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A Universal History of the Destruction of Books by Fernando Báez: A Review

A UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF THE DESTRUCTION OF BOOKS: FROM ANCIENT SUMER TO MODERN IRAQ. Fernando Baez, translated by Alfred ´ MacAdam. New York: Atlas and Co., 2008, 355 pp., $25.00, ISBN-13: 978-1- 934633-01-4.


Fernando Báez spent over a decade amassing a novelic encyclopedia of bibliocausty- from biblion “book” and from kaustos, the verbal adjective of kaiein which means “to burn”; the term coming into its own around the late 1970s. As he describes in the introduction to the work, his passion comes from his early childhood and his hometown of San Félix in Guayana, Venezuela. When he was between the ages of four and five, he would spend hours in the public library which he viewed “as a last refuge” (p.4) from “an honorable state of poverty.” (p.4) It was here that he would develop a passion beyond bibliophilia that served as his muse behind this work. This sprung when Báez witnessed his first bibliocaust  when the Caroni river wiped out his local library, “the object of [his] curiosity,” (p.5) like the Incan god Paricia who came and wiped out mankind in a flood.

Báez acknowledges that this work is incomplete in its present form, and at the outset welcomes revisions that will come by stating that “each new edition is an invitation to correction and amplification so that the book approaches the ideal, definitive history that perhaps will never exist.” (p.xii) It is evident that his passion will continue the development of this work, and that he is willing to pick up upon suggestions by his readers, such as a chapter on the fictional accounts of book burning.

The book itself deals with the mythos behind creation and destruction, and Báez weaves throughout the work an apocalyptic lamentation for the lost knowledge of human intellectual and cultural history. Part of his research for the book led him to conclude that “all civilizations… have postulated their origin and their end in a creation myth counterpoised to a destruction myth in a framework whose axis is the eternal return.” (p.7) Báez returns constantly to this theme, which he claims is “the best way to introduce [his speculation] to the reader,” (p.8) as though the destructive means of cultural annihilation are justified as a path to salvation; not that he believes this to be true, but that those who commit such acts do. Perhaps the best phrasing of this comes when he makes the claim that “The apocalyptic narrative projects the human situation and its anguish: in each of us, the origin and the end interact in inevitable process of creation and dissolution.” (p.9) This brings to mind, at least to this reader, the longstanding mythos behind the phoenix and the destruction of what was with the rebirth of something new.

The work seeks to be comprehensive, perhaps in a future edition, of all major periods of book destruction. This edition is broken down into three parts: The Ancient World, From Byzantium to the Nineteenth Century, and From the Twentieth Century to the Present. More will be explored on each section later. Báez is not the only writer to explore this topic. He writes with the same concern as Polastron (2007), Knuth (2003), & Raven (2004).

While recognizing that it is impossible to secure all of the books in existence, Báez forces us to think about how we preserve books, libraries, and other like spaces and their contents. He wants to understand why people and cultures burn books, and, as I have already mentioned, he seeks to explore this with an apocalyptic narrative. One of the questions that we should ask ourselves is how do we go about preserving our knowledge and cultural centers? How do we preserve the things on which information is stored, whether it be clay tablets, papyri, paper, or compact-disks? If destruction is bound to happen, how can we mitigate the consequences?

In the first part of his work, Báez explores the distant past. Some of the prominent chapters in this part include Greece, an entire chapter dedicated solely to the enigma of “The Library of Alexandria”, Eastern battles for empire in “China”, and the rise of the codex discussed in “Rome and Early Christianity.” He closes this part of the work with a chapter dedicated to “Oblivion and the Fragility of Books.” No work can suffer the ravages of time unaffected, and the very thing that made libraries of antiquity so sacred is what also led to their ruin, and with that the loss of knowledge. When a library of antiquity was lost, due to fire, flood, war or other causes, the works could not as easily be replaced for the infrastructure was not as adaptable and rapid as it is today.  

In the second part of his work, Báez explores a long stretch of time covering “Byzantium to the Nineteenth Century”. Examples of chapters in this section include: “Constantinople,” “The Islamic World,” “The Destruction of Pre-Hispanic Culture in the Americas,” “England,” and “Revolutions in France, Spain, and Latin America.” The last chapter, which seems out of place in this section, though very appropriate to the nature of the book itself, covers bibliocausts found in fictional works which was suggested to him by an “anonymous reader.” (p.188) Báez took on the challenge and created this work exploring twenty-four authors fictional dealings with the destruction of books; these authors include: Cervantes, Marlowe, Poe, H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, Tolkien, Bradbury, Borges, Eco, and Jan van Aken.  Another chapter in this part deals with “Fires, Wars, Mistakes, and Messiahs.” Báez makes a curious point here, particularly when he speaks about messiahs. One such “messiah” was Jacob Frank, an eighteenth century Jewish heretic who “found some disciples” and forced them to burn books.

In the last part of his work, Báez explores events that are seared in modern cultural memory covering the “Twentieth Century to the Present.” Topics in this part include events in “China and the Soviet Union,” “Spain, Chile, and Argentina,” the 2003 war in “Iraq” and particularly the looting of the Baghdad Archaeological Museum and the burning of the national library and archive, as well as the extensive and systematic bibliocide that took place throughout the second world war. Two of the other chapters that he explores in this section include ethnic rivalries and harm done, through no ill intent, but through the feeding by insects and the decomposition of modern paper and other publishing mechanisms.


Intellectual history has been susceptible throughout time to forces that we can control and forces that we can not. Though there is nothing that can escape time, save God, there are ways that we can mitigate disasters. Báez seeks to keep a record of those disasters and, by shedding light on them, prevent the destruction of more (books). I believe that Báez seeks to open his audience’s eyes to what happens through the intentional and willful destruction of books. It is hard enough trying to maintain and preserve them without their willful elimination.

Though Báez does a masterful job in writing the book and drawing the reader into the narrative, there are other ways in which the organization of the work could be arranged to tell the story. For instance, the organization could be arranged geographically instead of chronologically. In this way, we could go on a Vernian world tour of bibliocausty and explore how different cultures have handled the loss and destruction of their culture. This is not to say that the chronological arrangement is not good, but that the same story could be arranged so we see the history of bibliocausty played out in different geographic zones. Can we see any difference in how different cultures sought out the damnatio memoriae of their adversaries?

Another possibility for the retelling of this story would be to create a digital companion with an ArcGIS story map for a visual story that could serve as a tour of this work. One way to retell this story would be to extract the information from the work into a file and overlay it onto a GIS map and thus bringing the narrative to life, on a global scale and in a geo-pictoral context, the major ramifications of what Báez has devoted much of his life’s work to.

The author’s work is never done, as everyday the news recounts some new tale of the evils that take place among men. One of the most prominent contemporary  examples stems from the rise of the Islamic State. This crisis could serve as an extended component of one of Báez’s current chapters, or as an entirely new chapter. It seems as though each new passing year sees another example of the unending destruction of books, and, as Báez has already stated, this book can continuously be expanded. Since the publication of this work in 2008, more examples of bibliocausty have taken place globally including the events in Ukraine, various parts of Africa, and the ongoing horrors brought about by the Islamic State. It is also possible to further extend the third part of his work to cover events such as the Vietnam War, the Iranian Revolution, and the burning of the Jaffna library in Sri Lanka during the midst of a civil war. That said, it is a great work, and worth reading by anyone who considers themselves a bibliophile, or has spent time relaxing in the pleasures of a library.



The Freedom of Information Act: Help From and For Librarians

“Public business is the public’s business. The people have the right to know. Freedom of information is their just heritage. Without that, the citizens of a democracy have but changed their kings.” (Cross, xiii)

Without understanding the history of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), knowing how it works, staying abreast of issues that continue to confront the freedom of government  information by the citizens that it serves, and the roles that libraries play in preserving and facilitating government information to society, we will be governed by ignorance and left to wonder what others are doing. James Madison, the “Father of the Constitution” and Fourth President of the United States, has an oft cited quote that people reference when speaking in support of the freedom of information and self-governance, and I would like to share it with the reader. Madison stated that

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. And a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” (Letter to W.T. Barry)

In this paper I will explore the history of the FOIA so as to provide context for it’s purpose, briefly go over how the FOIA works, look at a couple issues that still exist with the FOIA, and explain the Library’s and the librarian’s role in the freedom of information. This paper should serve as a guide for librarians who are looking to understand the FOIA and aid patrons in submitting a FOIA requests. Though most of this paper will examine the history of the FOIA, the historiography should not serve as the primary focus of the reader. Rather, the focus should be on the importance of how this legislation has manifested itself into the fabric of our great nation, and the importance of the American public’s right to information about their government.

History of FOIA: In Brief

The FOIA is one of the many laws that help protect and promote our freedom to information about our government as American citizens. Thankfully, it is not alone, but is part of a larger component of American law that promotes this idea; other legislation includes: The United States Constitution (1791), the Printing Act (1895), the Copyright Act (1909), the Depository Library Act (1962), the Government in the Sunshine Act (1976), and the Presidential Records Act (1978) among others.  In this section I will be addressing the history of the FOIA, to help us understand how the law came to be and has grown through the decades, since its passage in 1966; this will be a selective rather than a comprehensive history.


It is important to remember the context for why the legislation was initiated. In 1994 Anne Branscomb wrote that:

“The specter of growing government-collected and government-controlled information about its citizens, inaccessible to them, is what prompted Congress to enact the Freedom of Information Act.” (Branscomb, 16)

In the mid to late 1950s, the United States was in a post World War II society and the Cold War was already into it’s first decade. Though the First Amendment had a large number of freedoms and protections embodied, there was no law that directly stated the American public’s right to access information from the government that the government collected. It is in this context that we meet John E. Moss, a champion of information freedom and the man we have most to thank for passage of the FOIA. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives representing California’s 3rd district from 1953-1979.

Moss was appointed as the chairman of the Special Subcommittee on Government Information, established on June 9, 1955 and part of the Government Operations Committee. It was from that vantage point that he began his long standing fight for the freedom of government information for the American public. One particular instance that set him off was when serving on the Post Office and Civil Service Committee he “formally requested that the Civil Service Commission produce the records relating to the discharge of …twenty-eight hundred employees for claimed security reasons. [His] request was flatly denied by the Civil Service Commission.” (Lemov, 48) This, in conjunction with the general secrecy of information from the Eisenhower administration, (Lemov, 49-50) seems to serve as the impetus behind the 1956 study by the House on The Right to Obtain Information from the Executive, which Moss was a part of.  In the same year as this study, Kent Cooper, in his book The Right to Know: An Exposition of the Evils of News Suppression and Propaganda, wrote “American newspapers do have the constitutional right to print…but they cannot properly serve the people if governments suppress the news.” (Cooper, 1956)

1956- House Study on the Right to Obtain Information from the Executive

When Chairman of the Committee on Government Operations William L. Dawson of Illinois established the Special Subcommittee on Government Information he did so stating that “an informed public makes the difference between mob rule and democratic government….”(Ladd, 190) This study primarily is looking at the right for Congress to access information from the government, but it is the beginning of the process for legislation securing the right of access and not the end.

The study, after going through a summary of how our governing systems functions, begins to explore the nature of government agencies, quasi-agencies, and distinguishing between agencies established by the Executive and those established by the Legislature.  I would like the reader to look at four excerpts from the report to help understand the necessity of the legislation that was to develop. This first quote establishes the purpose and necessity of the committee and the report.

“In the course of such contests between the branches probably no problem has been more frequently recurrent in our Government or more important to the safeguarding of democracy than that of access to information in the possession of departments and agencies of the Federal Government.” (Right of Congress, 2)

The report begins by stating the issue of access to information, and highlighting that the problem of accessing this information is a recurring theme. This excerpt also highlights how access to information is beneficial because it is a means to “safeguarding our democracy.” The next excerpt brings in another branch of government, the Judicial.

“Judicial interpretation and precedent seem to indicate that neither the executive agencies nor the independent regulatory commissions have any inherent right to withhold information from the Congress….It should be stated at the outset that judicial precedents do not recognize any inherent right in any officer of the United States to withhold testimony or documents either from the judiciary or from the Congress of the United States.”  (Right of Congress, 6)

This excerpt discusses the issue in context of historical judicial interpretation and precedent. What is most notable in this excerpt is that there is no “inherent right in any officer of the United States to withhold testimony or documents either from the judiciary or from the Congress” thus reaffirming the need for, and ability to enact, checks and balances from one aspect of our government on  another. The next quote discusses the role that Congress has in facilitating that check over the executive; remember that this is a decade before the FOIA was enacted.

“At the same time Congress has never exercised its ultimate sanctions to compel such testimony or production of documents. Nevertheless there is  little or no doubt that Congress (a) may by legislation regulate the release of Government information and (b) may compel such release on its own by exercising its power of process for contempt of Congress directly and/or by punishment under criminal statute for contempt of Congress.”  (Right of Congress, 7)

The first proposition has been used multiple times with extensions and clarifications to the FOIA and similar legislation. I am unaware how much the second proposition has been used, and, as it does not pertain to the research for this paper, I did not examine it’s usage. Lastly, in section four of their conclusion, the House found that even when the President has immunity from legal enforcement, the heads of departments and agencies do not stating:

“Any possible presidential immunity from the enforcement of legal process does not extend to the heads of departments and other Federal agencies. Judicial opinions have never recognized any inherent right in the heads of Federal agencies to withhold information from the courts. The courts have stated that even where the head of the department or agency bases his action on statutory authority the courts will judge the reasonableness of the action in the same light as any other claim of privilege. The courts have held that the mere claim of privilege is not enough.” (Right of Congress, 25-26)

In a 102 page rebuttal to the report, the Department of Justice wrote that “Congress cannot under the Constitution compel heads of departments to make public what the president desires to keep a secret in the public interest. The president alone is the judge of that interest and is accountable only to his country… and to his conscience.” (CQS, 1956) What developed was a growing tension between the executive branch and the Moss committee that would last for many years throughout various administrations.

1966- Passage of the FOIA- 5 U.S.C. § 552

“The important point about this sort of legislation is that access is provided to a whole range of so-called ‘gray’ data, providing information which is unclassified but which is normally accessible only with the permission of those charged with keeping control of it.” (Mount, 12)

Moss spent well over a decade working on this legislation with the help of many, and the criticism of many others. On June 20, 1966 the House unanimously passed the Freedom of Information Act; it was the Senate version which meant that the legislation did not need to go through a conference committee and could be sent straight to the President. The act was sent to President Johnson on June 26, 1966, and was signed, reluctantly, nine days later- July 4, 1966.

1978- NLRB v. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co.

In the 1978 case NLRB v. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co. the supreme court ruled in favor of transparency over a labor dispute. The National Labor Relations Board had denied Robbins Tire & Rubber Co. of information regarding an investigation claiming exemption under exemption seven, investigatory files.  Justice Marshall delivered the court opinion in which he stated:

“The basic purpose of FOIA is to ensure an informed citizenry, vital to the functioning of a democratic society, needed to check against corruption and to hold the governors accountable to the governed.” (NRLB v. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co., 1978)

Again, Justice Marshall is driving forward the intent of the law, that Americans have a necessity to know what the government is doing. He drives this home with the point that we are all better off when American citizens are knowledgable. With regards to the language used here, Justice Marshall states that FOIA “ensures” the right to know.

1985- Data Center

In 1985 Data Center released a collection of articles entitled The Right to Know highlighting government restriction on information. These were pulled from such sources as the Congressional Record, Oakland Tribune, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Businessweek, and the American Library Association. The purpose of this two volume compilation was to identify “the ways in which barriers are being erected which threaten our access to information.” (Data Center, Preface)

2009- President Obama Reaffirms the FOIA

After being elected to his first term, President Obama set out an initiative for openness and transparency in government as a means to help secure trust in government. He had this to say about the FOIA shortly after taking the oath of office:

The FOIA “should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve.” (Obama, 2009)

President Obama succinctly captured the spirit of the law with this statement. It would seem that many times, executive branch agencies would like to shield themselves from embarrassing controversies by denying the public access to vital information, or information that would help the public keep the administration accountable and in service to the people they serve.

2015- FOIA Improvement Act of 2015

“Before he died in 1997, Moss recalled that he knew from the beginning that the Freedom of Information Act would require continuing change. It would be, he predicted, a never-ending battle.” (Lemov, 69)

Writing in 1994, Branscomb describes one of the issues with FOIA requests as implemented is the fee structure and the delivery method can be burdensome. She describes an incident that happened in 1990 where a consumer lobbying group paid $3000 for a FOIA request that was delivered in “six boxes of computer printouts” rather than in a machine readable computer file (Branscomb, 160); a file would have saved time and money for the agency and the lobbying group. The FOIA Improvement Act of 2015, if it passes, will fix some of these issues, reaffirming what President Obama stated in 2009 “All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens what is known and done by their government. Disclosure should be timely.” (Obama, 2009)

How FOIA Works

“Under FOIA, any member of the public may request access to Government Information, and FOIA requesters do not have to show a need or reason for seeking information.” (Report on FOIA Improvement Act of 2015, 2) There are 100 executive branch agencies that process FOIA requests, and most agencies now have an online FOIA portal where requesters can access and easily submit a FOIA request, or search for already released FOIA documents. A FOIA request does not require the agency to do the research for you or analyze the data received. All it does is require them to provide access to sought after information unless it is subject to an exemption, which must be clearly stated to the requester in a timely response.

To submit a request, the requester should narrow the scope as much as possible and determine which agency would be the best to submit the request to.  The requester should provide as much detail as possible when submitting a request, and also let the agency know which format in which the information is needed; also be sure to adhere to any specific agency requirements. Because agencies are required to publish frequently requested material (more than three times), it is best to make sure that the information being requested has not already been made available. If the requester is unsure where to start, FOIA.gov has a compilation of FOIA data that can be used to generate reports , and FOIA.gov can inform a requester or librarian on how to contact various agencies who can provide further assistance.


There are nine exemptions to the FOIA that the government can use to deny access to sought after information. These are:

  1. national defense and foreign policy;
  2. internal personnel rules and practices;
  3. information exempt under other rules;
  4. confidential business information;
  5. executive privilege;
  6. personal privacy;
  7. investigatory files;
  8. financial institution reports- regulatory agencies; and
  9. geological and geophysical information and data.

If a requester does receive a letter claiming an exemption this should not be viewed as an absolute no. The requester may file an appeal to the Office of Information Policy, formerly the Office of Information and Privacy, at the Justice Department. If the appeal process does not work, the requester does have the right to sue the government in federal court as a last resort to release the information. (Henry, 12-13)

Records Required for Release- Proactive Disclosures

Certain types of records are required to be released proactively under subsection (a)(2) of 5 U.S.C. § 552. These include:

  1. final opinions and orders made in the adjudication of cases;
  2. final statements of policy and interpretations which have not been published in the Federal Register;
  3. administrative staff manuals and instructions to staff that affect members of the public;
  4. copies of records that have been the subject of a FOIA requests received by the agency, the amount of time taken to process requests, the total amount of fees collected by the agency, information regarding the backlog of pending requests, and other information about the agency’s handling of FOIA requests. ( 5 U.S.C. § 552 (a)(2))

It may be helpful to begin your information search by exploring the FOIA reading room of various agencies and departments, or searching for information on FOIA.gov.

Issues Confronting the FOIA

In his 1964 book Freedom or Secrecy, James Russell Wiggins made the assertion that “the more a government becomes secret, the less it remains free” summarizing the battle over the right of the governed to information about, and from, the government. Continual improvements to the law are good and healthy because they continue to shed more light on what the government does on our behalf. In this unique way, government reflects the nature of the people it serves.

Though the exemptions are often justifiable, when they are relied on too heavily, and unnecessarily, they defeat the spirit of the law. “There is a growing and troubling trend towards relying on these discretionary exemptions to withhold large swaths of Government information, even though no harm would result from disclosure.” (Report on FOIA Improvement Act of 2015, 3) It is good that Congress is doing something to ensure the continued access to government information and combat any prohibitions that are arising now, or will arise in the future, by seeking to improve the FOIA.

Sometimes the situation is unclear regarding information, and new legislation can help supply clearer guidance. This was reaffirmed in the Report on FOIA Improvement Act of 2015 where on page three the Committee on the Judiciary found that

“agencies need clearer guidance regarding when to withhold information covered by a discretionary FOIA exemption. Codification of this policy also makes clear that FOIA, under any administration, should be approached with a presumption of openness.”

Modern computer technology has aided in the ease in which information can be found, processed, and disseminated, but that does not prevent an agency from playing hardball if it so chooses as with the lobbying group that received six boxes of computer printouts mentioned earlier. Providing the information in a machine readable manner makes the information much easier to sift through for all parties involved.

In 1985 Branscomb wrote that “in virtually all societies, control of and access to information became instruments of power…” (Branscomb, 1) The American system, by virtue of the vastness of it’s laws promoting the opposite, has done well to overcome and prevent this, but even today there are attempts to shroud information with the cloak of government secrecy as can be evidenced by the deletion of a server that may have contained important government records of benefit to a House Select Committee investigation. (Statement Regarding Subpoena Compliance, 2015)

As continued improvements to the law have shown the law is not perfect, but if we keep our eyes on the spirit of the law, rather than on the letter of it, it can be more fruitful to us as a society by allowing us to keep a watchful eye upon the encroaching arms of an overwhelming state that does not necessarily have our best interest at heart.

FOIA and the Library

“Government information belongs to the people, and it is necessary for the citizen and the information professional to exercise their rights of access in order to preserve them. Restriction on information does not necessarily mean that it cannot be obtained. The FOIA is the statute that should be used to challenge that restriction so that the users’ informational requirements are better served.” (Mount, 149-150)

Without knowing why we have access to information, and the means to acquire it from our government, the library cannot effectively serve the public’s information need in that area.  It would serve the Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) well to catalog their own copies of FOIA released documents and housing them on their own servers, an example of which can be seen in the National Security Archives hosted at George Washington University’s Gelman Library.

DOJ Pulls Item Out of Libraries

After the Department of Justice pulled a series of publications through theGovernment Printing Office dealing with the attainment of “items that may have been confiscated by the government during an investigation” (Blumenstein, 16) librarians rose up to protest in droves. The American Library Association even submitted a FOIA request on why “DOJ requested that documents that have been available for as long as four years be removed.” (Blumenstein, 16) In the end, it was decided that the books could stay in the FDLP because they were not sensitive enough for an exemption; nonetheless, the libraries battle for access to information was an important stance.

Privacy of FOIA Requesters

Sarah Shik Lamdan, in her article Why library cards offer more privacy rights than proof of citizenship: Librarian ethics and Freedom of Information Act requester policies, explains why librarians take umbrage when user privacy is being asked to be violated. She explores the historical, philosophical, ethical, and legal underpinnings of major library positions, and has a section in the paper on how FOIA requestors lack basic privacy protection after their requests because the nature of their request is now publicly available information. (Lamdan, 135) She concluded that:

“The goal of FOIA is not to hide information, but to reveal it. However, a line must be drawn in revealing government information to the public to protect those requesting the information, in order to keep the flow of information open and the government a welcoming center for inquiry.”

The question that arises from this is how should agencies regard the information of their FOIA requesters? Could they take a cue from their librarian friends and not keep personally identifiable records after the requested information is delivered?

Librarian’s Skillset and the FOIA

Richard Peltz, writing for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock law review, addresses how the FOIA would not be possible without the skills which  librarians and archivists possess, namely records retention and access.

“Although investigative journalism and the “right to know” lead to Pulitzer Prizes and riveting revelations of government scandal, it is humble records retention that lurks behind the curtains and puts on the show. For without an obligation on government to retain records of its affairs, there is nothing for the journalist to investigate, nothing for the public to learn” (Peltz, 175)

Librarians working in federal agencies can aid ease of findability by promoting good information management tools and records management  in their respective agencies.

He even discusses a problem readily known to many in the information world when describing how electronic records preservation is “no panacea” (Peltz, 176); one of the largest issues facing electronic records management is the constant change of computer technology, or “impermanence” (Peltz, 197). Librarians can help facilitate in the electronic preservation of government records with the knowledge of file format guidelines that are sustainable. Without some kind of record management system in place, the FOIA loses it’s ability to function, or as Peltz stated, “a freedom of information system can only be as strong as its companion records retention program.” (Peltz, 177)

DHS pulls document; ALA responds

In 2003, the Department of Homeland Security pulled the document Hazardous Materials Emergency Plans off of the shelves of libraries in Ohio. (ALA, 2003a) Due to this and other similar incidents, the ALA established a task force on the Restrictions on Access to Government Information which released a report on June 9th of 2003 with ten recommendations for promoting, preserving, and securing access to government information. The report concludes with the statement:

“In light of restrictions and access to and removal of government information in the aftermath of September 11, 2001 recommended that ALA investigate various library-based models for distributing long term access to government information as a mechanism for assuring that information withdrawn from public access is not forever lost.” (ALA, 2003b)

I have not done research to see if there was any follow up to these recommendations, but that could be a possibility for further research.


Libraries have long served as  defenders of access to information. The FOIA provides libraries with another means of preserving and nurturing our cultural values of open discussion, public participation in government, and rational inquiry while at the same time providing privacy protections and security measures for the government to act on our behalf. The public discussion on the freedom of information is an important debate that must continue to be had so that a free people can maintain their right to self governance.


ALA (2003a). Homeland security agents pull Ohio libraries’ haz-mat documents. American Library Association. American Library Association Newsletter

ALA (2003b). Committee on legislation and government documents round table task force on Restrictions on Access to Government Information. Documents to the People, 31, 29-35.

Blumenstein, L., & Oder, N. (2004). Recalled government papers prompt librarian protest, then reversal. Library Journal, 129(14), 16-17.

Branscomb, A. W. (1994). Who owns information?: From privacy to public access. New York: Basic Books.

Congressional Quarterly Service, 1956, 1738. Found in: Lemov (2011) p. 57

Cross, H. L. (1953). The People’s right to know; legal access to public records and proceedings. New York: Columbia University Press.

Cooper, K. (1956). The Right to Know: An Exposition of the Evils of News Suppression and Propaganda. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Cudahy. xii-xiii

Henry, C. L. (Ed.). (2003). Freedom of Information Act. New York: Novinka Books.

Horn, Z. (Ed.). (1985). The Right to Know. Oakland, CA: Data Center.

U.S. House of Representatives. (1956). The Right of Congress to Obtain Information from the Executive and from Other Agencies of the Federal Government: Study by the Staff. Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Ladd, B. (1968). Crisis in Credibility. New York: The New American Library. 190

Lamdan, S. S. (2013). Why library cards offer more privacy rights than proof of citizenship: Librarian ethics and freedom of information act requestor policies. Government Information Quarterly, 30(2), 131.

Lemov, M. R. (2011). People’s Warrior: John Moss and the Fight for Freedom of Information and Consumer Rights. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield.

Madison, J. (1953). Letter to W.T. Barry, 4 August 1822. In S. Padover (Ed.), The Complete Madison (p. 337). New York: Harper & Brothers.

Mount, E., & Newman, W. B. (1985). Top Secret/Trade secret: Accessing and safeguarding restricted information. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.

National Labor Relations Board v. Robbins Tire & Rubber Co. 437 U.S. 214 (1978).

Obama, B. (2009). The White House: Office of the press secretary. Presidential Studies Quarterly, 39(3), 429-430.

Peltz, R. J. (2006). Arkansas’s public records retention program: Finding the FOIA’s absent partner. University of Arkansas at Little Rock Law Review, 28, 175.

U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Benghazi. (2015). Statement regarding subpoena compliance and server determination by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

U.S. Senate, Committee on the Judiciary. (2015). Senate report 114-4 – FOIA IMPROVEMENT ACT OF 2015. ( No. 114-4). Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Wiggins, J. R. (1964). Freedom or Secrecy (Revised Edition ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. p. xi

Tour: National Air and Space Museum Library

On March 28th a group of Library and Information students from the Catholic University of America, including myself, went on a tour of the National Air and Space Museum Library (NASML). The tour was organized by CUA’s Special Library Association student group. The U.S. Army Rock band happened to be playing the day of our visit, so their songs permeated our experience with a soothing backdrop of familiar tunes.

The National Air and Space Museum Library is part of a system of twenty libraries run by the Smithsonian Institute. The Smithsonian Libraries contain over “1.8 million volumes, including 50,000 rare books and manuscripts and almost 500,000 trade catalogs.” (About the Libraries) Their holdings are searchable at http://siris-libraries.si.edu/. “Anyone is welcome to visit the Smithsonian Libraries for research purposes.” (About the Libraries) If there is an interest in viewing the collection of the NASML, a good place to begin is with their Subject Guide List where they break down their collection into major holdings topics.

The NASML has an expansive view of the national mall. The reading room of the library is encompassed by glass panes, bathing the room in natural light. The frosty winter that ensnared D.C. caused condensation to drip from the glass into the reading room more so than usual this season. To remedy this, plastic sheets were draped over the computers, tables, and some of the books.   The reading room had the sound of a jet engine roaring in the background caused by  a large machine that helps control the temperature and the humidity in the room since the skylights can create large variations in weather inside if there is nothing there to stabilize the temperature. Chris Cottrill joked about having to wear sweaters on the hottest days of summer.

Chris Cottrill is the head Librarian at the National Air and Space Museum Library, and has a background in American History. It was evident from the outset that he has a passion for where he works. Chris shared that there are  three divisions of the NASML: Aeronautics, Space History, & Planetary Studies. The top priorities for acquisition at the library are primary type material, current history, and space history. He also shared that the NASML is formalized in the U.S. Code where it states the functions of the NASM shall “serve as a repository for scientific equipment and data pertaining to the development of aviation and spaceflight; and provide educational material for the historical study of aviation and spaceflight.”(20 U.S. Code § 77a)

Most of our tour took place in the Ramsey Room. The Ramsey room was “Named in honor of Admiral DeWitt Clinton Ramsey, an early naval aviator, this room contains rare library materials concerning the history of aviation and spaceflight.” (Smithsonian Opportunities) The original plan for the room was naval aviation history, but it now includes space exploration as well.

Chris was very generous in preparing many items within the collection for viewing on our tour.  A brief list of the collection that was spread out before us, like a librarian’s feast,  include: a limited Edition of a signed Amelia Earhart Biography;  a collection of children’s literature such as Buck Rogers in the twenty-fifth century A.D. by Lt. Dick Calkins and Phil Nowlan; the specs for “Queen Bee”- the first remote controlled aircraft; a selection of materials produced by the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey; and a variety of items from the  Bella C. Landauer Collection of Aeronautical Sheet Music. He also informed us that the NASML just received a collection of oral histories of surviving officers and crew who worked on dirigibles which they are working to make available soon. They are working on digitizing and scanning the material. An example of one of their current scanning projects is a 19th century ballooning collection by clergyman that is organized into three volumes.

Like many major public institutions, the NASML is dependent on endowments and gifts. One of their programs allow you to Adopt a Book or to give a book in someone’s name to the library.  One of the Smithsonian Libraries current undertakings is a branding and marketing program made possible by Brandlogic valued at $150,000 (2013 Annual Report). James Cerruti, a member of the advisory board for the project and a Senior Partner at Brandlogic, had this to say about the libraries:

“The Libraries is perhaps the only entity within the Institution that reaches across most of its activities and supports its functioning at a very broad level. We want to make sure the Libraries’ story in supporting the scientific and curatorial work of the Smithsonian’s staff gets told, making people both within and outside the Institution aware of the high value that librarians bring to the scientific, art, and cultural research communities.” (2013 Annual Report)


This was a wonderful opportunity to learn about one of the nation’s premier institutions and how the library operates within their sphere of influence and serves the nation, and the world, through the macrocosm of the Smithsonian Institute.  From what I have learned, the library is the perfect place to center James Smithson’s investment for “increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

Works Cited

Smithsonian Institution Libraries. “2013 Annual Report: Advancing Collaboration Knowledge + Understanding.” Print.

—. About the Libraries. Smithsonian Institution Libraries.

Smithsonian Institution: Office of Fellowships and Internships. “Smithsonian Opportunities for Research and Study 2011-2012.”Web. <http://www.si.edu/researchstudy/Units/sorsnasm.htm>.

Smithsonian Institution. “Our History.”Web. <http://www.si.edu/About/History>.



Research Interview Dialogue 2

I am sitting at the reference desk one afternoon when the phone rings.

Me:  Bull Run Regional Library this is Sam.

Person on other end of Phone: Hi. I’m looking for some advice on research for a speech.

Me: Ok, can you tell me more about it.

Phone: Well, yea… I’m the Valedictorian this year at Osbourn.

Me: Congratulations!

Phone: Thanks.  So, I know that the Manassas National Battlefield is near here.  I don’t really know much about the battle that took place there and I was hoping to incorporate something about it into my speech. Do you have anything at the library that could help?

Me: I bet we do. If you would like to come up here I could be of more assistance.

Phone: Ok, I’ll be up there in half an hour.

Me: I’ll start looking through our catalog and pull a few items.

Phone: Ok, Thanks. Bye. (Hangs up.)

Short time passes. A young woman walks into the library, and heads to the reference desk.

Young Woman: Hi, I just spoke with someone about a graduation speech I am writing about half an hour ago.

Me: Yes. That was me. I was able to find a few things that I think you will find of interest.  I remember my valedictorian included a poem in his speech so that leads me to this first book: Shades of the battlefield: poems by Beatrice Bright.(Prince William Public Library System, Shades) I haven’t looked at it yet and am unfamiliar with the poet- so I can’t recommend any in particular, but one of the subject headings for the book was “Manassas (Va.) — History — Civil War, 1861-1865 – Poetry”. (Prince William Public Library System, Shades)

YW: Thanks.  What else is in that stack?

Me: This next one is a novel: Unto this hour by Tom Wicker.(Prince William Public Library System, Unto) It’s a fictional account of what happened at the 2nd Battle of Bull Run; one of the battles you were interested in. One of the things that caught my eye about this one was the scope, the focus, the author did on this one battle.  Judging from the information on the jacket, he approaches the novel from many different points of view. It’s kind of long running over six hundred pages, but I skimmed through some of the pages and it looks like a good read. The author obviously spent a long time doing research to treat the topic of this one battle so immensely.

YW: That sounds interesting. I would like to look at that one more. I like how you said it approaches the story from multiple points of view; maybe I can find something in that.  I don’t know if I can finish the book before graduation with everything else going on, but I can probably read a good bit of it. What’s the next book?

Me: This next book is more poetry: Rhythmic Ramblings in Battle Scarred Manassas by Douglas Clark.(Prince William Public Library System, Rhythmic) In particular you might like the poem Alma Mater. I looked through the table of contents and when I saw that one I had to read it.  Take a look- it’s not long. (She opens the book and looks at the poem.)

YW: Hmm.  That could be interesting. I haven’t yet decided the focus of the speech, but I want to tie into it some local history. To remind everyone where it is we come from and who we are.

Me:  Ah, That leads me to this last book: Incidents of Cavalry Experiences during General Pope’s Campaign, by William Gardiner.(Prince William Public Library System, Incidents)

YW: What is it about?

Me: It is a series of personal narratives of soldiers. Perhaps one persons’ story will stick out? It is a series of papers that were read before the Rhode Island Soldiers and Sailors Historical Society.

YW: Wow.  That actually sounds really useful.  Maybe there is one really good story in there that will stick out to me.

Me: I know you are busy getting ready for graduation, but since we are so close to the battlefield I got to thinking. What if you read these books while at the battlefield? It could really help you meditate on the meaning of the experiences you will read about.

YW: I actually had that same thought on my way here.  Great minds think alike right.

Me: It only costs $3 to get in. I’ve been there a few times.

YW:  That’s not bad.  I think I’ll check it out this afternoon. I’ll keep those last three, that first one doesn’t sound too interesting.

Me: I’ll re-shelve it.  You can check the other three out at the circulation desk. Is there anything else I can help you with today?

YW: No thank you. That helps out a lot.  I’ll take a look at these for now.  I might come back later.

Me:  We are open till five this afternoon, and will re-open tomorrow at noon.

YW: Thanks. Have a good day!

Me: You too.


  1. Prince William Public Library System. (n.d.). Shades of the battlefield: poems by beatrice bright. Retrieved from http://librarycatalog.pwcgov.org/polaris/search/title.aspx?pos=1

  2. Prince William Public Library System. (n.d.). Unto this hour by tom wicker. Retrieved from http://librarycatalog.pwcgov.org/polaris/search/title.aspx?pos=2

  3. Prince William Public Library System. (n.d.). Rhythmic ramblings in battle scarred manassas by douglas clark. Retrieved from http://librarycatalog.pwcgov.org/polaris/search/title.aspx?pos=1

  4. Prince William Public Library System. (n.d.). Incidents of cavalry experiences during general pope’s campaign, by william gardiner. Retrieved from http://librarycatalog.pwcgov.org/polaris/search/title.aspx?pos=1

Research Interview Dialogue

I am sitting at the reference desk of Mullen Library when I am approached by a student who needs help. As she nears the desk, I look up and take notice of her.

Timid Student: (in a low tone)  umm, excuse me but could you help me find a book.

Me: I would be happy to.  What book are you looking for?

Student: It’s for a class project. I believe it’s called Our Bodies. It might be over at the Nursing Library.

Me: (Turns the dual screen monitor on so that she can see what it is that I am doing, and so that she can learn how to search for books using our system in the future.) I can check and see if we have a copy here, if you would like?

Student: That would be great. Thanks.

Me: So, first we are going to go to the libraries home page- libraries.cua.edu.  We want to search books, so I’m going to search under the book tab.  Since we know what we are looking for it is easier to use the “classic catalog search” rather than the Summon box; it can get a little messy sometimes.

Student: Ok yea

Me: Now we want to do a title search for Our Bodies.  I’ll type that into the search box and then select title from the dropdown menu; we also want to select Catholic University to narrow down our results since we believe it is in the Nursing Library here on campus. Then we press “search catalog”.

Student: That’s it, Our Bodies Ourselves. (The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, 2005)

Me: Ok, it looks as though there are multiple years.

Student: Probably the newest one would be best?

Me: Probably. Let’s take a look. This last title is an e-resource, so you could look at it from anywhere just by logging in.  It’s from 2010.  Let me compare it to some of the others.  (Looks at the other records.)  All of the other records appear to be by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective.  This last one has a slightly different title and is by Susan Wells, so I don’t think it is what you are looking for.

Student: What about the one from 2005?

Me: Let’s have a look at it.  So, what are you doing your research on? Maybe we can see if this is an appropriate source.

Student: That would be great. I’m doing research on sexuality and um… (quietly) abortion.

Me: (In a lower tone.)  Ok. Uh, yea.  Is there any particular focus in your research, or are you looking for general information?

Student: I’m doing research on how it hurts women in the long run because of how it interrupts the natural biological process. In particular how it can complicate future pregnancies.  I know cases can vary.  My research is already pretty strong here, but my advisor said that I should find other sources that argue the other side of the issue and compare my research against theirs to make a stronger case.

Me: Yea.  There is definitely a lot of information out there. I can see that this book talks about abortion.  Let’s see if we can find anything about the book online. (Searches Google) It looks like there is a website spinning off of this book: ourbodiesourselves.org. (Boston Women’s Health Book Collective)  Well this book’s website appears to be arguing about how to go about deciding on if it is right for you.  So it is from the “pro-choice” viewpoint.  It could be helpful.

Student: Yea, I was looking for books online and this is one of the ones that came up. I asked my teacher about it and he said he thought the nursing library might have a copy. Since I didn’t know where that was I thought I would come here for help. It’s a pretty important topic.

Me: Well we are always happy to help people find information, and this does appear to be in the nursing library.  Part of the reason this is such a big issue is because of the ethical dilemma involved.  “Ethical dilemmas occur when values are in conflict.” (American Library Association, 2008)  So you picked a topic that is going to have a lot of opinions out there each vying that theirs is the correct one.

Student: I know, that’s why I thought it such a good topic to speak on for my project.

Me:  As you may know the mission of the University states: “The Catholic University of America is … dedicated to advancing the dialogue between faith and reason, … [and] seeks to discover and impart the truth through excellence in teaching and research, all in service to the Church, the nation and the world.” (Board of Trustees, 2006) From when other people have come here searching on this topic I know we have a lot on the right to life, counseling, and legal stances and implications.   Since the library is “committed to providing a balanced collection which represents a diversity of perspectives” (“The catholic university,” 2012) I’m sure we have plenty of material on the opposing side of your research.  If not, I know we can access material from one of our partner libraries.

Student: Wow. That would be great. Thanks.  I think I’ll just look at this book for now and get some ideas on how they approach the issue.  I’ll definitely keep that in mind though.  I had never read the University Mission so thanks for sharing that.

Me: My pleasure. By the way, the nursing library is in Gowan Hall. Is there anything else I can help you with?

Student: No, that has been super-helpful.  I think I can remember how we searched for those books, so maybe I can find stuff on my own next time.  Thanks for all your help. Have a good day!

Me:  You too. (The student exits.)


1.       The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. (2005). Our bodies, ourselves: A new edition for a new era . Retrieved from http://catalog.wrlc.org/cgi-bin/Pwebrecon.cgi?BBID=6601812

2.       American Library Association. (2008, January 22). Code of ethics of the american library association. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/proethics/codeofethics/codeethics

3.       Board of Trustees. (2006, December 12). Mission statement. Retrieved from http://www.cua.edu/about-cua/mission-statement.cfm

4.       The catholic university of america libraries collection development policy . (2012, August 06). Retrieved from http://libraries.cua.edu/about/colldev/policy.cfm

5.       Boston Women’s Health Book Collective. (n.d.). Our bodies ourselves. Retrieved from http://www.ourbodiesourselves.org/