I was proofing the latest issue of the Journal of Intellectual Freedom and Privacy and read the powerful lead story about Gordon Conable. Conable, at one time the president of the Freedom to Read Foundation, got embroiled in a public challenge to Madonna's book Sex. At the time of the challenge, he was director of the Monroe County Library System in Michigan. The controversy was so bitter and so deep — there were death threats against both Conable and his 5-year-old son — that eventually Conable and his family left the community altogether.
Let me emphasize that Conable was almost the perfect librarian for the cause. Publicly and privately, Conable maintained a calm, articulate, tactful, and principled demeanor. It's hard to imagine a better spokesperson for intellectual freedom. He continually emphasized the First Amendment, library policy, and the teachable moment of a community dialogue.
While there was certainly some support for him and his family, there was also almost unimaginable community nastiness. His wife said she believes the stress eventually led to his high blood pressure and untimely death.
So my thoughts turn to something this month that I believe deserves greater consideration. We — members of the Freedom to Read Foundation — are part of a values-centered community. We know that we have an obligation to stand up for the principles of the Library Bill of Rights. But I want to emphasize that we have another obligation: to notice when one of us is in trouble, and to rally not just to the defense of a book, but to the defense of our champions. Very often, when we receive reports of challenges at the Office for Intellectual Freedom, the librarians are genuinely worried. They know that speaking truth to a power that grows secretive and authoritarian is a risky business. One can lose one's livelihood, and also an underlying faith in humanity.
You'll see that we're pushing a number of opportunities in this issue. First is the Conable Scholarship, dedicated to this brave man, and to a rising generation we hope will be inspired by his example (the scholarship pays to get people to ALA conferences). We are also offering scholarships for library and information science (LIS) students around the country, and grants for Banned Books Week through the Judith F. Krug Memorial Fund. Judy, of course, was another fierce defender of intellectual freedom and libraries. Of course, we also support the LeRoy C. Merritt Humanitarian Fund, which provides direct financial aid to those fighting IF battles or workplace discrimination.
So I want to encourage you to contribute to these causes, if you can, but even more importantly, to reach out to encourage applications to scholarships and creative Banned Books Week funding. Ultimately, our investment is not just in ideas. It is in each other.
Office for Intellectual Freedom & The Freedom to Read Foundation
Photo: left to right, Keith Michael Fiels, Candy Morgan, Gordon Conable, Maurice Friedman, Judith Krug, and Nancy Kranich. 2003, following the oral arguments on the CIPA case.