Sunday, September 11, 2011
I was appalled when I read in the L.A. Times (“A Challenge for Teachers and Students” by Teresa Watanabe) this morning that, at least in California, instructors are given only 45 minutes to teach students about 9/11. Now I don’t happen to think that 9/11 is the single most important event ever in U.S. history. But I do believe that it has, so far, been the most influential event of the 21st century and that if young people are to, at all, objectively consider why our country is where it is today, then they must learn about and discuss the ramifications of this critical event. If teachers aren’t allowed to conduct these conversations, then it’s up to public librarians to do so.
I was president of the California Library Association (CLA) when the terrorists struck on 9/11. Although I was grieving like everyone else, I also saw the opportunity for librarians to take a lead in the local, as well as national, healing process. And so I wrote a column, called “Light in Times of Darkness,” for CLA’s now defunct newsletter California Libraries, urging my colleagues to use their professional skills to help others move through their mourning and confusion. Ten years later, I believe this admonition remains just as relevant. If you think so, too, then please read on.
“Light in Times of Darkness”
The ruins of what once was the World Trade Center are still smoldering as I write this column. Emergency crews are working around the clock to rescue people trapped under the rubble. Medical personnel, counselors, and religious leaders are all caring for the survivors. Everyone has a role to play in overcoming the crisis. Even my husband, who works in radio here in Los Angeles, is on 24-hour alert in case a late story breaks and all hands are required at the station. In the library profession, many of us are asking ourselves what we can do to help others in such a time of dire national need.
Like most of you, I was riveted to my television set watching the unbelievable events unfold on September 11th. As a human being I was outraged by the deliberate acts of violence perpetrated against the innocent people of New York City and Washington, DC. As a librarian and educator, however, I was fascinated by the reporters trying to cover the details of the disaster as objectively and thoroughly as possible. Although horrified, I was nonetheless grateful for the FAA’s visual documentation of the flight paths taken by the hijackers and even for the amazing footage that captured the destruction of their ultimate destinations. As shocking as these images were, they remain primary evidence of the careful planning that went into the execution of these heinous acts. Even more poignant were the accounts of the people who viewed and/or experienced the disaster first-hand. Their stories create a context which supports the enormity of the events of that day. Pictures of airplanes flying into buildings may provide us with irrefutable fact; but it’s the eyewitness accounts that help us understand the underlying truth of what really happened.
Unfortunately, in the days following the disaster, the media have become so frenzied to report whatever they see, the full picture is sometimes obscured by the sensationalism of the moment. As Los Angeles Times commentator Howard Rosenberg recently noted, TV newscasters have a bad habit of reporting information without first sorting it out. That, of course, is why we are so important. Unlike other professionals, librarians are obligated to objectively provide the information people need to make sense of this national tragedy.
So how do we proceed? We do this by practicing keen collection development skills that emphasize accurate and balanced sources of information. Certainly our shelves are full of materials describing and lauding the American way of life; but books about our possible enemies must also be represented to help us understand what motivates their actions. Furthermore, we must assist our users in navigating the sometimes murky depths of the Internet. Which pieces of virtual information are trustworthy and which are not? Which are created with the sole purpose of inciting hatred and prejudice and which are not? We may choose not to block access to inflammatory websites, but we must then be equally vigilant in promoting more reliable and objective sources of information if these are indeed what our customers want.
As reference librarians, we must also keep up-to-date on the issues of the day so we can answer our patrons’ questions intelligently. Although we ourselves may not be able to ease their minds, we should at least know enough of the situation to make an appropriate referral. In addition, we should provide space in our facilities where people can talk to each other about their concerns and fears. There is much we can do to help others cope with the crisis and prepare for the days ahead. In particular, we can invite local officials to hold a town hall meeting in the library’s community room; present programs and storytimes that inspire hope and leadership; bring in experts to discuss emergency planning; and create bookmarks or webliographies of local social service agencies.
By providing access to all necessary information the library remains an ever-important source of enlightenment, especially in times of darkness.
Source: California Libraries (October 2001): 1, 13.