Sunday Reflections: What Do We Do When We Know the Book is a Lie?
The other day as I was walking and talking with my husband and I said to him, I want you to be prepared that there may come a day when I have to leave librarianship. He was stunned by this announcement – I love being a librarian. I feel like it is at the core of who I am and it brings me great joy. So he asked me why. My response: imagine it is after the great World War II, over 6 million Jews have died, and a publisher has just published Adolf Hitler’s book. Now I am faced with having to buy it and put it in a library collection as if it is the truth or a good thing. Ethically, it feels like that is what is happening and I don’t know if I can do it.
When we start working in libraries we are taught that we are to be politically neutral and represent all sides. I have spent a life time buying books by people I despised that represent viewpoints I don’t agree with. But this feels much different. When it comes to the pandemic, more than half a million people have died in the United States alone, and millions have died worldwide. When it comes to the election of 2020, we all saw a violent insurrection happen at our nation’s Capitol as participants put up a gallows seeking to assassinate the Vice President, the Speaker of the House and members of Congress. These don’t feel like just differences of opinions or differing political viewpoints.
Over the past few weeks, several book deals have been announced that will place many libraries in very difficult positions. In a time when we are talking about the importance of information literacy and discussing things like information accuracy and authority, publishers are giving book deals to political figures who have made a career out of telling verifiable and often deadly lies. There are books coming out in the future that we know will be based on political lies.
The Vice President that they wanted to assassinate, Mike Pence, has been given a book deal. Mike Pence was governor of a state that had a deadly resurgence of AIDS because of his leadership. He was put in charge with Jared Kushner of the Covid response task force that resulted in multiple lies and more heinously, over half a million American deaths. And even though his own constituents tried to kill him on January 6th, he refuses to acknowledge that Joe Biden won the election or to speak out against the events of the day that they tried to kill him. What happens if in the pages of his book he still downplays the Covid pandemic or claims that President Joe Biden didn’t really win the election? What happens if he tries to downplay the events of January 6th or continues to claim that it was Antifa and not Trump loyalists?
Similarly, Kellyanne Conway has been offered a book deal. She stood in front of the press and lied repeatedly, even in instances where we have video evidence that she is lying. She is also accused of sharing her teenage daughter’s nude photos on Twitter and of child abuse. Even outside of her lies and record from the White House, what do we do about the alleged child abuse? Public and school libraries have always been champions for children, so this feels like a line we shouldn’t cross.
And lest you think this is only a problem on the right, we have Andrew Cuomo who wrote a book about how he valiantly handled the Covid response in New York that we now know is full of nothing but lies because he was hiding the true death rates in nursing homes. As far as I am concerned every library should remove this book from their collections and bin it because it is factually not true. It is a lie and this man is no hero. By all accounts he willingly and knowingly wrote a book based on lies and we should not present this as factually correct information.
I am not currently in a position where I have to make these kinds of decisions, but I acknowledge that these are hard days for libraries. In a time where we are talking about the importance of information literacy, these types of book deals are ethically challenging for those in the profession who care about information literacy, authority, accuracy and the hallmarks of librarianship that we have spent our professional careers built on.
These aren’t just political differences of things like say, should we have a higher debt ceiling or no. You’re talking about trans lives, you’re talking about Black lives, you’re talking about Asian American lives, you’re talking about Latinx lives. You’re talking about real life and death scenarios. And sometimes, you’re asking your staff to buy books and put them in their collections that actively contribute to their harm. I think we should be wrestling with that. I hope that we are wrestling with that with the seriousness that it deserves.
One day, they are going to announce that Donald Trump himself has written a memoir about his presidency and we know it will be full of lies. Trump told over 30,000 verified lies during the four years of his presidency. These aren’t just a matter of opinion, they are lies that we can verify with video evidence, factual evidence. And some publisher, hoping to make a ton of cash, will give his memoir the green light. And librarians who care about things like human life and information literacy and authority and accuracy will have to wrestle with what to do about this book knowing that it will down play or, worse yet, lie about those more than 500,000 American lives lost to Covid.
The truth is, except for the Cuomo book, none of these books have been written yet. We don’t know their content. We just know the history of the people involved. And that history, and the lies we’ve already seen them tell, is enough to give any librarian concerned with truth and consequences pause.
So what do we do when we know the book is a lie? I fear that we are in the process of finding out and librarianship is wrestling with its soul. I hope that we come out of this on the right side of history.
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About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
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