4 October 2011

Interview with Barbara M. Jones by Serbian Library Association

During the 2011 IFLA ALP small project in Serbia, FAIFE Expert Resource Person Barbara Jones, delivered workshops on the topic of transparency and freedom from corruption. This interview has also been published in Serbian language in local journals and the Serbian Library Association website.

The Interview was conducted by Vesna Crnogorac, the Secretary of Serbian Library Association.

Vesna Crnogorac: Barbara M.Jones is Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at American Library Association and Executive Director of the Freedom to Read Foundation. She has 25 years of active engagement on intellectual freedom issues. She served on the FAIFE (Freedom of Access to Information and Freedom of Expression) IFLA Standing Committee, serving as Secretary to FAIFE from 2007–2009. Holds a scholarly as well as professional interest in censorship, intellectual freedom, civic engagement, and related fields.


Barbara M. Jones visited Serbia, Belgrade from 1st to 7th February, 2011 as a guest of Serbian Library Association. Her staying was funded by U.S.Embassy in Belgrade. She was held the Workshop “train the trainers” on Transparency, Good Governance and Freedom from Corruption based on the same IFLA Manifesto. The Workshop was jointly organized by IFLA ALP and Serbian Library Association. Her visit and lecture had a great importance and was very helpful for Serbian Library Community so it was a great honour for interviewing her.

Crnogorac: Ms. Jones, in your rich career you have performed various activities, among others, you were a director of the Library at the Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut. After that you were named for a director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom within the American Library Association and for the executive director of Association of Freedom to Read Foundation. What are the actions and programs that your Office is in charge of? In your opinion, which actions gave the best results in the improvement of intellectual freedom?

Barbara M. Jones: Thank you for inviting me to Serbia, I am delighted to be here. I want to thank to the Serbian Library Association and the Embassy of the United States for helping to support me. I’ve had a wonderful time and it’s fun to meet with librarians from other countries and learn about different cultures, it’s something that interests me a lot. I am especially interested in how different cultures deal with censorship, because my Office is all about fighting censorship. My Office in Chicago is the headquarters of the ALA, and we defend the freedom to read, protect the freedom to read, if we have to go to court, we will defend the freedom to read. We also defend librarians whose jobs are threatened, when they fight for the freedom to read. And we also try to educate librarians and the general public about the importance of fighting censorship and giving open access to information to the citizens and anybody, actually, who lives in the United States. The Constitution of the United States has the First Amendment which is a freedom of speech amendment, so my Office protects the First Amendment. I often say, if I am in the US, I say that my Office works on First Amendment issues. It also includes the right to privacy which is a new initiative for the Office. We feel that if people are reading and they think that the Government is looking over their shoulder, that then they have no privacy. So we also try to protect people’s freedom to read and freedom when they are using the Internet that the government is not wire tapping or otherwise using surveillance to determine their speech.

Crnogorac: What did you do, perhaps a recent activity that you had regarding what was, for instance, the latest case of censorship that you fought, or how did you defend the right to privacy?

Jones: Some of the things we have done, I can give an example of one book that I know has been translated into Serbian, it is called “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”, by Sherman Alexie. This book has been pulled from many libraries, and the reason is that it’s about a Native American high-school boy, whose life in the book is filled with difficulties. He talks about sex, about being a teenager, about being an Indian in a very hostile environment. He gets bullied and in the end he succeeds and he is the first in his family to go to college. I believe he was the first to finish high school, but it was censored, even though it is a really inspirational story for people.In our country, indigenous people often don’t succeed. Indians don’t always do well financially, but he is a success. It was censored because of certain words, and descriptions of his interest in sex. I think it’s a real tragedy that this book has been banned in some libraries, it’s a tragedy, because, Indians in the US need positive images to read and this is a really positive story of somebody who succeeds. A lot of books in the US describe Indians and how bad their life is, their reservations, and this book really shatters all the myths and stereotypes, that’s why I wish so much it hadn’t been banned. The book won the National Book Award in the US, that’s how good it is. It is actually an excellent book for adults or for young people, so, what my Office did.
We got the phone calls from the town that banned the book and a member of my staff flew to the town to go to the hearing of the school board to testify on behalf of ALA, to try to keep the book on the shelves. Unfortunately, in that town we failed, and the book was pulled from the shelves despite what we’ve said, but most of the time we are successful, most of the time we’ll go to the town and we’ll attend the board meeting and we’ll explain why we think the book should be kept on the shelve. The sad thing in this case was that the young people in the town who had read the book got up and testified at this meeting in front of their parents, in front of the board and said ‘’we think this book should stay! We don’t think this book harmed us in any way, we say those words anyway, we know what those words are..’ Once a book is banned, it usually becomes very popular, but this was a really sad case. We do a lot of telephone support. One of librarians calls us and says: “My principal said that if I continue to have graphic novels in the library, comic books“. We have a lot of problems with Manga being pulled from library shelves, and so we had a call from a young woman, (it was her first library job), and she had been told by her principal “I want you to take all the Manga out of the high school library”. She felt terrible because, for a lot of students, that was what got them to read, because if they could read comic books, then they would go on to read other things. She felt that they were great and she had a Manga book club and he made her shut that down. Those are some of the real problems that we deal with, we help people on the phone, we’ll go visit them if they want us to come, we’ll fight in court if we can get somebody who wants to bring a court case. We’ll actually take it that far.

Crnogorac: Who banns free reading? Do only parents censor books, or are there certain librarians that will say that this book should be banned?

Jones: We have censors among ourselves. Many librarians do censor books. If a librarian sees a book that’s been ordered coming to the library, he or she might say: “Oh, this is against my religious beliefs”, or “I think homosexuality is a sin”! So, they will hide the book, maybe in their desk, or they’ll hide it in the locker, or something and not catalogue it and not put it on the shelves.
So, that’s why it’s important, and my Office tries to go to library schools to educate new librarians about censorship and why it’s wrong. We have to learn to separate our personal beliefs from our professional ethics. And that’s very hard for people, I know, but we do try to tell people to do that. Parents often ask that the book be removed because they think it will harm their child.We say that “you should work with your child about what book you want your child to read, it isn’t the librarian’s job to be the parent, it’s your job to be the parent. You might not want your child to read this book but another parent might want their child to read the book. So it’s good to keep all books on the shelf”. You don’t have to read that book, we won’t force anybody to read any book, that’s usually the argument. And then a lot of times, Mayors or local government will get pressure, or in schools, the Principal of the school will get pressure from a parent, or sometimes from a religious group. Right now, we’re dealing with people who are very very conservative politically in the US who want to take books of the shelf that do not reflect what they call traditional American values, which gets tricky. It means, they don’t like books unless they’re about white people, ‘cos they see that as traditional, books should be about Christians and no other religion, very traditional, God forbid homosexuals. Those are some of the big issues right now.

Crnogorac: You came to the place of a director of the ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom, and you came after the famous Judith Krug. What will be your personal legacy as a director?

Jones: It’s difficult, it’s very difficult. Judith Krug was my mentor. She is the one who trained me so I owe her everything I know, because she really trained me and I watched her for years. I watched how she worked with people, how she worked with parents, I watched how she dealt with people that I, sometimes I’m tempted to say: “You are a stupid parent, you should let your children to read, because if you don’t let them read, they’re gonna read it somewhere else, and the libraries should have books about sex, because, otherwise, they’re gonna learn it on the street. Kids are gonna learn about sex, and it might as well be in the library”.

But I learned from Judith to show respect, and to respect the opinions of other people. In a lot of cases they are genuinely caring about their children, and they really believe that a book can make their child evil, or that Harry Potter with the witchcraft can influence their children. It’s really hard for me, but Judith taught me to be patient with people, and to respect their points of view.

I think my legacy is going to be international work, because Judith had only began to go international. She and I started going to IFLA together. Right before she died, she kept saying to me this is so important, because, at the time we were having problems in IFLA, with the FAIFE Committee, and she and I would get so frustrated sometimes. She said it’s really important to understand where others countries are coming from. I really learned how to work with my Chinese colleagues, because I know that there’s a great deal of censorship in China. I’ve learned to sit and talk with them, I don’t agree with them but I respect their opinion about it. Or Cuba, where I know that there are librarians who had been in prison for their beliefs and I know there’s a lot of censorship at the National Library.

It’s easy in Serbia, because we share certain beliefs about freedom of speech, I think, same when I’m in Croatia, it’s the same kind of thing, but in some countries it’s difficult. … in Thailand, you can’t say anything negative about the Royal family so the libraries can’t have anything that criticises the Royal family. So, it’s all over the place.

Crnogorac: We see here that in the US librarianship as a profession is very active which is not the case here in Serbia with librarians which are almost invisible to the society, almost without any influence on changes in the society. What would you suggest us, do you have any advice for us? How we could improve our work, or our awareness, or someone who is active or changes? Who can contribute to a better society or implement democracy?

Jones: That is a really important question and the status of librarians worldwide is a problem.
Number one, I think we have to take our professional status seriously, and a lot of librarians don’t take that seriously. So I think that number one thing to do is strengthen the Serbian Library Association. I know you’re working hard on this, and just keep working on it, I would highly recommend it, because I know that IFLA is really interested in strengthening library associations. That’s one of their key issues. The National Library Associations can do a lot. I didn’t appreciate that till I started working in mine.

But, the other thing, I showed the slide this morning and everybody was surprised and to me it’s just natural now, it showed all of us in front of the Capitol, in Washington D.C. with red shirts on saying “Save our libraries“ and holding signs. In a lot of countries that doesn’t happen. We demonstrate, we advocate to our legislature to our Congress, we really fight for library funding at the local, state and national level. I think that library association should take that on, train people how to do that ‘cos it’s very difficult.

I remember the first time I had to go see one of my congressman, I was really nervous, but then I realised: hey, I voted for him, now he’s got to listen to me! I knew he had voted for libraries, I was still scared, but now it comes more easily to do that. I think people need to learn to do that, and in a lot of countries people told me: “Well, that’s not the role of librarians”. I said, I bet doctors and lawyers talk to their congress people, their legislatures, and we’ve got to get used to that.

I will say that in the US the status of librarians is still a problem. We have to work on it constantly, there are still all kinds of stereotypes about us. Some people still think, all we do is check out books. I keep saying we’re information professionals, and it’s funny, because, once somebody has worked with a librarian they’ll go “Wow, how do you know so much?” And we can say “we don’t know it, we know how to find it”. It’s a skill that a lot of people don’t have, but there’s this horrible stereotype and I think it’s partly. In the US it started as a women’s profession, I think some of it is a problem of women, and the status of women, that’s just my view, but I think we have a lot of fighting to do on this. It’s horrible even in a place like Japan, I was shocked, but the status of the profession is really held in fairly low esteem, and I was surprised. I don’t know, but I thought that they were more advance in their thinking. In the US, we only really got power once we added computers to what we do, somehow these machines made our work magic, they made us smarter, but that’s fine if it helps our status. I always kind of laugh because we were doing a really great job even before we had computers, it makes it easier now, much easier and databases are fabulous. In the US, a lot of children’s librarians are being laid off because of the economic crisis. Those are people who work with kids, who know what they’re reading, what their interests are, sometimes they know more than the parents do about the reading interests and to get children excited about reading. I see in so many schools there’s no librarian any more. It’s sad, but hopefully the economy will improve.

Crnogorac: There is a problem with publishers which publish abridged editions of school books instead of the full edition. What is the situation in the US?

Jones: Sometimes books are shortened to make it easier, and not because of the words. I don’t think shortening of a book is really censorship. They simply shorten the book and take out passages. We have a big problem with “Huckleberry Finn”. They took out the word “nigger” and put the word “slave” instead and I have African American friends who say that the word “slave” is far worse. We have a big problem with that. We consider that censorship. It’s funny, because a lot of African American kids will say “They don’t think we hear that word?” This is the way people talked in Missouri, in the US, in the 19th century, and kids need to know that’s how people talked. I have an African American friend who sat down with his daughter and said: “We don’t use this word any more, but it used to be used.”

I was in the Netherlands, and they celebrate St. Nicolas’ Day, and in the US we don’t, it’s Christmas. In the US it’s not a good thing to blackface. If you’re doing a play, or theatre or dancing, for a white person to put on black on their face is not an option any more. I’m in a train station in the Netherlands, last year, and these people were black all over their faces, come up to me and give me hot chocolate. I talked to a Dutch friend and I said to her that we could never do this in the US. I was shocked.

Crnogorac: I would also like to know what do you think of the importance of the social media?

Jones: I think social media is wonderful. Because now I know people from all over the world, it is so wonderful to know how they are, what they’re doing, I really like that. I also the professional aspect of it that I can tell people where I am and what I am doing. I have a really good friend who works at the Embassy in Cairo, and last night I was able to find out that he and his family are safe, they’re in Athens, Greece, on Facebook. I think it’s good and I think libraries should promote it and should allow people to use it in the libraries but it can be misused and I’m aware of this, and I’m aware that children can be put in danger with it, but I think librarians can give workshops on how to protect yourself on Facebook or on a social media. Because, kids are gonna use it, no matter what, so why not put it in the library so that librarians can train them how to protect their privacy and how to avoid sexual predators. In the US the librarians do that a lot, we have workshops, and the interesting thing we discovered is that not only young people sign up for these but senior citizens wanna learn how to use this.

Crnogorac: The main reason of your visit to Serbia is the Workshop at the Goethe Institute on Transparency, Good Governance and Freedom from Corruption. Could you please tell something on this topic to the general library audience?

Jones: The libraries can be run as transparent institutions. It means that we don’t take bribes from book sellers, we don’t take bribes from furniture makers, we don’t accept gifts, I mean, a certain amount of gifts you can accept, but very expensive gifts we shouldn’t accept, and things like that. Also, we developed budgeting systems that anybody can look at, that your Board can look at, that public can look at and understand how you’re spending your money.

These are some of the things. I have stories from all over the world. I can find examples from every single country where librarians have been bribed, and they’re not the only ones. In most countries bribery and corruption exists. The US is not number one, i.e. best country, No. 1 is Denmark, Scandinavian countries are usually right up there. The other thing is to provide content and information to the public that advocates transparency. For example, for people running for public office to provide information to the public about these people, where do they come from, what is there political party. There’s private information you need to keep private, but, in general, information about their public life, e.g. if they’d been in public office what laws did they pass, what is their voting record, things like that.

The other thing is to provide access to government documents as much as possible about how public affairs are conducted at the local, state and national level, it’s important to provide that kind of thing. Also, to provide information for the public about transparency and how they can play role in transparency and report problems when they see them, not to librarians but to encourage them to report to the appropriate official any time that they’ve been bribed. It’s hard I know, because sometimes, the person you reported to is also corrupt.

When I gave the Workshop in India I had a group of women who did a flip chart of corruption in India “from cradle to grave”! It was unbelievable. The women showed that when a baby is born there’s bribery and when you have funeral there’s bribery, they showed every single step in you life. The reason why it applies to libraries, I’ve talked to so many librarians around the world, and so many of them say that they could do their job a lot better if they didn’t have to worry about these things like hiring a certain person.

I had an Egyptian colleague and she went through this whole interview process and chose somebody, and then her boss came and said: “Well, my nephew needs a job, so all of that searching was for nothing, somebody else got the job”, and she couldn’t hire the best person for the job. That happens, too. Search Committees in the US are important and in most places they’re covered by law. They have to do a fair search and chose the best candidate but that’s not true everywhere. We have our own corruption. I’ve had book dealers who tried to bribe me, I don’t take it but they’re more than happy to do that.

One of the things I say tell people-librarians is that they should make a list of all the laws in their country that affect freedom of expression. And that would be a good thing for your library association to do unless you’ve done it already. Your Constitution has freedom of speech. Also, privacy. List all of that because that gives librarians permission to promote access to information.

Vesna Crnogorac: Serbian Library Association would like to express sincere gratitude to Barbara M.Jones for this Interview and Workshop, lectures and many useful advices and suggestions.
We would also like to thank IFLA, the ALP Committee for selecting SLA project “Transparency, Good Governance and Freedom from Corruption” and US. Embassy in Belgrade for supporting our Project and funding Barbara M.Jones’ visit to Serbia.

LDP (Library Development Programme), Associations, Republic of Serbia, Transparency, Good Governance, Freedom from Corruption

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