Reds in the Stacks?

Yesterday’s post got something of an odd comment. The first part of the comment wasn’t so odd, but it ended thusly:

“I don’t know how serious you are with this idea, but I am not at all certain that the average person would care what a librarian tells them. Librarians are all communists, anyway.”

As for being serious, since my suggestion was to assign a research librarian to every twelve Americans, it’s probably obvious I was just having a little fun during the political season. It could be amusing to consider what this plan would really look like, but I’ll let someone else do the considering.

It’s the second sentence that struck me as odd. “Librarians are all communists, anyway.” Even if that were true, I don’t see how it would be relevant to the discussion, but I’m wondering what motivates the statement at all. Have I been surrounded by Reds in the stacks all along and just haven’t noticed? That might add some excitement to my ordinarily quiet library. Most of the intrigues where I work are quite banal and none are likely to lead to the abolition of capitalism. Of course, 160 years of communism hasn’t led to that, either, so what do I know.

Just speaking personally, I’m a librarian and I’m pretty sure I’m not a communist, which is a pity because I look good in red. I don’t think I’ve ever associated with any known communist librarians, and considering my past experience with self-professed communists (I was a literature student for several years, after all) I’d probably know if I did. Communists tend to be aggressively evangelical and eager to share the economic and political wisdom they have gained from, for example, teaching American literature. I don’t think any of my colleagues are communists, though I guess they might be. In general, I doubt Princeton would be the sort of place to attract communist librarians. I don’t think they’d feel comfortable around all those rich students. And it would be very hypocritical for my communist colleagues to contribute to TIAA-CREF.

I suppose a number of the librarians in the SRRT consider themselves communists, and I must have worked with some librarians from SRRT before, though none of them have ever tried to get me to join the CPUSA or anything. Perhaps I worked with the democratic socialists instead of the communists. Maybe this group of librarians have convinced my commenter that all librarians are communists, just because they’re so vocal, but if we assume that most communist librarians belong to the SRRT (not an outrageous assumption), and couple that with the fact that most librarians don’t belong to the SRRT, this at least suggests that most librarians are not communists.

I’m not even sure I’ve ever been in a political discussion with any librarians where anyone supported communism. I think being vocally pro-same sex marriage is probably as close as anyone’s come, and that’s not very close. Now it could be that I just don’t hang out in the right librarian circles (or the left librarian circles, as the case may be), in which case I’ll probably never get to know the communist librarians. Also, I instinctively recoil from anyone who wants to proselytize passionately on behalf of their cause, whether that cause is political, religious, or professional, so I’d probably steer clear of the communo-evangelists, just as I would from a librarian wearing one of those Adam Smith ties and crowing about the magic of the market. (Hey, it could happen.) It could also be that most of my interaction with librarians is purely professional, and a library committee meeting is hardly the place to discuss the dictatorship of the proletariat, unless it were, I suppose, a committee for the Communist Party Library, if such exists. But even among my librarian friends, I’ve never heard anyone say, “hey, wouldn’t a communist revolution be a great idea” or “that capitalism thing is pretty bad; let’s abolish it.”

It seems safe to conclude that most librarians are probably left of whatever counts as the political center at any given time in America, but one hardly has to advocate state ownership of all productive property or the abolition of capital to be left of the American center. Just thinking homosexuals shouldn’t be openly mocked or insisting that the rule of law applies to everyone, including the President, seems to be enough. This political labeling is always tricky, though. I know a number of Jewish librarians who are very pro-Israel, and such sentiments anger many on the left, though these librarians are mostly leftish. Even what is considered definitive of left or right is so simplistic at times. You could support social and economic equality, expanded social programs, universal health care, more civic participation, fewer aggressive wars, stronger international diplomatic efforts, increased environmental protections, the legalization of marijuana, and an end to capital punishment, but if it doesn’t bother you that law-abiding citizens own firearms, then you’re hopelessly reactionary in some people’s political ledgers.

Maybe it’s just the nature of libraries. Some people seem to think that libraries in general are communistic, or at least socialistic endeavors. Obviously we’re talking about public libraries here, not academic, and certainly not private academic libraries like mine. The stolid Presbyterians who founded Princeton wouldn’t have liked that idea at all. Were this the case, though, it seems unlikely that Andrew Carnegie, capitalist extraordinaire, would have supported them so much. If support for any publicly funded public goods marks one as a communist, then just about all Americans except the libertarian fringe are communists. That doesn’t seem very likely. There are all sorts of traditional liberal or republican reasons to support libraries and other public goods.

Maybe it’s that open access movement or the copyright issues. Those librarians who want open access to publicly funded research or who argue that current copyright laws are egregiously excessive do seem a bit pinkish in the right light. Or maybe they do. I don’t really know. I’m unfamiliar with the communist position on intellectual property.

This comment couldn’t be based on the the common stereotypes of librarians. No one thinks the little old woman with the bun shushes people because it’s too noisy for her to read the Grundrisse in peace. So it must be based on a librarian’s perception, and presumably a librarian who isn’t in fact a communist, possibly making this something of a paradox as well. I’m just wondering what led to that particular perception, because I just don’t see it. But then again, I’m probably a victim of false consciousness or something.

2 thoughts on “Reds in the Stacks?

  1. Thanks, Anali. I understand completely about the lurking. I rarely comment on any blogs because I’m usually too lazy to click out of my feed reader.

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