By: Frederic Murray
“ … if intellectual freedom is exploring and changing and becoming better based on new ideas, you need new ideas in order for all of that to happen, and where we typically find new ideas, the best ideas, are in books, and where we typically still find books, are of course in libraries.”
– Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
The work librarians do for this blog, and in a deeper sense for the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association, is incredibly important. It’s always been important, maybe now more so than ever. The work, that we as librarians do daily, is relevant. We help students, faculty, researchers and clients. Across the spectrum of our profession we have always operated as the human face of change in the world of knowledge and service. We were Google, Amazon and Facebook before any of the tech giants even existed. The work is demanding and in constant flux. I imagine that as redesigned scriptoria were added to the scriptoriums, there was grumbling among the scribes and illuminators that things were moving too fast, too soon.
The truth remains that we face challenges daily, we face them in our schools, our communities, our states and our nation. The relentless attack on the free press is unprecedented in my lifetime. The scope of these attacks and the potential lethal technological breach of our civic institutions has happened, is happening.
We must challenge [this idea] and this sentiment that the news media is the enemy of the American people. This sentiment may be the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime.
– William McRaven Feb 21 2017
As curators of collections, authorities on access or just plain bookworms, we have an important role to play right now. If, as professor Kendi states, intellectual freedom is based on exploring, changing, improving through the discovery of new ideas — and new ideas should not be characterized on any kind of vintage appraisal, but rather new as recently found to the explorer (we’ve all seen that light bulb go off in a student’s or patron’s eye when they find the book that’s just right) — then we have an opportunity, because of our particular skill set, to help shift the conversation back to the center, or at least to try.
Who knows more about the national conversations taking place right now? What other profession, other than writers and publishers themselves, pays so much attention to the chorus of voices that exists, and are born daily? These are conversations that matter, these are conversations that are still taking place in books. The past year, like every year, brings us works that deserve to be centered and celebrated (even if the message is dark and unsettling). For my own part, Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny sits next to the U.S. Constitution and Christopher Hitchens’ Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. At home, Jesmyn Ward’s (a 2017 MacArthur Fellow) essays’ and poems found in The Fire This Time have been in steady rotation since they came out last year. Yesterday, a student working on an abstract for a national undergraduate conference came to see me. After a short discussion, it came to mind that it was Ms. Ward’s body of work that was needed for her project.
Collectively, the country has recently lost a lot of good writers: Peter Matthiessen, Sam Shepard, Jim Harrison and Denis Johnson. I’ve been reading Matthiessen’s Birds of Heaven of late, one of his last wildlife books. A natural history of cranes would seem distant from our present concerns, as cranes are a species going back 15 million years. Yet, the book, like most of his writing, is passionately active and concerned with conservation and cultural knowledge. When Denis Johnson died, I read all his novels in one fell swoop. It left me feeling like I’d plundered my patrimony in a New Orleans debauch. But I’d do again, gladly, for one more work by this author.
I know I am not alone in feeling that reading sustains me, that books are central to my life, my way of living. To that end it’s been a pleasure to work on this blog, and find so many like-minded, stalwart people, who are literally the front-line in defense and celebration of our common intellectual freedoms.
Frederic Murray is the head of Instructional Services at the Al Harris Library, Southwestern Oklahoma State University. He is a tenured faculty member and as an academic librarian has initiated the growth and expansion of information literacy classes across the campus curriculum. He has presented at state, national and international conferences in the areas of library pedagogy, digital textbooks, and the development of curriculum for Native American Studies. He serves as the managing editor for Administrative Issues Journal, a peer-reviewed, open access journal in its sixth year of publication. He believes deeply in the value of books and the inherent strength found in the human voice. Among his favorite authors are Lenny Bruce, Jimmy Santiago Baca and Carson McCullers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org