Viewing and speaking about “The Speaker” at ALA Annual Conference

General Interest, Intellectual Freedom Committee, Intellectual Freedom Issues, Midwinter Meeting/Annual Conference

How can understanding past conflicts inform our ability to understand current issues?   How should libraries and librarians grapple with uncomfortable history, unpopular ideas, and inflammatory speakers and programs in the 21st century?

To help us deal with those questions, the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee and the Association of American Publishers will present a program on the controversial ALA-produced 1977 film “The Speaker … A Film About Freedom” at the 2014 Annual Conference in Las Vegas.  In addition, there will be two screenings of the film prior to the program as part of the “Now Showing at ALA” film series. The program, “Speaking about ‘The Speaker,’” is co-sponsored by the Black Caucus of the ALA and the Library History Round Table. For additional information about the program, read the press release.

In addition to the screenings, OIF has posted the film online for the first time, thanks to the ALA Archives at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  It can be viewed on YouTube.  Additionally, the 1977 Discussion Guide that was included with the film is available as a PDF on the ALA Conference Scheduler. Also posted are several pages from the American Libraries July/August 1977 cover story that provide an excellent overview of the Detroit conference.

The program will take place from 1 – 2:30 p.m. on Monday, June 30, in room N253 of the Las Vegas Convention Center (LVCC).  The film screenings will be at 10:30 a.m. on Sunday, June 29, and at 8 a.m. on Monday, June 30, in LVCC room N242.  Both screenings will be followed by a moderated audience discussion.

In advance of the program, we will be posting additional thoughts and resources here on OIF Blog about the historical context of the film, why IFC and OIF thought it important to have this discussion in 2014, and to address other concerns that have been voiced since the program’s conception.  We welcome your voices in the comments and on your blogs or other social media outlets.

OIF is well aware of the hard feelings – and even pain – the film and its controversy brought to many members of the association. It’s our belief that a thoughtful reflection of the film and the controversy by those who were there, as well as those who have  studied and otherwise considered the issues, can help ALA members, particularly those who are newer members, as we continue to discuss often difficult issues within the association.


  • Below is some of what I posted on the ALA Council discussion list. I really think that the decision to have this program was unwise. It is kind of like reviving an old tv show and trying it again. Those seldom work out well.:

    I was surprised to see this program and not at all happy about it. There is no way having this program can help but open old wounds. It was a very painful time for ALA and I, for one, see no reason to rehash this experience. It might be different if this would lead us to a better understanding of intellectual freedom and racism but I doubt that it will do either of these things. When I saw this program the thought that went through my mind was IFC wants attendance at their program so is using sensationalism as a ploy. My second thought was that so few of the current members of ALA were even involved with the making of this film that it seems very odd to bring it back since all it will do is stir up unnecessary controversy.

    Rory Litwin pulled out some more information about the history, which may be found in his blog post, Historical context of The Speaker, to screen at ALA, and now also on the web (

    I did what Rory suggested and sat down and read pages 334 – 350 of Eric Moon: The Life and Library Times by Kenneth F. Kister. I really recommend that you read this and other accounts of what happened in ALA before and after the release of The Speaker. You can even borrow the book about Eric Moon from my library, OCLC symbol LCS. I did not have the other materials suggested by Rory immediately accessible today. After reading this piece I am even more distressed that this film is the center of an ALA Conference program.

    My first ALA Conference was the summer of 1978 so I missed the ALA 1977 Conference and the ALA 1978 Midwinter Meeting. I did work in a public library at the time which purchased a copy of The Speaker and we did talk about the controversy.

  • Here is some more reading material, provided by Al Kagan:

    Here are more references that you may want to consult. Note that all the SRRT Newsletters are online at

    ALA Social Responsibilities Round Table Newsletter, no. 46 (September 1977): 4-7.

    ALA Social Responsibilities Round Table Newsletter, no. 49 (June 1978): 2. (Dan Rather told Wilson Library Bulletin, “If I were black, I would think the film was racist and if I were a woman, I would think it was sexist.”)

    ALA Social Responsibilities Round Table Newsletter, no. 58 (January 1981): 5.

    Berman, Sanford, “E.J. and Me: Twenty Years of Correspondence and Agitation,” in E.J. Josey: An Activist Librarian. Edited by Ismail Abdullahi. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1992.

    Eshelman, William R. No Silence! A Library Life. 254-257. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 1997.

    Kister, Kenneth F. Eric Moon: The Life and Library Times. 343-350. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002.

    MacCann, Donnarae, ed., Social Responsibility in Librarianship: Essays on Equality. 7-8. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1989.

  • If IFC seeks thoughtful reflection and discussion “by those who were there” why not seek that from those who WERE there and have a view that may be different than your panel? Why not invite someone like John Berry who WAS there and can speak eloquently about the debate and for those of us who argued at the time ( in a very close vote) that the film was ill conceived, badly executed, and racist?

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