Dr. Drew's Infrequent Blog

29 December 2007

Propaganda, Orwell, Libraries and Open Society

WHAT ORWELL DIDN'T KNOW: Propaganda and the New Face of American Politics Ed. by Andras SZANTO (New York: PublicAffairs Press, 2007) ISBN 13: 978-1-58648-560-3. $14.95 PA.

I rarely turn on the TV these days -- except to watch a video or the like -- but a few days ago I caught part of a very interesting mini-conference at the New York Public Library. The conference took place back in November -- one month before the 2008 election -- and 60 years after Orwell published his essay, Politics and the English Language.

I only caught one panel from the conference on [CSPAN]
Moderator: Orville Schell; Panelists: Konstanty Gebert, Warsaw-based former Solidarity activist; columnist and international reporter, Gazeta Wyborcza · Masha Gessen, Moscow-based author and journalist; contributor to The New York Times, The New Republic, and US News & World Report · Jack Miles, senior fellow for religious affairs, Pacific Council on International Policy; distinguished professor of English and religious studies, UC Irvine · George Soros, chair of Soros Fund Management LLC; philanthropist and author

The talks by Soros, Schell, and Gebert were excellent. I will probably show Soros' talk in my Collection Management class. [You can read much of that talk online, although the Epilogue to the book is better]. Soros makes a good case on how American political discourse is no longer an honest discussion of ideas, but rather an effort to emotionally sway the public and influence not what people know, but how they feel. He calls for the public to stop politicians from using Newspeak. He said that whenever a politician uses Newspeak (like "war on terror" = "war in Iraq") we should do a Reaganeseque "There you go again!"

I rarely quote the Gipper, but could not agree more. Soros also called for the media and general public to demand a new set of ground rules on politics in order to return it to a cognitive discussion on policy:
...The cognitive function in political discourse cannot be taken for granted. It can be ensured only by an electorate that respects reality and punishes politicians who lie or engage in other forms of deception (197-8).

He also points out that now is an ideal time since the public is so aware of the real costs of how deception got us into our current political mess. Yes!

The conference celebrated the launch of the book, What Orwell Didn't Know. After watching the panel, I had to go get the book. Although some of the chapters were frankly somewhat uneven, I think it is an important volume for librarians and the general public, especially the Second Part (Symbols & Battlegrounds), Third Part (Media & Message), and Epilogue. It is too late at night to write a review, and I have too much to do, but I hope that this book makes it to readers in this important election year.

On Libraries
The book has been out for two months, but is not in a single public or academic library in Hawaii, and is only in 90 libraries according to OCLC. The book was published on 5 November 2007, and I am writing this on 29 December. I don't mean to say that this is the most important book of the year, but it is a very sad reflection on the impact of how library budgets are being crunched by many forces, including a decrease in public support. This takes a huge toll on book budgets, which are so important to making a public commitment to studying politics. Databases and serials are certainly important too, but many ideas are complex, and are best communicated in a book.

Personal Memories of Reading Orwell and Dystopian Fiction
This book and the conference really hit home with me for a few reasons, which probably explains my enthusiasm for the project. Of course, some reasons include that I teach Library Studies, do research on publishing, and am very committed to strengthening public discourse for American democracy. (I know this sounds absurd on a blog... but allow me to ramble). The other reason is that I was sort of obsessed with Orwell for years when I was in high school and an undergraduate. Of course everyone in school had to read Animal Farm and 1984. I remember both being taught basically as anti-Communist parables. I can't remember what it was that helped me to later understand that Orwell wrote 1984 as a warning of what democracies could become. After that I discovered his Homage to Catalonia, which retells of the betrayal of the Spanish Republic, which he observed firsthand. I became obsessed with the Spanish Civil War, which was a trial run for Hitler's and Mussolini's Fascist expansion in Europe. Later, I recall devouring Orwell's COMPLETE WORKS as well as some interesting biographies on him as well.

I also was obsessed with reading other dystopian (anti-Utopian) novels, like Brave New World (Huxley), We (Zamaytin), 1985 (Burgess), Handmaid's Tale (Atwood), Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury). It sounds kind of depressing, and it probably was to some extent along with Hesse, Kafka..., especially when you compare it with the wider time in the late 80s, which can be typified by the song "Don't Worry, Be Happy." Despite living comfortably in the Midwest, these books seemed real to me since I had a good friend who told me countless surreal stories of life in the Soviet Union.

Of course, my growing up Jewish was very important in all this. Ever since the 4th Grade I spent hours trying to understand the Holocaust. I devoured every book in my elementary school library on the war, and then read a good deal of the many books on the Holocaust in my public library, as well as the library at my temple and the Hebrew school I attended a few afternoons a week. I became really frustrated because I never could answer how it happened. Don't forget that Hitler came to power during the Weimar democracy (which is key in Orwell's mind back in 1948). I still don't have a good answer, but much of the National Socialists' "success" can be attributed to censorship (direct and indirect) and advances in propaganda. The other key is that so many people went along with the NAZI policies. [One can debate the findings of Hitler's Willing Executioners, but there were many levels of cooperating with NAZI policies... (As a related aside, America also has blood on its hands for refusing to allow many refugees to seek shelter here, but that is another story, and it is late)].

It is depressing to reflect on all this after Darfur (getting worse), Yugoslavia, and Rwanda, but that is the point. We librarians as intellectuals and citizens must not turn our heads from such depressing news. Materials on the war (especially the underside of the war), genocide, and the like won't get lots of advertising or free PR in the mainstream media, so they probably won't fly off the shelves, but we have a social responsibility to contribute to intelligent discourse on critical questions facing this country, such as what we are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what kind of future we want for America and the world.

On that note, I wish you a Happy New Year.

23 December 2007

Continuing the Discussion: Hiring for HSPLS

[I've received several encouraging comments from recent alumni regarding the excerpted quote in this week's Advertiser article (see below), but also might have ruffled some feathers along the way without intending to do so. Outgoing State Librarian Jo Ann Schindler kindly sent me a copy of her Letter to the Editor, and also gave me permission to share them here on my personal blog.]

To: Stephen J. Downes, Deputy Editorial and Opinion Editor, Honolulu Advertiser
From: Jo Ann Schindler, State Librarian
Subject: Advertiser Article "Hawaii libraries face challenges ahead" 071219
Date: December 22, 2007

Dear Stephen:

Thank you very much for the Advertiser’s interest in the Hawaii State Public Library System’s (HSPLS) challenges and initiatives to improve services and collections for the public. I appreciated and enjoyed our discussion yesterday afternoon.

I thought I would clarify two matters which I did not address adequately yesterday.

The 82 or so vacancies, which we update the Board of Education about each month, are not the same vacancies from month to month. For example, on December 6, 2007, I reported the following to the Board:

“As of November 30, 2007, after filling 340 vacancies since April 2003, our initial 70 vacancies stood at 82 out of 583 positions (557.55 FTE). Fourteen of the vacancies are librarian positions. Approximately 63 recruitments are currently in progress. One hundred fifty eight employees have been recruited from outside HSPLS. With the help of DHRD and the UH Library and Information Science program, HSPLS has decreased its vacancy count from a high of 135 vacancies in August 2004.”

As you can see, while we started out with 70 vacancies in April 2003 and ended with 82 on November 30th, we actually filled 340 vacancies in the process. Of these 340, we attracted 158 new employees from outside HSPLS. Since vacancies are open to internal applicants first, we usually experience a domino-effect, as staff apply for and successfully move from one HSPLS position to another. Each successful recruitment leaves new pukas in the system, until we finally recruit externally and can bring in brand new staff from outside. All the while, staff (like me) continue to retire due to boomer demographics or otherwise leave the system, so it is a constant challenge to keep our heads above water, in terms of vacancies.

On a second related matter, we have been long indebted to the Department of Human Resources Development (DHRD) for its ongoing help. DHRD’s Directors and staff have been concerned about HSPLS’ vacancy situation and extremely supportive in their efforts to attract both local library school graduates and experienced mainland librarians to fill HSPLS’ vacancies. DHRD has adjusted recruitment periods to align with UH LIS’ graduation dates, have scheduled open recruitments for shortage categories of library vacancies, and conducted an extraordinary promotional campaign to attract library school students. This effort featured very attractive recruitment posters and brochures with photographs of recent graduates who were employed by HSPLS. An application package, complete with application forms, instructions and tips, an invitation to apply from me, and quotes from new graduates about their experiences working in public libraries, were put into the hands of every student. A similar web-based promotion was developed for experienced local and mainland candidates.

HSPLS administrators and staff were very distressed that the front page December 19th article about Hawaii’s libraries painted an uncomplimentary and inaccurate picture of HSPLS’ relationship with DHRD. We are very grateful for DHRD’s efforts and support over many years. We, and I’m sure they, would certainly like to see recruitment times shortened, and it is our hope that this will be accomplished. However, as we know from our own experience in the library world, external mandates and internal requirements, such as reference checks, are sometimes imposed which add on time and effort, but which are necessary to avoid more serious problems down the road.

Thank you very much for this opportunity to share these thoughts with you.


Jo Ann

I responded to her with the following:

Dear Jo Ann:

Thank you for kindly sharing your letter to the Advertiser with me.

I hope that my comments regarding recruitment did not step on toes vis-a-vis your relations with DHRD. I am sorry that I did not realize that the recruitment poster was by DHRD rather than the HSPLS PR office. I knew that campaign was a major advance, especially after the hiring freeze years. In my quoted comments, I was voicing the frustrations of some good alumni who were unable to secure a permanent position as well as comments from HSPLS professionals who shared with me their frustration that they could not hire because of problems with the List.

I'd be happy to meet with you or Richard and anyone from DHRD if there is anything the LIS Program could do to assist with this process. We in the LIS Program are working on a recruitment campaign too, and will appreciate the help of HSPLS in distributing fliers and posters to the branches. We are also trying to improve our distance education offerings so we could better serve current and potential students on neighbor islands. We realize that positions on neighbor islands are often the hardest to fill.

I've also been meaning to say thank you for all of your efforts and work together. You've made some real advances for libraries in the state, including the start of a statewide discussion on digital libraries (when you brought the OCLC team). I also appreciate your active participation in the LIS Advisory Group. You helped greatly to improve ties between HSPLS and LIS, for which we are most grateful.

I am sorry that we were unable to send an official delegation to a reception honoring your retirement, but haven't heard a date for any event. My point is that we really do appreciate all you've done.

I regret that I'll also be unable to attend Richard's reception since I'll be at ALA/ ALISE in Philadelphia, but hope some colleagues will be able to represent LIS in order to show our warm feelings towards our friends in the HSPLS.

Thank you again for all you've done.

Yours with Aloha,


[I corrected my previous post, since I did not realize that the poster and brochure were created by DHRD. We do value our warm relations between the HSPLS and the LIS Program. Dr. Harada and I are working on a recruitment campaign also, to help bring more future public librarians to the LIS Program. It is good to be able to have an open discussion concerning this question since educating LIS professionals is key to both of our futures -- in order to best serve Hawaii's future library / information needs.]