Libraries and Authoritarianism 1940, 2020

By Jeremy BraddockJanuary 28, 2020

Libraries and Authoritarianism 1940, 2020
ON HALLOWEEN 2016, former Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren tweeted, “Colleges should stop building vanity projects like huge libraries and billing students--full libraries are on our smartphones!” At the time, this statement sounded like garden-variety know-nothingism, ideological in the sense that it didn’t choose to disparage lavish athletic facilities or dining halls, but not an act of motivated Truther-ism. Because it came eight days before the 2016 presidential election, however, the tweet now feels less random. As information sources, smartphones are now recognized as primary conduits of cutting-edge propaganda, and the platforms that have best exploited the smartphone (Google, Facebook, Twitter) have by definition failed to perform libraries’ enduring role of maintaining and providing public access to reliable information.

While the former point is a constant source of mainstream journalistic intrigue, the latter — which involves libraries’ historic role in combating propaganda and supporting civic practice — is easily neglected. To examine it requires going back to another time when the United States’s ongoing status as a democracy was not foreordained — to Archibald MacLeish’s tenure as Librarian of Congress, when, in response to fascist propaganda, this mission for American libraries was most clearly shaped and articulated. It is important to do this now, as our national library system is increasingly hospitable to disinformation: in January 2020, the National Archives displayed a photograph of the 2017 Women’s March that had been digitally altered to make criticism of the president of the United States illegible.

As Librarian of Congress from 1939 to 1944, MacLeish was the first person to hold the office without previous library training. Lawyer, essayist, radio playwright, and second-tier modernist poet, MacLeish was author of what would become the New Critical bromide “A poem should not mean / But be.” By the time of his appointment at the LoC, however, MacLeish openly disowned the uncommitted position staked out by the poem that contained those lines (“Ars Poetica,” first published in Poetry magazine in 1926).

Shortly after leaving the position, but before the end of World War II, MacLeish delivered a lecture titled “Libraries and the Nation” in which he reviewed some of his activities as FDR’s wartime Librarian of Congress, placing them in the context of the then finally foreseeable postwar period. “[T]he world cannot survive in freedom and safety and enlightenment,” he said, “unless librarians alter basically their conception of their responsibility for the materials in their charge.”

In the course of his lecture, MacLeish described the two major projects of his tenure at the Library. One had been to build the Library’s collections and existing resources for the purpose of antifascist national security defense. Though not exclusively items of foreign propaganda, the new acquisitions during World War II testified to the Library’s instrumentality to the development of the US security state. On the other hand, at MacLeish’s direction, the Library of Congress, in concert with regional libraries, had been charged with disseminating and promoting public information about the war in general, as well as in advocacy of democratic institutions and the liberties they guaranteed. Although, as Brett Gary argues in The Nervous Liberals, these projects at times met at cross purposes, each was centrally involved with the problem of antidemocratic propaganda in an ostensibly free society.

To put it in terms coined by the corporations governing the distribution of information today, MacLeish’s position was that if a library was to be an “organizer of the world’s knowledge” and “not be evil” (as Google styled itself, years before its autocomplete algorithm was gamed to promote right-wing hate speech), it would have to acknowledge that its social function was to be something closer to a media company than the supposedly neutral platform Mark Zuckerberg would have us believe Facebook to be. For a democratic society, this would mean emphasizing the library’s function as a repository for the most comprehensive collection of materials — thus protecting its holdings from censorship of any kind, including, implicitly, items of propaganda — while also openly embracing librarians’ expertise in actively shaping the conditions of materials’ use and reception, and in promoting that vocation as a public good. If libraries were “the people’s university,” as MacLeish had written in early 1940, it was “the duty and obligation of the university to interpret between the books and those who need them.” In 1939, MacLeish had admitted that although librarians had been excellent custodians, “[t]hey have not learned to get readers for the books.”

In “Libraries and the Nation,” MacLeish said candidly that it was “a matter of public interest, but of limited public knowledge” that key military and intelligence initiatives, including CIA predecessor the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), had been organized from within the Library of Congress. This activity would have a grave legacy in the Cold War period, but it can be inferred that MacLeish’s interest in speaking openly about it — before the war had ended — emphasized his concern that information about the OSS should become a matter of public knowledge and accountability as soon as possible. [1]

MacLeish went on to speak at greater length on the subject of “public knowledge,” which had been the principal theme of his public writings during his tenure as Librarian of Congress, asserting, “In a society as complex as ours, the great reference libraries are an essential part of the functioning mechanism of the nation’s life. Not only are they essential to scholarship, but they are essential to operations which are not ordinarily considered to be related to scholarship.” He stressed that the destruction of libraries and burning of books — as had been exemplified in Poland, Western Russia, China, and in the bombing of the East Wing of the British Museum — had explicitly been part of the program of total warfare. And he went so far as to say that what was most distinctive about the current war was that “[t]he spoils […] for which the Nazis fight are men’s minds.” In MacLeish’s view, the war had essentially been of and for public knowledge and information, and he suggested this should be seen recursively as an ominously ironic tribute to the function of libraries. He concluded his talk by announcing plans not only for the rebuilding of Eastern Europe’s libraries, but also for the invention of a system of international interlibrary loan and a universal cataloging system.

As Librarian of Congress, however, MacLeish’s public writings had, unsurprisingly, been much more directly concerned with conditions in his home country; and they were strikingly candid about what he saw as the possibility, even the likelihood, of a homegrown fascism in the United States. This was something he openly mused about as early as 1935, when he worried about the combined effects of mass unemployment and “all the forces which fascism can buy — the press, the movies, the commercial theatre,” by which he meant the organs of propaganda and disinformation (later writings would also stress the importance of radio).

He returned to these issues in his first public address as Librarian of Congress, which came on October 19, 1939, just over a month after Germany’s invasion of Poland, a week after Adolf Eichmann’s first forced deportation of German Jews to Poland, and three days after the first Nazi air attack on Great Britain. MacLeish insisted that it was now the public vocation of libraries to educate adult citizens about their rights and freedoms in a democratic society, and in the more general skills of reading and interpretation that he hoped would prove valuable in resisting fascist propaganda:

The “either,” as I see it, is the education of the people of this country. The “or” is fascism. We will either educate the people of this Republic to know, and therefore to value and therefore to preserve their own democratic culture, or we will watch the people of this Republic trade their democratic culture for the non-culture, the obscurantism, the superstition, the brutality, the tyranny which is overrunning eastern and central and southern Europe.

“[Governments] have learned,” MacLeish later wrote, “that if the citizens of a democracy are not taught the traditions of democracy they will be taught other traditions — and that they can be taught other traditions.” Teaching not only the history but the civic sensibility of republican democracy — which together are what MacLeish intends in the word “tradition” — was the most important of the “operations not ordinarily considered to be scholarship” MacLeish would reference in the “Libraries and the Nation” address in 1945. Both depended on materials for, and competencies in, reading and reference.

Insisting that the library could no longer be conceived as a neutral site in the ideological war of information, MacLeish repeatedly stressed that librarians could not be satisfied “merely by delivering books from public libraries as books are called for” — that is, with policies of what is today commonly termed “access.” They should instead become “active and not passive agents,” and even become identified with the library itself as a social institution: “They must think of their libraries as organizations of intelligent and well-trained men and women qualified to select from the record in their keeping such materials as are relevant to the decisions the people must make and able to provide those materials to the people in a useful form.” (These words were written in May 1940, after the fall of Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg, and Belgium.)

Given the off-site availability of so many library resources today, MacLeish’s sentiments may seem like artifacts of a bygone age even to committed researchers. And we might also be tempted to view his emphasis on books and print nostalgically, a hallmark of what George Hutchinson, in Facing the Abyss, has recently identified as the decade of maximum participatory literacy in US history. But it would be wrong either to overlook the “intelligent well-trained men and women” working in libraries today, or to confuse MacLeish’s emphasis on books as a sign that his was a less complicated or media-saturated environment. MacLeish’s project was entirely conversant with an age of mass communications research, which he in fact assisted from within the Library of Congress, and he was especially sensitive to the fact that it was the imbrication of new media with structures of profit that made them especially susceptible to disinformation purposes. Disinformation was especially successful, MacLeish implied, because of its amenability to manipulation through advertising, and also because of the hyperactive, enervating temporality already inherent in the culture of mass communications.

Asserting that Sherman’s responsibility for the burning of Atlanta had consumed an entire generation of debate, MacLeish claimed that by contrast, the atrocities of Guernica and Badajoz had already been forgotten. The psychological tendency to forget — or become desensitized to — these events, he suggested, was produced both by their seemingly serial nature, and, counterintuitively, by the magnitude of the atrocities (a point often made of life under the Trump regime as well). The fascist practices on the ground were in this way mirrored by fascism’s discursive practices:

[Acts of intimidation and disinformation, at home and abroad] are commonplaces to such a point that they no longer shock us into anger. Indeed it is the essential character of our time that the triumph of the lie, the mutilation of culture, and the persecution of the word no longer shock us into anger.

It was because of the numbing effects of actual aggression, together with discursive confusion, that MacLeish was so strident in his affirmative defense of democratic institutions, and of libraries most of all. But within the more programmatic activity at the Library of Congress, he also oversaw more specific means of defusing fascist propaganda. Shortly after the United States entered the war in 1941, MacLeish was tasked with heading a new agency, organized out of the Library of Congress, named the Office of Facts and Figures. Normally understood as FDR’s propaganda wing — and subject to attacks from the left and right — one of Office’s publications was a 1942 booklet titled Divide and Conquer, which was designed to educate US citizens about the strategies of fascist disinformation that were now actively present in their daily lives.

It also, notably, included a list of sources, further emphasizing the civic virtue of scholarly practices, and the central role of the library in facilitating them.

Analyzing the information economy of the war, the OFF publication quoted liberally from Hitler’s own public statements, going so far as to include as an epigraph his notorious theory of the utility of the “big lie,” which has been referenced more than once in recent months. In his recent book The Road to Unfreedom, Yale historian Timothy Snyder has argued that the overarching purpose of Russia’s television network RT — which broadcasts internationally in six languages — is less to provide specifically targeted instances of disinformation than it is to undermine the very concepts of truth and factuality. This accords directly with MacLeish’s thesis that “[t]o lie, not in the name of truth, but in the name of lies, is to destroy the common basis of communication without which a common culture cannot exist and a work of learning or of art becomes unintelligible” — a theory of gaslighting that dates to 1940. In 1942, before the OFF was abandoned and replaced by the Office of War Information (OWI), MacLeish identified Divide and Conquer as a part of the Library’s “Strategy of Truth”; in recent months, of course, Facebook and Twitter executives have each disavowed the obligation to act as “arbiters of truth.”

Recent events have also underscored the essential function of the library — and of librarians — as “active and not passive” agents in the face of the contemporary crisis, perhaps the most famous recent example being the January 2017 “DataRefuge” initiative undertaken at the University of Pennsylvania, and joined by librarians and hacktivists in many other cities including Toronto, to download and preserve climate change data housed at the Internet Archive. In the weeks after the 2016 election, the Internet Archive itself announced plans to build a complete copy of its entire holdings in Canada. Inspired by the American Library Association’s famous privacy policy — instituted in 1939, and more recently used to successfully challenge the Patriot Act in 2005 — activist librarians have turned their attention to concerns over data privacy. They have pointed up the way that for-profit academic journal publishers such as Elsevier surveil their users (even in academic libraries), exploiting harvested data in their ongoing turn away from publishing and toward data analytics. Greta Van Susteren’s false choice — smartphones or libraries — returns with a bitter irony, as both can be means of surveillance on university campuses. For its part, the Cornell University Library plans to introduce a new Privacy Services program in spring 2020.

The question of educating citizens on the insidious agencies of disinformation is one that libraries share with other institutions. A 2016 article in Salon that observed that the citizens of Finland have been notably resistant to propaganda gives reason to affirm this work: Finland has one of the strongest school systems in the world. Meanwhile, last year’s report from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reported that fewer than one in 10 15-year-old children, worldwide, were able to distinguish between fact and opinion in standardized reading tests. Teens in the United States were successful 13.5 percent of the time. Unfortunately, it is not hard to imagine that report’s warm reception in the corporate boardroom of Van Susteren’s former employers.


Jeremy Braddock is Associate Professor of English at Cornell University, where he is co-chair of the University Faculty Library Board, chair of the Media Studies Initiative, and a Milstein Fellow in Technology and Humanity. He is the author of Collecting as Modernist Practice, which was awarded the Modernist Studies Association book prize in 2013.


[1] Gary’s The Nervous Liberals provides an excellent account of the dilemmas that propaganda intelligence research itself posed for a liberal democracy, and of MacLeish’s extraordinary sensitivity to the problem. It is in this context that Gary also examines the origins of Harold Lasswell’s communications research, housed during the war in LoC. A concise analysis of the cold war legacy of Lasswell’s work can be found in Christopher Simpson’s Science of Coercion.

LARB Contributor

Jeremy Braddock is associate professor of English at Cornell University. He is the author of Collecting as Modernist Practice (Johns Hopkins 2012), which was awarded the Modernist Studies Association book prize, and he co-edited Paris, Capital of the Black Atlantic with Jonathan Eburne (Johns Hopkins, 2013) and Directed by Allen Smithee with Stephen Hock (Minnesota, 2001).  Recent writing includes articles on the reception of James Joyce among 1930s Harlem intellectuals, and on the international communications of Nancy Cunard and Claude McKay. He is currently studying midcentury cultures of libraries and information, and writing a book-length study of the Firesign Theatre.


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