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The revolution will not be shushed: guerrilla librarians fight for literacy

By Tara Brabazon - posted Wednesday, 23 July 2003

It should have come as no surprise that the librarians were leading the charge. Most people think of them as all mousy and quiet and telling everyone to "SHHHHHH!" I'm now convinced that "shush" is just the sound of the steam coming out of their ears as they sit there plotting the revolution.

Michael Moore

Michael Moore's Stupid White Men is the publishing success story of the past five years. Beyond a great title, it had a rocky passage to fame. The first 50,000 copies of the book came off the press on the night of September 10, 2001. Needless to say, a critique of George W. Bush was not seen as appropriate in the aftermath of 9/11. But as the weeks passed after this inopportune printing, the publishers - Regan Books/HarperCollins - demanded a 50 per cent rewrite of the book, removing the attacks on Bush the Younger and curtailing the dissent. They also wanted a $100,000 cheque from Moore, to pay for the reprint. After none of the parties would move or negotiate, the book was to be pulped.

The tale of this funny, fascinating and important book does not end in paper shreds. On December 1, 2001, Michael Moore was booked to speak to 100 people in New Jersey. He did not deliver the planned speech but relayed the tale of his soon-to-be-doomed book. In that crowd, a librarian from New Jersey, Ann Sparanese, was disgusted by this censorship. After the talk, she went home and logged on. She left messages on a few sites for politically progressive librarians, detailing HarperCollins' behaviour. Sparanese asked that forum participants write to the publisher and demand the release of Stupid White Men. So began a process of critical, digital literacy.


Thousands of librarians peppered the publisher's offices with letters. In disgust, HarperCollins contacted Moore and asked him what he had done, because "now we're getting hate mail from librarians". To silence them, the publishers released the book, with little advertising, book tours or publicity. Only the Internet was used to convey information. Within hours, the first 50 000 copies were sold and by the next day, Stupid White Men was the number one best seller. By the fifth day, the book was in its ninth printing and was the top of the New York Times best-seller list. It stayed there for five months.

This is a great story of commitment and desire, and an affirmation that those in power must not silence alternative voices and ideas. It is no surprise that now - in our politically pallid present - that librarians are leading the charge towards the right, the proper and the good. As a profession, librarians have faced the excessive spin doctoring and hype of the informatic age. The death of books, the paperless office, the email-driven improvements in student writing were promises that never reached fruition. As librarians were reclassified as information managers and libraries transformed into media centres, a new function emerged. Against the digital tide, the profession transformed into literacy guerrillas, ready to protect reading, writing and thinking from those who would sell off our future as easily as they would market a database. As Elspeth Probyn has realised "bad writing and bad thinking are mutually contagious".

Beyond bad writing and thinking, bad reading remains the contagion to watch. Too often, libraries are undermined as expensive, inelegant appendages of education, rather than the throbbing, bubbling cranium of schools, universities and civic life. It is ironic that we live in a time that desperately needs the expertise of librarians, but simultaneously demeans their intelligence, currency and importance.

As professionalism transforms into competencies, and knowledge into information, libraries become a database, not the foundation for public life. As the virtual traffic increases through library websites, and fewer enter the physical building, there will be consequences for the status of books, the quality of reading and the level of critical interpretation and thinking. C.S. Lewis, while now remembered as writing proto-Harry Potters, also created remarkable public commentary that is too often neglected. Lewis's life was punctuated by two wars, two reconstructions, rationing, sickness, grief and early death. His commitment to books, to scholarship, to public service is poignant and powerful. Although a specialist in literature of the 16th century, his writing captured a desire to position education inside, rather than adjacent to, society. He stated that:

Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom realise the enormous extension of our being that we owe to authors. My own eyes are not enough for me. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in a Greek poem, I see with a thousand eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself: and am never more myself than when I do.

What Lewis is expressing is a dry thirst for knowledge, a compulsive need to extend the self and test the limits of truth. This is a passion for learning, reading and thinking where books are part of a pool of ideas, cultures and interpretations. Books encase a history of introverted meditation, capturing past lives, interests and ignorances. Social needs are serviced by the book. The speed of Expanded Academic database searches has overshadowed the reclusive imaginings of reading. Rarely do we remember, write about or recognise how our lives have been shaped and changed by these solitary sorties of the mind, eye, paper and ink.


It is convenient to search databases by keyword, date, author or document type. But there are consequences for the commercial development of digital media and research. For those of us residing south of the equator, it is extraordinary to access to thousands of journals that we would never see in even the largest of libraries. There is though, a price to pay. Not every journal, newspaper or magazine is digitised. What is being scanned is overwhelmingly in English and sourced from the United States and United Kingdom.

Colonization by digitization is enacted through shrinking library budgets and the money needed to pay for extravagantly priced databases. Fewer books and journals are bought that recognise Asian and Pacific specificities. Library budgets have not kept pace with the demands of the new technology, and the increasing demands and expectations that these technologies feed. Only a few years ago, an undergraduate student would not become upset or frustrated by the fact that a library did not have access to an obscure journal with poor distribution. Now, because of specialist databases, information is provided about articles well beyond the scope of even the world's largest libraries. The expectations of users have grown exponentially. While users know about more, they believe they have access to less.

Information that is sourced beyond the United Kingdom and the United States and widely available is necessary to ensure social justice. While the political role of information and knowledge has never been greater to facilitate effective citizenship, librarians are focusing their energies and time on hardware, software and the programming of information. The social nature of the profession, the crafting and grafting of an integrated palate of specialties and representations, has been decentred. This situation is made worse by valuing and validating technical skills over intellectual abilities. The way in which technology policy has been handled in Australia, probably best represented through the bizarre public policies encircling Telstra and the shifting definitions of the Universal Services Obligation, was well captured by Trevor Barr:

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About the Author

Tara Brabazon is the Professor of of Education and Head of the School of Teacher Education at Charles Sturt University.

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