By: Tommy Vinh Bui
I’m shelf-reading and happen upon an inviolable transgression among my stacks. Little else prickles a librarian’s sense of propriety more than encountering a book that’s been vandalized. Something snarky scribbled in the margins objecting to the contents contained therein. It’s always the same garbled diatribe about inappropriateness or misplaced indignation over its ready availability in a public space. These same books can usually be found tucked under couch cushions or wedged in some dark crevice within the library in a futile attempt to censor our shelves.
But sometimes found in the smoldering ashes of attempted-censorship surfaces something that can invoke more awareness and discussion about the dastardly act itself. Employing a little insight and creativity, taking this woeful scenario and kneading it into a singular opportunity. From a situation seemingly destructive and imbuing it with something irrepressibly redemptive. And that’s exactly what ensued at one crafty and resilient library.
The genesis of the Reversing Vandalism project began when the books of the San Francisco Public Library’s James C. Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center were being anonymously pilfered from the shelves and found mutilated and concealed all over the premises. The obscuring of certain texts was deliberate and the intent brazenly malicious. Approximately six hundred books that pertained to LGBTQ issues, AIDS, and women’s health were scattered and hidden all over the library with pages carved or shorn altogether. Volumes and volumes of violated tomes. An all too wanton textbook example of a hate crime and violent censorship was transpiring. Unfortunately the spoiled books were found to be beyond repair and had to consequently be withdrawn from the library’s circulating collection. Eventually the perpetrator of this underhanded deed was brought to justice leaving behind a precarious pile of defaced books for the staff of the library to contend with.
But that was no challenge for intrepid historian-librarian James Van Buskirk who compiled the books and contrived to spirit them off to various artists all over the country to readapt and repurpose into works of art. What resulted was a rich and collective artistic response to the damnable act of censorship and infringement on the right to read. The reply was remarkably enthusiastic and compelled an overwhelming level of community support and civic involvement. Artists contributed thoughtful artworks that included a wide range of mixed-media such as sculpture, assemblage, photography, textiles, along with a diversity of other mediums. The transformation of a tragic pile of tattered books into lively expressions of beauty and healing is a spirit-buoying phenomena.
Wringing activism from a moment of adversity within the library. I’d be hard pressed to find a more satisfying example of taking an untenable incident and converting it into a teachable moment that evokes compassion, empathy, and understanding. And that’s the optimistic mindset in which I desperately cleave to whenever I uncover yet another controversial book crammed in yet another poorly-lit cranny of the library in an attempt to smother intellectual freedom. This whole episode reminds me that progress is slow-going but lumbers along resolutely. Comfort can be found in knowing that there’re librarians out there unflagging in their mandate to empower under-heard voices and promote tolerance within their book aisles.
It happened then, it happens today, and it’ll happen again. I reshelve the book returning it to its proper place in the sightline of any curious patrons. An act that elicits both a weary sigh of exasperation but also a wry smile knowing that it’s a revitalizing antidote against cultural suppression and erasure.
Tommy Vinh Bui is a paragraph-peddler hailing from the bonnie barrios of Pacoima. He has an assortment of lugubrious-sounding degrees and was a Peace Corps volunteer in a dusty and distant land long ago. Tommy has an unswerving interest in intellectual freedom and his fingertips and keyboard reflect this. He may have impulse control problems.