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This item is taken from PN Review 219, Volume 41 Number 1, September - October 2014.

Before poets found jobs as teachers of creative writing, one of the commonest career choices was librarianship. Callimachus (‘a big book is a big mess’), Lessing, Goethe, Hölderlin, Duchamp, Pasternak, Montale, Borges were all librarians at one time or another; and Longfellow, Niedecker, Moore, MacLeish, Kunitz, Bishop, Larkin, Clampitt… We remember them first as poets, however, not as librarians.

There are librarians by vocation, that vocation as passionately protected as a poet’s. By all accounts, Zoia Horn, who died on 12 July in Oakland, California, was a hero of our time. No American librarian before her had gone to jail: she spent three memorable weeks in confinement in Dauphin County Jail in Pennsylvania – on quite specific grounds of conscience.

The story is worth recalling. Early in the 1970s she was working in the library at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, having arrived there by way of Odessa, in the Ukraine, where she was born, Canada, to which her family first emigrated, then New York, the University of Oregon and UCLA, where she studied librarianship and became a committed opponent of the Vietnam war. She was a polite, lady-librarian protester, wearing good shoes and nice gloves (like Laura Bush, another kind of librarian of the period), but no less strong-willed for being conventionally turned out.

Early in 1971 the FBI subpoenaed her and a colleague to give evidence for the prosecution at the trial of Philip Berrigan, one of the so-called Harrisburg Seven anti-­Vietnam war activists. Berrigan, a Catholic priest, was already in federal prison for burning draft files. He was alleged to be masterminding, from his prison cell, with his six co-­
conspirators, the kidnap of national security adviser Henry Kissinger and explosions in the heating tunnels under Washington DC.

Horn refused to testify, though she was promised immunity from prosecution if she did tell the court what publications Berrigan accessed and provide it with other information. Her grounds were clear: that if she were forced to testify, her own intellectual freedom would be violated. She was jailed for contempt of court. What she objected to was that ‘government spying in homes, in libraries and universities inhibits and destroys’ intellectual freedom. The case against her did not hold.

The American Library Association at first refused to support her stand against intimidation and surveillance. The ALA Board summoned and questioned her and eventually reversed its decision. The director of the Association later declared that Horn was ‘the first librarian who spent time in jail for a value of our profession’.

In later life, on similar grounds, she opposed the Patriot Act and its provision for library surveillance which allowed the FBI (J. Edgar Hoover had begun life as an errand boy in the Library of Congress, incidentally, but soon found greener pastures) to obtain warrants from secret courts to sequester the library or bookstore records of anyone being investigated for terrorism or spying. Again the ALA was at odds with her, declaring that if a librarian was served with a properly executed subpoena, she or he had no choice but to obey it. Librarians had another option, Horn contended, still fighting fit at the age of eighty-four: ‘the option I took, to say this is not appropriate, this is not ethical in the library profession. It undermines the very essence of what a publicly supported library is.’ Benjamin Franklin, the first American librarian and a patriot in the pre-newspeak sense of the word, would have sided with her.

It is possible, as library closures continue across the UK, despite the occasional spectacular exception as in Birmingham and Manchester, to lose sight, in the battle for basic provision, of the principles which underlie that provision, and the radical challenges that the free flow of information can, for good or ill, give rise to. Mao Zedong was an assistant librarian at the University of Beijing in 1918. Golda Meir started life as a librarian. By contrast, exhausted by excess, Casanova ended his days as a librarian in Bohemia.

The time is ripe to revive and petition Saint Lawrence, patron saint of librarians. Lawrence of Rome, the Catholic deacon, was killed in 258 for refusing to surrender to the authorities the collection of Christian treasures and documents entrusted to him. His fortitude and metaphysical connections are required today if the public service is to survive as a service and librarians are to retain their key place in the community of thinking and imagining people. Even on Coronation Street, where the local library is slated for closure, passions have been running high.

This item is taken from PN Review 219, Volume 41 Number 1, September - October 2014.

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