The American Library Association - the largest organization of librarians in the world - continually declares that it fights for everyone's "Freedom to Read!" and its Library Bill of Rights requires its members to "challenge censorship." Yet the leadership of the ALA - not the rank and file - insistently refuses to call for the immediate release of the independent librarians in Cuba - designated as "prisoners of conscience" by Amnesty International. They are serving very long prison terms because they do believe in the freedom to read - especially in a dictatorship.
Among the many organizations demanding that Fidel Castro and his successors release these courageous Cubans - who have opened their homes and libraries to offer books censored in the Cuban state libraries - are such groups as the library associations of the Czech Republic, Latvia, Estonia and Poland. All these librarians, finally freed from Communism, agree with their colleagues in the Polish Library Association, who say in their declaration, "The actions of the Cuban authorities relate to the worst traditions of repressing the freedom of thought and expression."
Also calling for the liberation of Castro's many prisoners of conscience, including the librarians, are the Organization of American States, Amnesty International and Freedom House.
However, the top officials of the American Library Association - as well as the majority of its Governing Council - speak derisively of these "so-called librarians" in Castro's gulags.
It's true that these prisoners, many brutalized and in failing health, in their cells, don't have master's degrees in Library Science; but as poet-novelist-educator Andrei Codrescu told last year's ALA Midwinter Conference: "These people have been imprisoned for BEING librarians!" Why dismiss them "as 'so-called librarians' when clearly there is no one (in that dictatorship) to certify them."
So bizarre is the ALA leadership, along with a cadre of Castro admirers on the Governing Council - in its abandonment of their fellow librarians - it refuses to post on its "Book Burning in the 21st Century" Web site the extensive, documented court transcripts of the "trials" that sent the librarians to prison. Those judges ordered the "incineration" of the prisoners' libraries, including works by Martin Luther King Jr. and George Orwell's "Animal Farm."
But these sentencing documents are verified on the Web sites of Amnesty International, the organization of American States, and Florida State University's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights. Officials of the ALA - conjuring up a fake conspiracy by the Bush administration to overthrow Castro by using the independent librarians - disdain this verification of the book burnings. They insist, for example, that the Florida State University Web site is funded by grants from the U.S. government.
Yet, that Rule of Law and Cuba Web site project doesn't get a dime from the U.S. government. Says director Mark Schlakman: "We place a premium on our independence."
Recently, I left a long, non-adversarial, detailed message for the president of the ALA, Leslie Burger, director of the Princeton, N.J., public library. I asked for her reasons and the ALA's for this refusal of support for the imprisoned librarians. (Some are in cage-like enclosures.) I have received no response from her; but, indicating she will not speak to me, Michael Dowling, director of ALA's International Relations Office, fielded my call by referring me to the ALA's 2004 expression of "deep concern" for Castro's prisoners, which carefully omitted any mention of the independent librarians among them.
But, acting out of "a moral obligation," the small Vermillion, S.D., public library has made the independent Dulce Maria Loynaz Library in Havana a sister library - sending books to it, including a collection of freedom writer Mark Twain. (Other libraries and readers around the world send books to the independent libraries.)
As for rank-and-file American librarians: In January 2006, American Libraries Direct - an online newsletter of the ALA's own magazine, American Libraries - published a poll of its members in which 70 percent answered "Yes" to the question: "Should ALA Council pass a resolution condemning the Cuban government for its imprisonment of dissident 'independent librarians'?"
A key ALA official, Judith Krug, heads its office of Intellectual Freedom. In my many years of reporting on the ALA's sterling record of protecting American librarians from censorship, I often quoted her in admiration. But now, she said at an ALA meeting about supporters of the caged librarians, "I've dug in my heels ... I refuse to be governed by people with an agenda." The Cuba issue, she continued, "wouldn't die," though she'd like to "drown it."
The agenda, Ms. Krug, is freedom. "Every burned book," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, "illuminates the world." But ALA's leadership refuses to bring light to the cages of these Cuban prisoners of conscience. The ALA's membership booklet proclaims "the public's right (everywhere) to explore in their libraries many points of view on all questions and issues facing them."
An issue facing all members of the ALA is their leaders' shameful exception of the Cuban people's freedom to read.