave a comment below.
1914: Regarding the first world war, Librarian Corinne Bacon called for those selecting library books to “avoid all bias, religious, political, or economic. Have books on both sides of a question.”
1915: At the 1915 ALA conference, the director of the District of Columbia Public Library makes a speech entitled How Far Should the Library Aid the Peace Movement and Similar Propaganda, stating that “librarians are interested in peace and should, I believe, promote it as a matter of self-preservation.”
1916: Advocating for neutrality, ALA President Mary Wright Plummer states that libraries have “the opportunity to be and to continue truth’s handmaid.”
1916: The German Information Service disseminates 400 works of propaganda to American public libraries.
April 1917: The Committee on Public Information (otherwise known as the Creel Committee) is formed. George Creel urges librarians to pay “special attention…to the task of collecting and exploiting material giving the reasons for America’s participation in the war.”
1917: As the U.S. enters the Great War, ALA appointed a committee to investigate propaganda and create a list of books that “should be guarded against.” (No such list was published.)
August 1917: ALA creates a War Services Committee to collect, distribute, and circulate reading materials in thirty-two army camps.
October 1917: Congress passes the Trading-with-the-Enemy Act, making it difficult for libraries to purchase and circulate material opposing the war.
December 1917: John Cotton Dana refuses to remove eight works from the Newark Free Public Library. He says “liberty of thought is a very desirable thing for the world and that liberty of thought can only be maintained by those who have free access to opinion.”
1918: Congress passes amendments to the Espionage Act with little protest from libraries.
Late 1910s: A survey of libraries finds an average 50:1 ratio of pro-Ally to pro-German propaganda.
1924: A Carnegie Corporation staff member publishes The American Public Library and the Diffusion of Knowledge, declaring that “the free public library is already an accepted and cherished figure in American intellectual life…”
1932: ALA Secretary Carl Milam forms the Citizens’ Councils for Constructive Economy in response to widespread anti-tax sentiment.
1936: WPA creates the Library Extension Program. The program goes on to fund and build “about 200 new libraries, more than 3,400 new reading rooms, and 5,800 traveling libraries.”
1941: ALA creates the Victory Book Campaign, a book drive to benefit soldiers and sailors serving in the armed forces.
1942: Felix Pollak publishes “Libraries in the Present Emergency” in Library Journal condemning Nazi treatment of information.
1942: Secretary of War Harry Stimson demands that the ALA order all libraries to remove books on explosives, ammunition, and cryptology, and to report suspicious users to the FBI.
1942: Charles Harvey Brown, ALA President, writes that he “hope[s] that our American library will be an ever-increasing menace to fascism and the philosophy it represents.”
1942: ALA creates a Library Wartime Policy.
1948: ALA strengthens Library Bill of Rights in response to threats of censorship.
1950: Ruth Brown, a librarian in Bartlesville, OK, is fired for keeping copies of The Nation and The New Republic on library shelves.
1950: ALA representative Margie Malmberg speaks at a senate subcommittee hearing, held in response to the Soviet Union’s successful demonstration of nuclear power, to promote library involvement in civil defense efforts. The bill ultimately passes.
1950: Section 201 of the Federal Civil Defense Act of 1950 states that the government would disperse civil defense information through public libraries.
1951: An ALA representative attends the National Civil Defense Conference.
1951: Malvina Lindsay calls on libraries to ensure they continue to provide access to accurate information during a time when misinformation is running rampant.
1953: Speaking at Dartmouth College’s commencement, President Eisenhower exhorts the crowd: “Don’t join the book burners. . . . Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as any document does not offend [y]our own ideas of decency. That should be the only censorship.”
1953: Joseph McCarthy opens an investigation of the State Department’s overseas libraries, sending Roy Cohn and others to remove and destroy books from library shelves.
1953: ALA writes the Freedom to Read Statement. The statement is placed in full text in the New York Times, among many other prestigious newspapers.
1954: ALA mandates that only one chapter exist in each state, actively undercutting separate-but-equal mandates.
1956: Georgia and Alabama lose their status as chapters in their failure to comply with ALA’s 1954 mandate.
1955: A group of California librarians creates a list of books whose authors had Communist leanings, agitating for a ban.
1955: Juliette Hampton Morgan, a reference librarian at Montgomery Library, writes a letter to the Montgomery Advisor lauding the efforts of those involved with the bus boycotts sparked by Rosa Parks. She is subsequently harassed at home and at the library.
1959: Emily Wheelock Reed, director of Alabama’s state library agency, comes under fire for refusing to take The Rabbit’s Wedding out of circulation.
1960: ALA forms Special Committee on Civil Rights.
1960: The National Shelter Program lists dozens of libraries as fallout shelters (officials point out that library stacks offer protection from radiation).
1960: The Greenville Eight — a young Jesse Jackson among them — stages a read-in at Greenville (SC) Library. In response to court-mandated integration, city council votes to keep the library closed in perpetuity. (They library eventually re-opens.)
1966: In response to an ALA Bulletin encouraging libraries to maintain their efforts toward civil defense, Eli M. Oboler, university librarian at Idaho State University, argues that librarians should fill their stacks with literature on world peace so nuclear war wouldn’t occur in the first place.
1969: Oboler publishes a bibliography on disarmament.
1969: The Library of Congress creates a section devoted to bibliographies, reviews, and abstracts having to do with disarmament.
1969: ALA Social Responsibilities Roundtable formed.
1969: Two librarians carry a “Librarians for Peace” sign during a protest against the Vietnam War.
1971: Sanford Berman publishes Prejudices and Antipathies: A Tract on the LC Subject Heads Concerning People.
1970: An ALA meeting on racial inequity results in the formation of the Black Caucus.
1972: Library of Congress agreed reclassifies materials from HQ 71–471 (“Abnormal Sexual Relations, Including Sexual Crimes”) into a newly created category, HQ 76.5 (“Homosexuality, Lesbianism — Gay Liberation Movement, Homophile Movement”).
1974: First Alternative Press Index published in Toronto.
1980s: Librarians for Nuclear Arms Control is formed.
1983: The internet is born out of ARAPNET, creating a whole technology for sharing information.
1984: In response to Reagan’s push toward an arms build up, ALA Council adds resolutions to its National Program for Library and Information Services encouraging libraries to “stimulate public interest” in arms control issues.
1987: FBI announces the Library Awareness Program, in which librarians are expected to come forward with information on patrons who hold hostile beliefs against the U.S. Libraries around the country begin to comply.
1988: The Task Force on Gay Liberation released the “International thesaurus of gay and lesbian index terms.
1989: Tim Berners-Lee implements the first communication via hypertext transfer protocol, effecting spawning the World Wide Web. The world will never be the same.
1989: The Center for the Study of Political Graphics, founded by Carol Wells, forms in L.A.
January 1990: Progressive Librarians Guild is formed in New York City by a group of librarians concerned with our profession’s rapid drift into dubious alliances with business and the information industry.
1992: Controversy erupts within the library community when American Libraries highlights the Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Task Force marching in San Francisco’s pride parade on the front cover.
1992: Black Caucus formally affiliates with ALA.
1998: Google is founded.
2001: The world’s first internet meme.
2001: The Patriot Act is signed into law. Section 215 modifies guidelines for searching third party records of client transactions, such as those held by libraries.
2004: Librarian Jessamyn West posts a series of “technically legal” signs re: FBI searches on her website.
2004: Facebook is founded.
2004: Radical Reference forms info booth at RNC in NYC.
2004: 4Chan, an anonymous message board responsible for attention-grabbing shenanigans, is founded.
2005: Four Connecticut librarians file a lawsuit known challenging the constitutional validity of National Security Letters issued by the FBI.
2006: The federal government lifts its gag order on the Connecticut Four.
2008: Twitter is founded.
2011: The People’s Library opens at Wall Street.
2011: Buffalo (NY) History Museum’s library becomes the first known library to collect wedding memorabilia from legally-wed same-sex couples.
2011: Interference Archive opens.
2013: Librarians and Archivists w/ Palestine forms.
2014: Gamergate presents online fringe groups with an opportunity to test outrage politics on the internet.
2016: #pizzagate begins, clarifying the full extent of “self-investigation”