Timothy Snyder. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017. 126p. Paper, $7.99 (ISBN 978-0-8041-9011-4).

Jordan S. Sly


As social and political winds change, librarians can find themselves in a precarious position depending on the nature of this change. Professional librarians adhere, at least in theory, to the ALA Code of Ethics—a document that outlines our general philosophies on access and censorship with regard to library users. While these guidelines are general, they provide a reasonable framework for handling challenges we are likely to face in the normal service of our jobs. At politically fraught times, however, these guidelines serve as a critical backbone for the ethical practice of our profession. As an example, the passing of the wide-sweeping Patriot Act following the September 11 terrorist attacks created direct practical and ethical dilemmas for librarians across the county by requiring compliance with investigators’ requests for protected documents such as patron borrowing records. When challenged with this circumstance, a group of library directors in New England, the “Connecticut Four” as they became known, stood up for the rights of users and defied the federal government’s order seeking records that, if obeyed, would have conflicted with professional values and ethical standards. The example of the “Connecticut Four” presages one of the aphoristic and disarmingly blunt instructions—“remember professional ethics”—presented in Timothy Snyder’s recent short work On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

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