Book Reviews

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).

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.

Snyder, a Yale historian and critical staple in the historiography of post-WWII European history, has produced a dense pamphlet providing a lesson plan to recognize and combat the rise of American authoritarianism following the election of Donald Trump, whom Snyder describes as a direct threat to democracy. Snyder traces the parallels he observes in our current moment with those identifiable in the rise and run of European fascism—his primary area of study. While this work is aimed at the general reading public, there is a critical lesson for librarians to learn through Snyder’s focus on the importance of maintaining professional ethics despite the pressures of a challenging political environment.

“History does not repeat,” Snyder elegantly begins his preface, “but it does instruct.” This opening phrase expertly and cautiously maps the set of instructions that follow. Snyder, like other prominent historians of this era such as Tony Judt and Timothy Ash, constantly wrestles with the notion of prescriptive historical narrative and, like Fukuyama, challenges the data collection that naturally and intellectually indicates the historicity of comparative claims across history. This is of course a bloated sentiment and one that is self-consciously yet tellingly absent from On Tyranny. This absence is likely due to the book’s intended audience—the politically engaged (and perhaps enraged) reader—for whom the lessons of history are perhaps more useful as talking points than items for philosophical debate. This does not detract from Snyder’s scholarship or the seriousness of his argument, but it does explain the delivery method of this message. This book reads like a natural heir to the mid-aught philosophic short work Indignez-Vous! (Time for Outrage) by Stéphane Hessel, both in content (if not, perhaps, worldview) and in page length. Snyder’s work is not an angry work. It conveys the tone, however, of a somewhat scolding schoolmaster and, perhaps justifiably, a frightened citizen observing a dramatic shift toward something at turns both novel and dangerously familiar.

Despite its instructive qualities, the breathlessness evident from the book’s origin does trend toward the hyperbolic. In a recent talk at Politics & Prose, a bookshop in Washington, D.C., Snyder described his call to the keyboard as then-candidate Trump’s electoral numbers came in. I understand this impulse. The reader is left wondering, however, if the survey of the twentieth century presented by Snyder is perhaps a little overwrought with a presentism and anxiety that would have been edited out over several more drafts. I shall leave that assertion to other more qualified future historians to track. We are left then with the value for the general reading public and the librarians who straddle the spectrum between regular public and civil or at least educational servants with both professional ethics to uphold and jobs to maintain in a new and potentially challenging climate.

Reading Snyder as a librarian can feel particularly important, as our job may—as illustrated with the example of the “Connecticut Four”—put us into direct confrontation with Power in its multiple forms. Snyder employs the term Power both explicitly and implicitly throughout the book following his illustration of the classic parable of the shopkeeper and the Soviet authorities in Czechoslovakia from Václav Havel’s Power of the Powerless. Like the shopkeeper, there are and always have been rules that we must obey to avoid confrontations. At the same time, however, we must remember the guidelines and ethics that guide our professional practice and recognize when they chafe against the requests by Power. The shopkeeper may display the outward signs of conformity, but we have the professional duty to uphold the rights of our users. As Snyder reminds us, “Lawyers were vastly overrepresented among the commanders of the Einsatzgruppen…businessmen…exploited the labor of the concentration camp inmates” and “…civil servants, from ministers down to secretaries, oversaw it all.” The importance here is the betrayal. The lawyers should have been defending those put to show trials and sent to their death, business leaders should have taken the moral high ground, and the civil servants should have refused to comply with orders. Easier said than done, to be sure.

For academic librarians, this confrontation with Power can be a politically and socially fraught task. Universities as corporate and state entities have an unfortunate history of conforming to societal pressures (that is to say, mirroring racial, sexual, and gender inequality among other issues throughout history). As individual practitioners within higher education, however, we have learned the lessons of the unfortunate past and now largely, but not universally, see ourselves as allies against encroachments into personal and intellectual freedom. At the time I am writing this essay, my campus, the University of Maryland, has experienced two racially motivated violent attacks; one of these attacks resulted in the tragic murder of an African American student. Our campuses are not immune to the so-called real world—nor have they ever truly been—and increasingly they are not physically or intellectually safe spaces. Our students are put to the same tests that are found in our country at large with the societal and political ideological battlefields present in classrooms, dormitories, and fraternity parties. This conflating of racial violence on campus and the struggle to maintain our sense of professional ethical autonomy relates not to a fear that the bigots will come knocking at our gates but that in our historical moment Power is taking the form of the mobilized and emboldened ideologue of the extreme right. This group uses tools of intimidation such as the lists of educators whose supposed liberal ideology challenges their worldview. These groups also engage in tactics of misinformation and Internet trolling that seeks to disguise biased and inaccurate propaganda in a veil of legitimacy. In this environment of “alternate facts” and deliberate misinformation, how do we teach good information-seeking behavior without putting ourselves at risk? Now, more than ever perhaps, remembering our professional ethics means providing safe spaces for learning and not allowing any form of speech or action to prevent any student from accessing information.

The important word in the preceding sentence is remembering. These ethics of practice are not a reaction, but a continuation of a modern practice of access. It is worth rereading our ALA Code of Ethics with Snyder’s chapter in mind. It is our duty as professional librarians to ensure the privacy and intellectual freedom of our users, which the example of the Connecticut Four demonstrates. Libraries are laboratories for the exploration of ideas, and, despite the will of those currently in power, ideas challenge and deflate the ideologies of extremisms that tend to only hold up within a vacuum. If users are afraid of using material and information because of how others may view them, we have failed in our mission. While we as librarians and individuals have a small role in the shape of the world, abandoning our professional ethics of universal access, information literacy, and anticensorship would have an immediate effect on the country by removing a barrier for Power to gain further control over the availability of truth.

Snyder importantly marks out the vital importance of protecting and supporting institutions to maintain a free and open exchange of ideas and to help the practitioners within that institution adhere to their professional codes of ethics. To the detriment of his argument, however, Snyder ignores libraries as equal institutions and partners with the free press despite the fact that we are one of the institutions that is in desperate need of support and requires defense during fraught times. As discussed in Baéz’s A Universal History of the Destruction of Books, the purposeful obliteration of books and the eradication of records is a crucial step toward tyranny. Libraries historically have been and are still targeted and trampled as a tool for a regime bent on correcting the historical record for its own benefit. While Snyder rightly focuses on the value of a free and active press, the role of free and unbiased information providers is undiscussed. Libraries and other related cultural intuitions are facing severe cuts to national grants and programs (IMLS, NEH, and NEA specifically); but, along with the free press, a free information depot—a luxury of a free society and one with not too long a history—is vital to the continuation of core American values and rights, a luxury that can all too easily be taken away through actions such as severe underfunding.

This book serves as the foundational tract—whether officially or unofficially—of what has been termed “The Resistance” movement against the presidency of Donald J. Trump and the government he leads. As such, this small work provides context for citizens and civil servants alike about the nature and insidious creep of totalitarianism. This book belongs in most library collections and is, fittingly, a trove of primary material on which future historians can glean information about this moment in American history. Additionally, this work serves as an instructive, if occasionally pedantic and overly prescriptive, tract on how to maintain our sense of professional librarian ethics in a challenging time. Of particular interest to academic librarians will be the chapters “Defend Institutions,” which lays out the argument that truth requires funding; “Remember Professional Ethics,” the importance of which I’ve explained above; “Believe in Truth,” which speaks to our longstanding mission to teach the value of quality information; and “Make Eye Contact and Small Talk,” which reminds us that denunciation begins with discomfort of the other and a fear of association. Other works such as Hannah Arendt’s “On Totalitarianism” cover much of the same ground and do so with perhaps more seriousness and grounded theory, but Snyder’s work captures the fears and feelings of the present moment for so many Americans.—Jordan S. Sly, University of Maryland

Copyright Jordan S. Sly


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