Review–Library Wars: Literal Radical Militant Librarians

Book Review

by Kenneth Sawdon

Librarians and staff have done many things in recent years to make patrons aware of what our profession thinks of Intellectual Freedom and Social Justice. Banned Books Week is well known nationally, and internationally, reference and outreach librarians go out and roam neighbourhoods, library spaces are beloved in many communities. But, I think most people do not fully comprehend Intellectual Freedom as one of our core values. Which is why I’m excited for Library Wars as a resource to teach patrons about our profession and values.

In fact, I’d be surprised if the story wasn’t directly inspired by, among other things, the response of library workers to the PATRIOT Act and the beloved title of “Radical Militant Librarians” provided by the FBI. This is because Library Wars is the story of literal Radical Militant Librarians protecting books, and private access to those books, in the face of a political system that wants to tightly control and monitor media.

Library Wars is a popular series in Japan which began in 2006 with a series of light novels written by Hiro Arikawa, and drawn by Sukumo Adabana. It continued with a manga, internet radio shows, an anime, an animated film, and two live action films–the latest one from October of 2015. From the number of adaptations and spinoffs it is unsurprising to hear that the series has been well received in Japan. At the moment, it does not appear that the original novels are translated, but the the anime and films can be found subtitled. The manga has been officially published and translated for North American audiences.

The catalysts for the setting is “The Media Betterment Act,” which is about as insidious as you would expect. The government supports a campaign of censorship over all media, run by the “Media Betterment Committee.” The types of media and content that are restricted are unspecified, but seems to follow the usual formula: control over ideologies, both philosophical and political, facts, both historical and journalistic, messaging, and all the usual totalitarian/dystopian favourites. Then, “The Hino Nightmare” occurs: the destruction of one of the biggest libraries in the city, including the deaths of many of the patrons and librarians inside. Of course, the Media Betterment Committee denies all involvement, and the police force performs a perfunctory investigation and no one is arrested. In retaliation to these two events, supported by local governments, libraries and their staffs are tasked to protect collections for citizens–often through force. To this end, librarians have been split into two groups: traditional librarians in charge of collections (I’m not sure that the series puts enough emphasis on the variety of services libraries offer beyond book collections), and the Defense Force, a military force. Literal Radical Militant Librarians. Though the Library Defense Force exists, and they are at war with the oppressive government, it is not a continuous sustained thing as an uneasy peace exists. The two groups have agreed to their own jurisdictions and loose laws where, for example, the government may start to take any book out of circulation, but a library will have the right to collect individual copies. The Library Defense Force isn’t an aggressive “army” force, either: they defend their collections and patrons, but refuse to shoot first and are killed but avoid killing.

The series’ protagonist is Iku Kasahara, a young corporal in training in the Library Defense Force. She becomes passionate about libraries and the Defense Force at a young age when a Betterment Act enforcer attempts to confiscate a book she was about to purchase–a harmless fairy tale story, the final in a series. She does her best to protect the book, she risks herself for it–telling the enforcer that she is willing to shoplift the book and allow the police to confiscate it. Thankfully a Library Task Force member, a person who is both a Librarian and a Defense Force soldier, steps in, “collecting” the book on the behalf of his library. Once the government force leave he promptly “weeds” the book out of the collection, giving it to her.

The rest of the story follows Kashahara in her training, and various events that the librarians of this world have to struggle against and for. This is not all library and world focused of course, and follows alongside Kashahara as a young woman struggling to prove herself, overcome her own doubts, and find love and friendship. As a Shojo Beat manga it focuses on young-adult female readers–at least in tone and tropes. Honestly, it is sort of mediocre Shojo love story, but kept me enthralled with the reverence to libraries and the core values of librarianship shining on every page. It’s almost too black and white with its love of libraries (the only bad things done by library allies are due to corruption), and it ignores issues such as unequal access to resources in rural areas, sexism and racism in catalogue headings, and other real life issues. But, it’s also not the point of the story–what it really wants to be is a fun and silly love story and a love letter to libraries and the people and values that shape libraries.

I think the art of the manga is very impressive, not game-changing for the genre but it helps the characters and expressions gain life. It can be dramatic or silly, depending on the current mood. Kiiro Yumi, the manga’s artist, draws beautiful characters and settings, keeping the page both busy with life and focused on the subject at hand.

I greatly enjoyed the animated film, which is a more contained story fairly late in the larger tale (Kashahara has already found her love interest, and had some time as a librarian). The main plot is about an author that wrote a crime drama fiction about a terrorist attack. Real terrorists mirror the attack he wrote (presumably years after his publication), and the government quickly passes a new anti-terrorist bill which, among other things, gives the Media Betterment Committee more power. The author comes under suspicion, and to be arrested and not allowed to write for a number of years, but the library gives him sanctuary. As the film progresses the author gets to know the work and history of librarians, which he had paid little mind to previously. He represents the many creators that benefit from the work of librarians and anti-censorship allies, taking them for granted and ignoring the threat of censorship.

The 2015 live action film was also very good, following more closely the plot in the manga. Because it is real people the tone of the film changes somewhat. It’s more gritty and emotional in the depictions of combat, with a sense of “real danger” that is harder to convey on the page. Also, to me the film felt like it had less positive feminist tones than the manga. But, again, I still think it was well worth the watch.

Fourteen of the fifteen manga series are currently published, and it should not be long until the last volume is out (Amazon says April 5th).

The GoodReads page for the first volume can be found here.

I highly recommend looking into this manga, and bringing it into your library’s collection and programming. It may help patrons understand what librarians and library workers are trying to do, why we can be so passionate. It may get them hooked to learn more. As well, I’d love to hear other reactions from people aware of this series.

I’d like to end with the Library Freedom Act from the series (I believe it has sub-sections, but this is the core of the act):

The Library Freedom Act

Libraries have the freedom to acquire their collections.

Libraries have the freedom to circulate materials in their collections.

Libraries guarantee the privacy of their patrons.

Libraries oppose any type of censorship.

When libraries are imperiled, librarians will join together to secure their freedom.

I think this is a beautiful way to condense the core values of librarianship.

Ken Sawdon is a Footage Curation and Metadata Specialist at Dissolve Ltd., a startup stock footage and photo company. He is a recent MLIS graduate from the University of Alberta, where his activities included co-chair of the Forum for Information Professionals student conference and community activist and blogger for the Future Librarians for Intellectual Freedom. He has been a volunteer librarian for the Aero Space Museum of Calgary as well as a Collections Assistant at Fort Calgary. Connect with him at @kainous on Twitter.

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