Monday, December 1, 2008

The Illusion of Printed Objectivity

Last night, while being softly rocked between airports and timezones I watched a documentary of the Romanian revolution during the fall of communism in 1989. [Videograms of a Revolution] It is a beautiful, haunting film composed of a composite of footage from those fateful days in December 1989. As the popular uprising against Ceau┼čescu gained momentum and dissidents took over the streets and the airwaves, it was interesting to see who they chose for their spokespersons. Some were organizers, some were army generals, but one of the ones they were most proud of, who they took the most time in introducing, was a poet.

This summer, while working on a paper discussing censorship in East Germany, it became clear how important the writers were to organizing and vocalizing criticism of the government. Ironically, they became the beloved voices of the people criticizing a regime that was supposedly ruled by the people. Moreover, these citizens were so hungry for voices from outside the ideological cultural and political monolith of communism, that every novel was read in hopes of a whispered meaning that had escaped the censor's attention, regardless if the author had intended any such hidden meanings.

At every turn, it becomes clear that literature is an ever powerful tool to create a representation of the world as the author wishes the reader to experience it. And with every powerful tool, it has been contentious, a struggle over the power to define reality. It has always been plagued by these politics of this representation. Plato and Aristotle argued back and forth on the morality of poetry. The church of the middle ages burned heretics for disagreeing with or disproving scripture. Luther translated the bible into the language of the people, and thereby made the texts accessible to them. The Nazis burned books and libraries. The Allies disposed of some 3 million volumes from German research libraries after the end of the Second World War.

Since the induction of the ALA Library Bill of Rights in 1948 which elevated the concept of intellectual freedom to a fundamental right, libraries have bolstered the bulwarks of their ships in the rough seas of politics using the argument of objectivity. They are not meant to endorse any particular politics, but rather to support the political process.

After reading these histories and others of book challenges across the US, I can't help but wonder if that posture of objectivity is impossible, as the very nature of communication is through subjective bodies. However, I don't know if I would move away from the discussion of objectivity. I think it stands in for a discussion of assimilation in the face of plurality. And I very much want to make an argument for a pluralistic society, where the many facets that already exist within any given community are allowed to exert their presence.

So perhaps objectivity in librarianship is being able to say "this isn't for me, this isn't for you, but it's for someone." The difficulty with this argument then arises surrounding the question of how an outsider knows that the item is needed. It gets into the question of whether libraries have a reactionary versus a leadership role in defining who items are for. If libraries have a leadership role, then they can be held responsible for addressing the social problems of the community. If libraries have a reactionary role, then they are at the mercy of the social problems of the community.

Hmm... this doesn't seem like a recipe for success. No wonder libraries walk such a fine line with collection development and seem only too happy to put a certain amount of the responsibility in the hands of vendors.