Book Review: Twenty-Six Seconds

At a time when horrifically violent footage of beheadings, school shootings and acts of terrorism can go viral within hours, it may seem difficult for some to appreciate the seismic shock of the gradual, decades-long release of the Zapruder film.

From its appearance as selected still frames in the pages of Life magazine the week following former president John F. Kennedy’s assassination, to its television debut 12 years later on Geraldo Rivera’s show Good Night America, to its climactic role in Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK, Abraham Zapruder’s 26-second 8mm home movie is not only a hotly contested touchstone for analyzing the assassination, but a culturally significant landmark in its own right.

Released for the 53rd anniversary of the events in Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Alexandra Zapruder’s new book is not just the poignant story of one man’s reluctant place in history but a fascinating and often profound exploration of artifacts, visual culture and the esthetics of violence that goes to the heart of understanding how the mysterious death of the 35th president forever changed American society.

Formerly an educator and researcher with the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Zapruder is the award-winning author of 2004’s Salvaged Pages: Young Writers’ Diaries of the Holocaust. As she writes in the opening pages of her new book, she grew up knowing about her grandfather’s famous film, but it was rarely discussed, an uncomfortable family history she only began to uncover for herself in 2010.

Zapruder’s account is at once personal, historical and critical, to say nothing of the fact it’s beautifully written. Even without her family connections to the subject matter, the book would be a valuable contribution to the assassination literature.

After all, despite its two-generation remove, Twenty-Six Seconds presents the perspective of a family so inextricably linked to the events of Nov. 22, 1963 they were paid $150,000 by Lifebefore Kennedy was even buried, $85,000 by Oliver Stone in 1990 and a further $16 million by the U.S. government in 1999 to compensate them for formally “taking” their film, once the Assassinations Records Review Board determined it to be an official assassination record.

Despite her unique vantage point to this vital assassination artifact, Zapruder was, by her own admission, almost completely unfamiliar with the assassination itself until she started working on the book. Through interviews with her family, participants in the film’s complex chain of possession and conspiracy theorists (her use of the term is respectful and non-pejorative), as well as her unprecedented access to the Time-Life archives, Zapruder recounts the film’s traumatizing genesis, as well as the many crucial years it spent under the tight control of Time-Life, which did so much to contribute to the growing suspicions of a coverup through the 1960s and early 1970s.

Public skepticism about the Warren Commission’s “lone assassin” conclusions would become almost mainstream once Rivera broadcast his bootleg copy of the film on TV, and grew so insistent following its use in Stone’s JFK that Congress passed the JFK Records Act in 1992 and created the review board, which would lead to years-long negotiations to buy the film back from the Zapruders.

Zapruder raises a host of compelling questions about institutions of memory and the right to know: Should a government be permitted to retain ownership of artifacts when they raise troubling questions about that government? Is there a danger in conflating a record of an event with the event itself? What is of greater value — the content of an image or the physicality of the media on which it exists? Can an artifact be of such unique public interest it should be considered public domain?

There are some questions, however, she refuses to consider, namely those relating to the film’s authenticity: Zapruder repugnantly dismisses long-standing claims of alteration in the extant film, in particular those which see her grandfather colluding in the coverup. Viewed along with accusations in the media the family unduly profited from the tragedy, it becomes clear that from the moment it was exposed, the film was always a terrible burden haunting Abraham Zapruder and his family, one which his granddaughter’s eloquent prose can only partially exorcise.

Twenty-Six Seconds is therefore not just of interest for its history, but for what it tells us about ourselves: given the prevalence of smartphone cameras and the news media’s increasing dependence on citizen-generated footage, all of us have, in a sense, become the heirs of Abe Zapruder.

Twenty-Six Seconds: A Personal History of the Zapruder Film
By Alexandra Zapruder
Twelve, 472 pages, $35

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press, November 19th 2016


Book Review: A Field Guide to Lies

In a U.S. election cycle already replete with outrageous claims from the Donald Trump campaign, the tweet by Trump’s son Donald Jr. was particularly egregious: the now-notorious image of a bowl of Skittles representing Syrian refugees accompanied by the claim that three of them would kill you.

While many criticized the callousness of the metaphor, The Washington Post’s Philip Bump pointed out that to have a shred of comparability for the individualized risk implied, the bowl would need to contain 10.9 billion skittles.

It is illogical arguments such as this that McGill psychology and behavioural neuroscience professor Daniel Levitin seeks to debunk in this useful but disappointingly apolitical new book A Field Guide to Lies. Serving as a sort of companion to his 2014 information overload corrective The Organized Mind, (reviewed in the Winnipeg Free Press August 23rd 2014), the Field Guide provides the tools needed to critically evaluate dubious claims, both numeric and verbal.

For Levitin, the failure to question what we read (especially online) combined with poor statistical literacy and an overconfidence in our own knowledge can lead us to make poor decisions, draw the wrong conclusions, and misestimate the actual risk of activities (e.g., flying).

The first third of the book introduces the reader to numeric and statistical claims by explaining the slippery definitions of “average,” how to understand different types of probabilities and the many ways in which graphs and tables can be manipulated to convince the unwary. Apple CEO Tim Cook, for example, notoriously concealed dropping quarterly iPhone market share in 2013 by charting cumulative sales on a graph with no numeric value scale, leading analysts unsure if it referred to millions of phones or thousands.

In the second part, Levitin looks at the rhetorical claims and logical fallacies perpetrated by experts and others in the media who often cherry-pick their data, erroneously imply causation or fail to inform their readers or listeners of reasonable alternative explanations. The six-fold rise in autism diagnoses between 1990 and 2010, he argues, can be much more readily attributed to greater awareness and wider definitions on the part of professionals, than it can to GMOs, wi-fi or vaccines.

The final and by far weakest part of the book are “case studies” intended to illustrate how to apply these critical tools, but which gets bogged down in a tiresome analysis of the extreme feats of illusionist David Blaine, leaving far more pressing issues unexamined.

As was the case with The Organized Mind, Levitin’s excellent grasp of analytical tools and rhetorical logic are undermined by a curious lack of political sophistication. Most of his examples are hypothetical or else attributed to unnamed “lying weasels” and “unscrupulous hucksters” while avoiding anything that might be potentially partisan (Trump and Hillary Clinton are each referred to only once).

This is unfortunate. He could have easily delved into the emerging psychological research revealing how political ideologies shape our receptivity to information, such that liberals and conservatives when faced with the same sets of facts will often reach completely different conclusions – a discussion that would have been exceedingly timely.

Instead, Levitin’s political myopia is so jarring it threatens at times to undermine his entire project.

For example, the disparity between (low) official estimates of civilian deaths in America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq when compared to those of third-party observers is owed by Levitin not to political expediency but to calculating an unknowable quantity, while the Bush Administration was simply “mistaken” about the presence of WMDs in Iraq, rather than engaging (as many critics allege) in a deliberate campaign of deception.

In the book’s most jaw-dropping passage, he casually brushes aside the countless discrepancies in the official account of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy by likening these to the occasional headache accompanied by blurred vision: probably not an indication of anything serious.

While A Field Guide to Lies may help readers make better sense of news reports and be wiser consumers, Levitin’s failure to situate his book in the contemporary politics of “truthiness” dramatically diminishes its value – and relevance. As a result, it unintentionally demonstrates that, absent an understanding of ideology and power, no amount of statistical literacy and formal logic will help you recognize that you are being lied to.


A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age.
By Daniel Levitin.
Allen Lane/Penguin/Random House, $20.00. 292 pp.


Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press, October 15th 2016

Book Review: Indigenous Writes

In 2013, the Thompson Citizen shut down its Facebook page to deny a platform for, in the words of editor John Barker, “anti-aboriginal racists and haters (to) spew their evil.” Similarly, in late November 2015, the CBC suspended all comments for articles and features related to indigenous issues, citing the frequency of “hateful, vitriolic (and) ignorant” comments. (For its part, the Winnipeg Free Press restricts commenting privileges to subscribers only).

In the face of this public bigotry and ignorance, Chelsea Vowel wants to help shape our relationship as non-indigenous and indigenous Canadians by engaging us in a badly needed, non-confrontational and — most of all — respectful conversation.


In her meticulously organized and highly accessible new book Indigenous Writes, Vowel, a Cree-speaking Métis writer and educator based in Montreal, both addresses and demolishes the many myths, misconceptions and stereotypes that have for so long poisoned public discourse and done endless harm to indigenous peoples.

Indigenous Writes is the latest release in Portage & Main Press’ Debwe series edited by the University of Manitoba’s Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair. While her title is a play on words which can be read several ways, it powerfully underscores Vowel’s agency as an indigenous author, which is consistent with Debwe’s mandate.

Over 31 brief chapters, Vowel maintains a personal and frequently humorous tone as she engages directly with non-indigenous readers (such as this reviewer) — or, more accurately, those “who form the European-descended socio-political majority,” with the recognition that the descendants of African slaves cannot be seen as “settlers.”

Such concern over naming might seem pedantic, but it is this care in establishing the basis for the conversation at hand that characterizes her thoughtful approach in responding to the misunderstandings over which our nations-to-nation relationships have foundered.

Many of these, she is quick to point out, are not entirely our fault: Canada’s history of colonization and assimilation through unequal treaty-making, unjust legislation, obfuscation and racialized oppression is bewilderingly (and in her view, deliberately) confusing. Much as she does on her outstanding blog, âpihtawikosisân, issues such as status and non-status Indians, “blood quantum,” the treaties, indigenous identity, cultural appropriation, rights and legal decisions on aboriginal titles are explained and clarified, often by contextualizing these within the legal foundations and rights enjoyed by non-indigenous Canadians.

More importantly, a host of pernicious myths are assiduously debunked, chief among them that aboriginal people pay no taxes. As she makes abundantly clear, the Indian Act tax exemption for on-reserve income and property is enjoyed by a mere 192,000 people, or 0.5 per cent of the population — hardly an undue burden on non-indigenous taxpayers who have, needless to say, benefited beyond all conventional financial measures from access to indigenous lands.

Significantly, she counters not just the common bread-and-butter arguments of misinformed anonymous commenters, but the writings of well-known Canadian media personalities such as Conrad Black, the Province’s Gordon Clark and public intellectuals such as John Ralston Saul.

Fortunately, Vowel is able to call on her law degree to provide easily understood explanations and contexts for the general reader, supported by extensive lists of recommended reading.

Yet it is all accomplished with such disarming informality and even nerdiness (she is a fan of Canadian science-fiction author Rob Sawyer and the Civilization video games) that the book is unabashedly engaging. In a brilliantly satiric turn, she even adopts the rhetoric of the online trolls themselves to demonstrate the colonial vapidity of the arguments so often made against inherent indigenous rights.

While subtitled A Guide to First Nations, Métis and Inuit Issues in Canada, it would be a mistake to see Indigenous Writes as a book primarily about indigenous people. Instead, it is much more about all of us — our relationship as non-indigenous and indigenous Canadians, and how it has been shaped (and misshaped) by the historic and contemporary governance of these issues.

For any Canadian who wishes to have an informed opinion about the country that we share — or, more to the point, publicly share that opinion — Indigenous Writes is essential reading.

Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Issues in Canada.
By Chelsea Vowel
HighWater/Portage & Main Press, 240 pages, $22

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press Saturday September 24th 2016.

Book Review: “Everything Explained That Is Explainable”



The notion that one would physically house all the world’s most essential knowledge at your own house in dozens of identical-looking books would probably strike members of the 21st-century’s “iGeneration” as a tad presumptuous — even ridiculous.

Yet, for the better part of 244 years — from its first edition in 1768 until it went solely online in 2012 — this was the role of the venerable and massive Encyclopaedia Britannica, as indispensable to everyday information-seekers as Google is today.

Of its 15 editions, the most famous is the 1910-1911 11th edition, notable not only for being the first multi-volume encyclopedia to be published as an entire set simultaneously, but also for the literary quality of its entries, written by the leading minds of the day including Darwinian biologist T.H. Huxley, British philosopher Bertrand Russell and Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin.

Where the previous edition’s 17,000 often book-length entries had required considerable studiousness from its readers, the 29-volume 11th, under the editorship of journalist Hugh Chisholm, instead featured 40,000 shorter entries, making it the first truly modern encyclopedia. In fact, so well-regarded is the 11th edition that in 2006, tens of thousands of its articles were uploaded to Wikipedia to augment the online encyclopedia.

In this meanderingly entertaining (if misleadingly titled) book, Denis Boyles recounts the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras of the Britannica, with a focus on the personalities behind it, as well as its publication by the equally venerable newspaper the Times of London before Boston’s Cambridge University Press would take over the reins for the 11th.

A France-based journalist and regular contributor to the National Review, Boyles is best known for writing travelogues and compendiums of miscellany and practical advice aimed at primarily male readers, as well as for his conservative polemics Vile France (2005) andSuperior, Nebraska (2008).

Perhaps attracted to the subject matter by his apparent fascination for trivia, Boyles draws colourful portraits of the Americans who would reinvent Britannica, and in the process revolutionize book marketing: Horace Everett Hooper and fellow bookseller Walter Montgomery Jackson, as well as ad man Henry Haxton.

Boyles’ narrative of the Americans’ audacious 1898 scheme to recruit the troubled Times to reprint and dramatically discount the decades-out-of-date 9th Edition is particularly enjoyable, especially the attention he lavishes on Haxton’s obnoxiously verbose and relentless advertisements — one example, reprinted as an appendix, runs a full eight pages.

The ads may have been annoying but they were wildly successful, making Britannica a household commodity and rescuing the Times from insolvency.

In devoting so much attention to the ninth and 10th editions of Britannica, Boyles adheres surprisingly closely to Herman Kogan’s classic 1958 history of the encyclopedia, The Great EB, which leaves precious little space to devote to his book’s ostensible focus. In fact, the story of the 11th Edition really only gets underway on page 233, occupying the final third of the book.

Boyles shares the conventional understanding that what makes the 11th edition so particularly valued 100 years on is its singular world view born of imperial hubris — that of universal, rational and technological Anglo-led progress — an illusion that would be so decisively destroyed, only a few years later, on the battlefields of Europe.

Yet this sense of a decisive purpose is notably missing from Boyles’ own book, which lacks a formal introduction and devotes two chapters of questionable relevance to various behind-the-scenes machinations at the Times, which actually had nothing whatever to do with publishing the 11th edition.

Everything Explained would also have benefited from a stronger sense of critique. While Boyles acknowledges some of the 11th’s more offensive entries (the shockingly racist “Negro” being only the most notorious), he puts forward no particular perspective or argument of his own, beyond admiration for its literary excellence.

At the same time, his remarkable conclusion that “we can’t say exactly how the Eleventh’s world is different from ours” is belied by his admission that its offences are apparent only in hindsight — which is to say, from the vantage of a postmodern, post-colonial and nominally progressive, yet fragmented, polarized and increasingly fact-averse world, one its authors would hardly recognize.

Everything Explained That Is Explainable: On the Creation of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s Celebrated Eleventh Edition, 1910-1911.
By Denis Boyles.
Knopf, $36.00. 464 pp.

Originally appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, August 6th 2016.

Photo: Paul Friesen

Book Review: The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet.

“Information wants to be free” goes the slogan of the so-called “free culture movement,” encouraging file sharing, open source software, and a permissive legal environment for modifying and distributing the works of others.

A more complex and subtle axiom offered by the Association of College and Research Libraries is “information has value”: that, as a commodity subject to copyright laws, information can bring advantage to some while marginalizing others. Users must therefore make informed and ethical choices about complying with – or challenging – copyright laws.

For the late Internet activist Aaron Swartz, concentrated corporate control reinforced by outdated copyright laws incommensurate with current technologies left him with no choice but to challenge wherever possible this private stranglehold over what he felt should be public information. Arrested for a series of brilliant and daring digital “heists” at MIT in late 2010 and early 2011, in which he covertly downloaded millions of scholarly articles from the commercial JSTOR database with the intent of distributing them freely online, Swartz became the free culture movement’s folk hero before taking his own life on January 11th, 2013.

In the hands of journalist Justin Peters, the life and death of Aaron Swartz becomes the lens for reconsidering the entire history of copyright for the digital age. An accomplished journalist best known for his technology- and sports-related writings for, Peters is also a contributing editor for The Columbia Journalism Review and a founding editor of the archly humourous magazine Polite. Greatly expanded from its origins as an online article on Slate, The Idealist is Peters’ first book, grippingly told and with a clear-eyed view of its brilliant but flawed protagonist.

After introducing us briefly to Swartz’ legal predicament and untimely death, Peters actually leaves Swartz behind for more than 100 pages as he explains the history of American copyright legislation, the development of public libraries, the evolution of reproduction technologies and formats, notions of public domain and the quest for the “infinite library” of human knowledge instantly accessible anywhere.

Along the way, The Idealist introduces us to a number of other historical idealists, among them Noah Webster (of the eponymous Dictionary) who lobbied tirelessly (if self-interestedly) for the United States to pass a Copyright Act in 1790, and Herbert Putnam, America’s longest-serving librarian of Congress, who convened a series of copyright conferences leading up to the passage of the Copyright Act of 1909.

When Swartz re-emerges in the narrative in 2002 at age 15, he is a lauded computer programming prodigy (who didn’t actually care much for programming) who would go on to become a co-founder of news aggregator, a frequent conference speaker and a prolific blogger (Peters makes extensive use of Swartz’ online writing).

As well, Swartz shared in the appreciative company of such digital luminaries as World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, Bram Cohen of BitTorrent fame and Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig. While Swartz would lend his support to a host of free culture and Internet activism projects, Peters finds he acquired a reputation for rarely finishing what he started.

Nor was the world quite ready for his ideas. His 2008 “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto,” which called for the free distribution of entire databases worth of content in flagrant violation of copyright laws, made even some open access supporters – and many librarians – uneasy. Carrying out the Manifesto with his raid on JSTOR would result in spending the last two years of his life in legal limbo, facing a host of federal charges and the possibility of 95 years in prison, before he hanged himself at aged 26.

For Peters, the tragedy of Aaron Swartz serves to illustrate the paradox of information wanting to be simultaneously both free and expensive, and the consequent mismatch between our laws and the way most of us live online. With copyright laws extending protection ever further into creators’ posthumous futures (will Mickey Mouse ever be in the public domain?) and university libraries sagging under the increasingly crippling financial burden of proprietary databases, The Idealist challenges the reader to recognize their own place as creator, user and curator of the “infinite library” – and how it is up to all of us to choose how to fulfill equitably and ethically its limitless potential.

The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet.
By Justin Peters.
Scribner, $26.00 352 pp

Originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press, July 9th, 2016.


Between Not Forgetting and a Breathtaking Future: Notes from The Pathways to Reconciliation Conference


This June I had the good fortune (and great privilege) of attending and participating in the Pathways to Reconciliation conference, an international gathering of more than 400 Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples at the University of Winnipeg, June 15-18 2016. A partnership between the University of Manitoba, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation and the U of W, Pathways was an opportunity to explore the contexts for, as well as the meanings, dimensions and implications of the idea of reconciliation. Speakers included Dr. Chief Robert Joseph, hereditary chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation in British Columbia, and Ambassador for Reconciliation Canada as well as being a member of the National Assembly of First Nations Elders Council; Manitoba MLA Wab Kinew; Justin Mohamed, the Chief Executive Officer of Reconciliation Australia; Cindy Blackstock of Gitksan First Nation in BC and Executive Director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada; and former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci who was instrumental in negotiating the Residential School Settlement Agreement in 2005.

My primary role was to present my paper A Library Matter of Genocide as part of a panel on “Institutional Approaches,” but I also chaired a session on “Museums, Memorials and Reconciliation.” As well — and for the first time — I “live-tweeted” my participation; far from being the distraction I’d assumed it to be, I found it to be an exceptionally useful and economical way to summarize, synthesize and communicate a speaker’s content, rather than just taking copious notes. What follows are some of my conference highlights adapted from my Twitter account.

In the first panel I attended, “Telling the Stories,” U of W professor of Modern Languages and Literatures Dr. Mary LeMaître spoke to the need for Dismantling Colonial Discourse,” and her research into online racist comments as a form of social discourse. As a librarian I was naturally interested in her observation that the origin of colonial discourse lies in 18th century scientific classifications and racial hierarchies. Colonial discourse, she observed, places all of us within subject-object relationships: subjects speak while objects are spoken about. Our colonial social discourse, she observed, helps make our colonial structure invisible to non-Indigenous Canadians, most of whom have never read the Indian Act. We all have role to play in shaping social discourse, she concluded, and in educating ourselves to challenge the colonial narrative.

I was also acutely aware during her talk of how my own profession of librarianship is implicated in these colonial narratives, in subject-object relationships and in the invisibility of the discursive functions of both to most non-Indigenous library users. Indeed these issues lie at the heart of my presentation 

TRC Researcher and Senior Advisor on Reconciliation at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation Paulette Regan payed tribute to and honoured the residential school survivors who have gifted us with their stories, adding that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission only captured a moment in time; it is not the last word. All of us are charged with carrying its work forward. While reconciliation must also include support for cultural and linguistic revitalization, reconciliation will never occur unless we are also reconciled with the Earth – meaning Canada and Canadians must decolonize its resource extraction economy.

This I realized also resonates with the ideas around deconstructing the term “decolonizing” — that it isn’t a metaphor, that it actually requires Canada to return sovereignty over the land to Indigenous peoples.

In a sometimes emotional presentation, Aboriginal Program Coordinator at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights Maeengan Linklater spoke on Residential Schools, Genocide, Recognition and the CMHR, as well as his lobbying efforts to institute a provincial “Indian Residential School Genocide Reconciliation Memorial Day.” He began by expressing his gratitude to the Pathfinders who told their stories of their experiences in the schools. Linklater spoke to the controversy over the Museum’s decision to avoid the word “genocide” when describing the residential school system, but argued that critics needed to direct their concerns at the government that funds and mandates the museum, not the museum itself. Linklater had submitted a bill for an IRS Reconciliation and Memorial Act to the Manitoba government in 2015; there has been no response as yet. However, MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette is apparently going to try to present a federal version of the Bill in the near future. Linklater closed by expressing his gratitude to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights for starting this dialogue.

Instituting such a holiday would be a powerful statement, one on par with the move in some American cities of doing away with Columbus Day and replacing it with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, or Native American Day.

In their presentation “We were Brave Children,” Dr. Rosemary Nagy of Nipissing University and residential school survivor Fredda Paul explored “childhood agential narratives” seeing the survivors’ narratives as ones of agency and resistance, rather than just of victimization. Nagy worked with Paul on his narrative; however, rather than tell his story for him, she indicated that he will be telling his own story in a forthcoming book. (Because Paul had been dismayed to learn that his TRC testimony was archived online without his knowledge, when it came time for him to tell his story I put my pen down).

The Thursday Luncheon Keynote speaker was Dr. Chief Robert Joseph, Hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation, with his incredibly stirring speech “My Vision for a Reconciled Canada.” He began with an acknowledgment of — and we gave a standing ovation for — a group of residential school Survivors seated near the front of the room. Dr. Joseph then set out his vision: one in which reconciliation was understood not as a project or a goal but a core value to be embraced by all Canadians, all our lives. All Canadians need to come to terms with our collective past. Reconciliation is an intergenerational commitment; we need each other, and we are part of something great. A reconciled Canada must create modern Treaties where none exist. All Aboriginal people ever wanted, he said, was to be allowed to raise their own children; in a reconciled Canada, they will be able to once again. A reconciled Canada will have the power to change the world in what he described as “a future that is breathtaking, a shift of national consciousness – filled with a desire to be the people we say we are.”

In the Q&A after his speech, a Cree mother in the audience powerfully “called out” Canada for its child welfare genocide and Millenium Scoop that had taken her son away from her.

(One of the drawbacks of attending a conference hosted by your own university is that it all too easy to get called back the office; I was in a meeting the rest of the afternoon so missed that afternoon’s concurrent sessions).

On Friday morning the keynote speaker was former Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci addressing the way forward to a new nation-to-nation relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples, which he says needs to be a joint federal and provincial project – not “either-or.” Recognition of this relationship must be on part of people and institutions, not just governments. The way forward must include change of attitudes involving education — but not just in schools – while children educated on history of IR Schools can help teach their parents. The way forward must also be principle-based, not merely transactional and include not forgetting the history of treatment of Indigenous peoples.

This essential task of “not forgetting” was the focus of the session I chaired on Museums, Memorials and Reconciliation. It featured four speakers either employed by or in partnership with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights.

Julia Peristerakis, a Researcher-Curator at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, began by critiquing the modern project of museology for its long history of theft from and misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples. From the beginning, the Canadian Museum of Human Right sought to correct this through a “critical decolonizing” approach that integrates Indigenous voices and worldviews. The CMHR’s Indian residential school exhibit connects the schools with the Sixties scoop and current child welfare practices, as well as with other mass atrocities and moves to recognize it as genocide. Currently the CMHR is featuring temporary exhibit, “The Witness Blanket” a cedar panel monument to reconciliation. Reconciliation she said, requires reshaping historical narratives and museums have crucial role in challenging myth of peaceful settlement in Canada within framework of reconciliation.

Next, Julio Solórzano Foppa, Chair of the Memorial Para la Concordia in Guatemala spoke of interpreting and confronting memory of that country’s 36-year civil war through memorials. Guatemala’s Concord Memorial is a partnership of 10 civil society organizations commemorates the country’s Internal Armed Conflict and massacres; its process is deliberately not one of “reconciliation,” as the term implies “re-conciling”, a return to a past in which people were at peace, which in Guatemala did not exist. Rather they seek to build a “concord” between peoples, to create a new society. In addition to the construction of the Memorial Para la Concordia, the initiative includes a Memory Mapping project which documents over 500 plaques or monuments throughout Guatemala to acknowledge the conflict’s 200,000 victims, and these sites are now the location of Intergenerational Memory Dialogues. In Guatemala, reconciliation is non-ideological, bringing together people from the Left and Right, focusing on what is agreed upon, rather than on disagreement. Foppa added however that concord processes in Guatemala still need to do more to bridge racial and cultural divisions. One positive step in this direction is the phenomenal popularity of Guatemala’s all-female Alaide Foppa Orchestra (named after the speaker’s famous poet mother) which highlights female victims and role of women in reconciliation.

Foppa’s presentation was quite revelatory: I’d never parsed the term “reconciliation,” and from this perspective it would seem that perhaps Canada should have given more thought to adopting this as official terminology. There may not be an ideal previous state to which we can return, but we can work together on a concord for a better society in the future.

Another way in which women are dealing with the aftermath of Guatemala’s civil war was the subject of CMHR curator Armando Perla’s talk. In the 1980’s, widows and orphaned girls formed weaving cooperatives which have been producing Indigenous textiles for stores across the country and which have garnered interaction attention. When the CMHR approached the cooperatives with the idea of creating a documentary and virtual gallery of their workshops, the women come up with a brilliant counter-proposal: that the CMHR Boutique carry their textiles. When the documentary is released visitors will be able to purchase the textiles in the Museum.

The final session I attended as an audience member was on the UNDRIP (UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) as a Framework for Reconciliation; and it was standing room only! It featured four speakers: Judge David Arnot, President of CASHRA; Isha Khan with Manitoba Human Rights Commission; Will David, a policy analyst for the Assembly of First Nations; and Amnesty International’s Craig Benjamin.

David got things off with a laugh and applause by stating that the Assembly of First Nations wants full adoption of UNDRIP. (Pause). “That’s it!” International and domestic laws he notes, have been illegitimately built on fiction of Colonial “Doctrine of Discovery“; correcting this legacy through Indigenous sovereignty will mean Nation(s) to Nation relationships – stressing the multiplicity of Indigenous cultures.

Arnot addressed the Intersections of Indigenous rights with Treaty and Human rights, which he introduced as a Venn Diagram. He began with the wry observation that a 99% rate of ignorance about Treaties on the part of non-Indigenous people doesn’t prevent 100% of them from having an opinion about them. The UN Convention of the Rights of the Child stipulates right to know about rights, and on this, he said, human rights commissions have failed particularly in terms of recognizing the interconnections between Indigenous, human and treaty rights. What is needed is need K-12 education on the foundation of knowledge and understanding, hence of empathy, respect, harmony and reconciliation, which he called a Pedagogy of Respect.

Isha Khan urged the audience to  reach out to Indigenous people but not to worry so much about doing or saying the wrong thing — invite an Elder to your organization and “ask really dumb questions!”

Amnesty International’s Craig Benjamin added that each principle of UNDRIP a matter of life and death for Indigenous peoples. It took 20 years to pass UNDRIP because of colonial nation state intransigence. We all need to transcend and transform the limitations of Canadian law: he finds troubling that Canada’s official wording of adoption of UNDRIP says it is contingent on “domestic law.”

In addition to my own presentation in the “Institutional Approaches” panel, Mary-Ann Clarke delivered an often devastating paper on her professional and personal experiences with Child and Family Services, arguing that CFS needs to withdraw from all Aboriginal family services within two generations, replacing its policing function with general services and supports, i.e., housing, counselling, health, mental health etc.

I was disappointed that my session coincided with that of my colleagues Monique Woroniak and Ashlyn Haglund, who reported on their experiences creating the amazing Groundwork for Change website, which offers non-Indigenous Canadians a primer on colonization, racism, white privilege and Indigenous sovereignty.

The conference as a whole was so rich and so necessary there seemed to be a general consensus among the participants I spoke with that it shouldn’t be a one-time occurrence, but rather a regular event. Joining with so many hundreds of other people – Indigenous and non-Indigenous, Canadians and people from around the world – was a truly transformative experience, and I’m grateful to the organizers and all the speakers for sharing so much with us. Gathered as we were for the purposes of “not forgetting” and working towards reconciliation (and a concord) — what Dr. Chief Robert Joseph described as a “brilliant future” that can “change the world” — one couldn’t help but feel a part of that future.

[Image credit: University of Winnipeg, Flickr]

“How I Became an Oxfordian”

For the past year, the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship has been running a very entertaining series, “How I became an Oxfordian,” in which their members tell their personal stories of how they came to doubt the traditional biography of Shakespeare. This week it’s my turn:

“Why would anybody believe it?” The teenaged girl’s eyes were wide, her head shaking. She’d come to the front of the school auditorium to speak to Charles Beauclerk, the Earl of Burford, whom I had brought to her Edmonton, Alberta high school as a part of his 1993 tour. Charles’ talk in support of Edward de Vere as the author of the plays and poems had totally destroyed the Stratford myth for this young woman, and her question has stayed with me ever since.

Subjugated Knowledge in Academic Libraries pt. 2

[This is the conclusion to a two part series begun with my post of January 14th 2016. Excerpted and adapted with the editor’s permission from my article “Knowledge Ill-Inhabited: The Subjugation of Post-Stratfordian Scholarship in Academic Libraries.” The Oxfordian XVII (2015). Available for purchase on Amazon.].

As the venerable “backbone” or “heart” of the academy, the university library holds the fundamentally important role of supporting teaching and research through the collection of books, journals and other scholarly outputs such as theses and dissertations, and in organizing them through classification and the assignment of subject headings to provide accurate, replicable and intuitive access to them. In addition to being guided by a professional Code of Ethics (ALA 1939/2008), and principles of Diversity in Collection Development (ALA 1982/2014), academic libraries are also ostensibly committed to the American Library Association’s “Intellectual Freedom Principles for Academic Libraries” (2000) which states that:

The development of library collections in support of an institution’s instruction and research programs should transcend the personal values of the selector. In the interests of research and learning, it is essential that collections contain materials representing a variety of perspectives on subjects that may be considered controversial (quoted in Jones 71).

As Barbara M. Jones points out, there is in the American context at least a little-appreciated difference between public and private universities, the latter of which may intentionally reject these principles and retain greater control over their libraries’ collections (69). Even so, library collection-building in general has been subject to some controversy and accusations of bias, omission, and neglect. There is a modest but vigorous and significant body of critical library literature that argues that, under the guise of neutrality and impartiality, (and owing in part to selectors’ own biases, and other psychological factors [Quinn]), libraries have in fact failed to collect whole genres or categories of materials, (Berman 2001), or, by purchasing primarily from major publishers representing mainstream perspectives, passively neglect or marginalize certain topics and constituencies (Warner). Even if they are collected, materials deemed controversial or outside of the mainstream may be classified and described according to prescriptive and normative systems, often using prejudicial and pejorative language that “both reflect and create opinion” (Guimarães and Martinez-Avila, 22). These are biases in collections and cataloging, and, as will be shown below, have surely contributed to marginalizing the Shakespeare Authorship Question.

Library collections represent the cumulative product of a wide range of processes reaching from the author, through the publishing industry’s agents, houses, and marketers to reviewing journals to vendors to the selecting librarian, all of which are subject to external market forces, political decision making, and the vagaries of socio-psychological factors. For this reason – and owing to the quite varied range of controversial topics investigated — it has proven difficult to establish one particular, dominant factor in the creation of biased library collections. To cite a few examples, the literature suggests that some form of inside censorship (Berman 2001) may be a factor in the failure to collect adequately in such diverse areas as African studies (Warner), graphic novels and comic books (Toren), LGBT materials (Sweetland and Christensen), evangelical Christianity (Ingolfsland), small publisher political journals (Dilevko and Grewal), multi-ethnic materials (Sykes) and pro-life titles (Harmeyer). As this brief list suggests, areas of potential bias can cross the political spectrum; as well there is a great deal of debate in the literature concerning the methods employed to reach such conclusions, and what criteria should be used to identify “unbalanced” collections (Veeh).

Market bias, for example, would occur in cases in which publishers are unwilling to take risks on new authors, or ideas; or, if such works are published, are not given wide distribution. As the past president of the American Library Association Nancy Kranich points out, in their quest for profitability in an increasingly challenging marketplace, major publishers tend to prefer to bank on authors and titles with proven audiences, while rejecting those with potentially critical cutting edge viewpoints on important issues, leaving authors little choice but to seek out small, independent alternative presses (Kranich). The difficulty for libraries is that such houses often fall outside the traditional distribution channels including major reviewing journals – the number of reviews and notices in trade journals being positively associated with library purchases (Sweetland and Christensen). Kranach argues that building truly balanced collections requires libraries to actively seek out these alternative publishers (Kranich 1999). Quinn (2012) however suggests that there may be significant psychological factors that lead to biases against unconventional publications. While acknowledging that “[t]he ideal of the value-neutral collection is a myth” (282) he notes that:

Individuals not only exhibit a bias toward positive information but are also biased toward normative information. This is information that conforms to rules, standards, customs, practices, and expectations of one’s social group. . . . That minority behavior, deviant behavior, social taboos, and esoteric practices and ideologies strike the selector as strange or inappropriate may serve as an indicator of bias on the selector’s part (287).

We should note that collection decisions are not entirely in the hands of selecting librarians, but may be driven by faculty members, or by students themselves through emerging patron-driven acquisitions (PDA), in which click-throughs in pre-packaged e-book collections trigger purchases. In the case of the former, Lee (1988) questions the extent to which the ideological biases of faculty members – who are subject to none of the ethical principles expected of librarians – will resist excluding books and journals contrary to their own disciplinary viewpoints. The PDA model, according to Sens and Fonseca (2013), is similarly subject to an inherent conflict of interest, and one not consistent with that of the librarian: that search results will be programmed to highlight backlist titles to boost commercial publishers’ profits, de-emphasizing scholarly publishers in the process (363).

A tendency towards normatively can also result from the economics of collection development, particularly the use of pre-packaged approval plans.  Libraries create these plans by establishing profiles of their universities’ collection and curricular needs with a corporate vendor, as well as their preferred publishers, formats and price ranges, and then automatically receive only those titles corresponding with that profile. The economies of scale and deep discounts facilitated by approval plans are popular with libraries on limited budgets but inevitably favor major, well-known publishers at the expense of smaller, alternative presses, with the result that libraries are increasingly coming under fire for having homogenized collections representing only “a safe middle range of opinion…represent[ing] a consensus status quo” (Dilevko 680). Critics argue this corporate-friendly homogenization contradicts the library’s core values: Jeff Lilburn (2003) asks how “can current library policies and practices be characterized as ‘neutral’ if our collections simply reproduce the privileges already enjoyed by established and powerful media conglomerates in every other area of our society?” (p. 30), while Sanford Berman states that libraries’ “failure to select whole categories or genres of material” means that “[they] become willing accomplices in the homogenization and commodification of culture and thought” (Berman 2001, 7).

As Warner (2005) notes, the issue of bias in libraries presents a “complex picture” (184), a full explication of which is beyond the scope of the present post. Suffice it to stress however that, whatever its causes, the overwhelming presence of the mainstream side of an academic debate — and the corresponding absence of marginalized dissent – represents a significant positioning on the part of the institution as to the nature of legitimate and non-legitimate bodies of knowledge As MIT librarian Marlene Manoff observes,

[W]e need to acknowledge the kind of delegitimizing functions libraries perform in their exclusion of certain kinds of materials. . . . Academic libraries, as institutions of intellectual authority, confer symbolic status on those artifacts they choose to acquire and, implicitly at least, deny it to those they do not. Moreover, libraries, like universities, help to define what constitutes knowledge, i.e., what gets into libraries, and what are legitimate areas of study i.e., those that research libraries provide the materials to investigate. Especially in disciplines in the humanities, library research collections often limit possible areas of investigation (1993 4, 6).  

Ironically (and perhaps understandably), this normative, delegitimizing function can also be bound up in a defensive liberal reaction against the spectre of America’s culture wars over the purpose and future of the academy, as exemplified in the so-called Academic Bill of Rights (or ABOR) written and promoted by the right-wing David Horowitz Freedom Center and its offshoot, Students for Academic Freedom. While ostensibly espousing and defending pluralism and diversity, the Bill is seen by its many critics as an assault against both critical pedagogy and modern reason itself, being a veiled means to promote “intelligent design” and other conservative priorities in the classroom (Giroux 2006; Beitko et al 2005). Among the many regrettable consequence of such a toxically volatile public sphere is that it encourages liberal institutions and observers to fallaciously conflate a number of unrelated but marginalized views and theories – some of which are, indeed, despicable. For example, David Prosser, director of Communications for the Stratford Festival in Ontario, has publicly compared the Shakespeare Authorship Question to Holocaust denial (McNeil). Even Barbara M. Jones, one of the American library professions’ most outspoken leaders on the issue of intellectual freedom, subtly conflated these controversies with the Shakespeare Authorship Question in her 2009 book Protecting Intellectual Freedom in Your Academic Library, remarking,

The ABOR…assumes that all knowledge is uncertain, when in fact some discoveries have been accepted by broad consensus in the scholarly community — for example, that certain scholarship about Shakespeare is better researched and more fundamental than other scholarship (22).

Libraries depend on such scholarly consensus to impose universalized certainty over what constitutes knowledge in the form of classification and cataloguing: the disciplinary assignment and placement of books in three-dimensional space within the library, as well as the controlled vocabulary (subject headings) used to describe it in the library catalogue. The institution dominating this enterprise in academic and public libraries is The Library of Congress, in the form of its Classification system (1897) and its Subject Headings (LCSH). The former is the Library of Congress’s attempt to structure all human knowledge according to disciplines, (regardless of what is published), while the latter is based on “literary warrant” (actual publishing) and which, while also dating to the late 1890s, has undergone periodic revisions since.

Widely adopted worldwide, these Library of Congress schemes have been utilized by scholars for nearly 120 years. However, beginning in the 1960s (and corresponding with the social and political upheavals of the era) they have been subject to considerable criticism for their overwhelmingly Euro- and Christian-centric nature, as well as for many examples of sexism, heterosexism, racism, and American exceptionalism, and for their use of pejorative language to describe, exclude or misrepresent marginalized knowledge domains (Berman 1971/1993, Olson 1998, 2002). As Hope Olson (1998) argues,

The result of these factors is classification, which might be seen as…concentric circles of degrees of representation quality…a few core concepts best represented, a middle ground adequately represented, and a large periphery of poorly represented marginal concepts with some concepts outside of the limits (236).

In accordance with libraries’ long-standing value of neutrality, their classification and cataloguing schemes are created with a view to objectivity and avoiding bias. Yet, as A.C. Foskett, one of the Library of Congress’ earliest critics pointed out, they instead “reflect both the prejudices of its time and those of its author” (117). Indeed, as the literature argues, it is this very pursuit of objectivity that results in systemic normative biases (Olson and Schlegl 2001). As Guimarães and Martinez-Avila observe, “the prescriptive intention of neutrality and universality in the pursuit of a ‘better’ retrieval process” is the problem, not bias per se, which will inevitably exist in any system (24). However, as Olson and Schlegl point out in their systematic analysis of the literature, marginalized topics will inevitably be treated within a universalizing system as either

  • an exception to the presumed norm,
  • physically ghettoized away from the materials with which they should be associated;
  • depicted with an inappropriate structure that misrepresents the field;
  • assigned biased terminology, often with pejorative overtones; or
  • omitted altogether (1999).

Given the potency of what Olson (2002) calles “the power to name” we should understand that library classification and subject headings have tremendous potential to contribute to marginalization in many fields of study. As Guimarães and Martinez-Avila note,

Library schemes both reflect and create opinion at the same time; they…shape reality. It is well known that a very effective way to eradicate a certain group or a people from History is by in no way naming it. An effective way to defame a thing and put an end to its aspirations is to change its meaning to the worst possible one or to place it in the wrong context. An effective way to ridicule and isolate someone is by pointing her/him out as abnormal (deviating from the norm) and to exile him/her away from the peaceful and anonymous norm (standard). And, most probably, all these biases were introduced with the unconscious or intentional purpose of reinforcing the power discourses and the status quo (22).

With the ability of online catalogues to discover keywords throughout a given record, there are arguments that perhaps formalized subject headings have outlived their usefulness, that they are no longer needed. On the contrary, critics contend that subject headings are more important than ever, because the alternative presumes users will always know or guess the necessary terms (and combinations) on their own (Mann 53). Berman (2013) concurs, noting that without an intuitive subject heading, unless the desired term actually appears in the title, it may not be discoverable at all.


Works Cited

Academic Bill of Rights. Students for Academic Freedom. n.d. Web.

American Library Association. Code of Ethics of the American Library Association. Chicago: The American Library Association. (1939/2008). Web.

American Library Association. Diversity in Collection Development: An Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights. Chicago: The American Library Association. (1982/2014). Web.

Berman, Sanford. Prejudices and antipathies: A tract on the LC subject heads concerning people. McFarland & Company, 1971/1993.

Berman, Sanford. “Inside censorship.” Progressive Librarian 18 (2001): 48-63.

Berman, Sanford. “Controversial Cataloguing” in Not in My Library!: “Berman’s Bag” Columns from the Unabashed Librarian, 2000-2013., 2013. Jefferson, North Carolina ; London : McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2013.

Dilevko, Juris, and Kalina Grewal. “A New Approach to Collection Bias in Academic Libraries: The Extent of Corporate Control in Journal Holdings.” Library & Information Science Research 19.4 (1997): 359-85.

Foskett, A.C. “Misogynists All; A Study in Critical Classification.” Library Resources and Technical Services 15.2 (1971): 117-121.

Giroux, Henry A. “Academic Freedom Under Fire: The Case for Critical Pedagogy.” College Literature 33.4 (2006): 1-42.

Guimarães, José Augusto Chaves, and Daniel Martinez-Avila. “Library Classifications Criticism: Universality, Poststructuralism and Ethics.” Scire (2013): 21-6.

Harmeyer, Dave, et al. “Potential Collection Development Bias: Some Evidence on a Controversial Topic in California. Commentaries on Collection Bias: Eternal Vigilance the Price of Liberty. What’s Right? Adequate Representation and Numeric Equivalency: How Much is enough?” College & Research Libraries 56.2 (1995): 101-18.

Ingolfsland, D. “Books on the Historical Jesus as a Test Case for Selection Bias in American Academic Libraries.” Journal of Religious and Theological Information 8.1-2 (2009): 1-12.

Jones, Barbara M. Protecting Intellectual Freedom in Your Academic Library: Scenarios from the Front Lines. Chicago: American Library Association, 2009.

Kranich, Nancy. “A Question of Balance: The Role of Libraries in Providing Alternatives to the Mainstream Media.” Collection Building 19.3 (2000): 85-91.

Lee, James A. “Ideology in the Library.” Academic Questions 1.2 (1988): 39-41.

Lilburn, Jeff. “Re-Examining the Concept of Neutrality for Academic Librarians.” Feliciter 1 (2003): 30–32.

McNeil, Alex. “’Authorship Appeal’ Held at Stratford, Ontario, in October. Presumption in Favor of Shakspere ‘Not Rebutted.’” Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter. 50 4 Fall 2014.

Mann, Thomas. “Why LC Subject Headings are More Important Than Ever.” American libraries (2003): 52-54.

Manoff, Marlene. “Academic Libraries and the Culture Wars: The Politics of Collection Development.” Collection Management 16.4 (1993): 1-17.

Olson, Hope A. “Mapping Beyond Dewey’s Boundaries: Constructing Classificatory Space for Marginalized Knowledge Domains.” Library trends 47.2 (1998): 233-54.

Olson, Hope A. The Power to Name: Locating the Limits of Subject Representation in Libraries. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002. Print.

Olson, Hope A., and Rose Schlegl. “Bias in Subject Access Standards: A Content Analysis of the Critical Literature.” Proceedings of the Annual Conference of CAIS/Actes Du Congrès Annuel De l’ACSI, 1999.

Olson, Hope A., and Rose Schlegl. “Standardization, Objectivity, and User Focus: A Meta-Analysis of Subject Access Critiques.” Cataloging & Classification Quarterly 32.2 (2001): 61-80.

Quinn, Brian. “Collection Development and the Psychology of Bias.” The Library 82.3 (2012).

Sens, Jean-Mark, and Anthony J. Fonseca. “A Skeptic’s View Of Patron-Driven Acquisitions: Is It Time To Ask The Tough Questions?” Technical Services Quarterly 30.4 (2013): 359-371.

Sweetland, James H., and Peter G. Christensen. “Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Titles: Their Treatment in the Review Media and their Selection by Libraries.” Collection Building 14.2 (1995): 32-41.

Sykes, Vivian. (1990). “Advocacy for Ethnic Collection Development.” In K.T.A. Scarborough (Ed.), Developing Library Collections for California’s Emerging Majority: A Manual of Resources for Ethnic Collection Development. Oakland, CA: Bay Area Library and Information System. 34-68.

Toren, Beth Jane,. “Bam! Pow! Graphic Novels Fight Stereotypes in Academic Libraries: Supporting, Collecting, Promoting.” Technical Services Quarterly 28.1 (2010): 55-69.

Veeh, Elese M. Politics and Collection Diversity in California Public Libraries’ Nonfiction Holdings on Two Controversial Subjects: Abortion and Same-Sex Marriage. Unpublished Master’s Paper, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC (2007).

Warner, Jody Nyasha. “Africa in Canadian Academic Libraries: A Continent’s Voices Go Missing.” Social Justice 32.4 (2005): 180-91.

A “Ribbon of Ignorance:” LCSH and the Language of Genocide

Following several days of often profound learning at the Ontario Library Association Superconference, my own presentation got off to a fairly light-hearted beginning as Feather Maracle Luke acting as convener introduced me with the answers I’d previously sent her by email to some “ice-breaking” questions, one of which was, “what is your favourite word?” I’d answered, juxtapose — because doing it usually leads to interesting ideas and insights. Having blogged for more than a decade on both urban planning and library-related issues I’d often found it fruitful to base my discussions on the juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated events, news items or experiences.

Only now as I write this, however, does it occur to me that this verb lay at the heart of my project: this very act of juxtaposing the two worlds — the lived Indigenous history of genocide and the rationalized taxonomy about it — reveals the truth about both: that this world is not this world.

I’d read this phrase years ago in the work of psychologist Robert J. Lifton, who built his career exploring the darkest shared places of the human mind: the inner lives, motivations and traumatic memories of both the perpetrators and victims of major mass atrocities and genocides of the 20th Century. In Death in Life (1967) he interviewed survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima; in Home from the War (1973), he learned how American veterans of the war in Vietnam experienced what Lifton called an “atrocity-producing situation” – in his words “one so structured, psychologically and militarily, that ordinary people, men or women no better or worse than you or I, can regularly commit atrocities“; and in The Nazi Doctors (1986) he chronicled the progression of Germany`s doctors from ordinary medical professionals to willing participants in genocide.

The latter book begins with an interview Lifton had conducted with a Holocaust survivor who, pausing for a moment in his horrific recollections, looks out the window and sighs, “this world is not this world.” Lifton said he understood the comment to mean that “the ordinary rhythms and appearances of life, however innocuous or pleasant, were far from the truth of human existence” (p. 3).

Since becoming a librarian, however, I have also come to realize that this incommensurability can sometimes be deliberately structured: that the language used to frame our understandings of the world can also be “far from the truth of human existence.” Nowhere did this seem more apparent than the history of genocide in the Americas.

Having spent the previous two days taking in sessions from the Aboriginal stream, focusing in particular on worldviews and languages, I knew that language was where I needed to begin – in Ojibwe, and with a Territorial acknowledgement:

Mino gigizheb! Anamikaage!

Michael Dudley ndizhinikaaz, Winnipeg ndojeba.

Good morning, welcome, my name is Michael Dudley, and I am the Indigenous and Urban Services Librarian at the University of Winnipeg, in Treaty One Territory, in the heart of the Metis Nation. I Acknowledge our place here on the historical territory of the Huron-Wendat and Petun First Nations, the Seneca and the of the New Credit First Nation of Mississauga Ojibwa land once governed by the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant between the Iroquois Confederacy and the Ojibwe as well as allied nations. I’ve been impressed with the respect shown by so many speakers in making their own territorial acknowledgements, and in their use of Indigenous languages; but given that I am speaking this morning of the genocides and atrocities that were carried out within the colonial states in which I have lived all my life and from which I have benefitted – and further about the written histories about these events, which as we shall see have been rendered virtually invisible by the very structures and practices of my own profession from which I have gained further privileges – I felt it particularly incumbent on myself in that I honour these nations, these Treaties, these forms of governance, these languages – for example, anishinaabemowin — that were so purposefully assaulted in the name of “civilization.”      

Following an overview of Library of Congress standards for books on other genocides and atrocities, I then set out the ways in which research on the topic of Native American genocides is made so problematic by the biases and omissions in the treatment given it by the Library of Congress Subject Headings and Classifications: there is no subject heading that explicitly recognizes Native American genocide, and the basic headings which would apply (Genocide – Canada; Genocide – United States) are rarely used, and it is quite literally impossible to find books in WorldCat using these subject headings.



All that a subject search on “genocide united states” reveals is a single article, while “genocide canada” only results — mysteriously — in a thesis:



Instead, Library of Congress headings are for the most part euphemistic, including

Indians of North America

  • Treatment of
  • Violence against
  • Crimes against
  • Assimilation
  • Government relations
  • Relocation
  • Education
  • Wars

For the American context in particular, we see these headings:

  • United States – Ethnic Relations
  • United States – Race relations
  • Columbus, Christopher — Influence
  • Forced migration
  • Massacres – [Geography]
  • California — Gold Discoveries — social aspects
  • Meanwhile, the brutal onslaught, slavery and recreational massacres the Spanish wrought on the Aztecs is labelled “Mexico history conquest.”

The alternative, simply using keywords “genocide Canada” yields thousands of hits, many of them irrelevant to the topic of Native Americans, the term “Canada” simply showing up somewhere in the catalogue record, including place of publication. There’s also no way to browse the shelves, as LC Classification places books on this topic in a variety of locations:

  • E 59 – Pre-Columbian American, special topics.
  • E 76.6 – Indians of North America, study and teaching
  • E 77 – … comprehensive works
  • E 78 – …by state, province or region
  • E 91 – …Government relations
  • E 92 – …Government relations, Canada
  • E 93 – …Government relations, United States
  • E 96 – …Education, Canada, general works
  • E 96.5 – “Indian schools”
  • E 97 – …education, United States, general works
  • E 98 – “Other topics”
  • E112 – “Discovery of America” – Christopher Columbus
  • E 179.5 – United States History “General special”
  • F 868 – California history
  • HC 117 – Economic history, Canada
  • HD 1696 – Agricultural economics
  • KE 7709 – Native peoples, Treaties

In short, this history is treated quite differently from any other historical or contemporary genocide, making it extremely difficult to gather comprehensive results. To generate my sample of 50 titles it was necessary to do numerous advanced searches using combinations of subject headings and keywords, looking deliberately for books featuring variations of genocide, holocaust, extermination and ethnic cleansing in their titles. Even with such words in their titles, sometimes benign-sounding euphemisms are overwhelmingly applied to these books, with the effect, I argue, of denying authorial intent by imposing triumphal colonial narratives on histories of genocide; employing double standards such that even when the histories of the Americas are explicitly compared to other recognized genocides the author’s will is subverted; or erasing outright any genocide-related content from the description.

I recounted the efforts to address these structural deficiencies over the years: in 1998 Sanford Berman published an article entitled “Whose Holocaust Is It, Anyway? The “H” Word in Library Catalogs”  that included the 18 alternative headings he’d proposed for use at the Hennepin County Library in Minnesota, including

  • Native American Holocaust (1492-1900)
  • American Indian Genocide (1492-1900)
  • American Indian Holocaust (1492-1900)
  • Amerindian Holocaust (1492-1900)
  • First Nations Holocaust (1492-1900)
  • Genocide, American Indian (1492-1900)
  • Genocide, Indian (1492-1900)

As well-intentioned as these are, however, one could certainly critique Berman’s decision to put an end date of 1900 on genocides in the Americas – especially as regards the existence of the Canadian residential school system into the 1990s!

Finally, I situated these biases, omissions, narratives and erasures in light of the imperatives of two mandates from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation and the United Nations’ Joinet-Orentlicher Principles. In Call to Action 69, the TRC calls on Libraries and Archives Canada to

  1. Fully adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the United Nations Joinet-Orentlicher Principles, as related to Aboriginal peoples’ inalienable right to know the truth about what happened and why, with regard to human rights violations committed against them in the residential schools [through history books].
  2. Ensure that its record holdings related to residential schools are accessible to the public.

The Joinet-Orentlicher Principles referred to by the TRC is a non-binding normative framework that any country having experienced crimes against humanity or genocide can use to move from conflict to reconciliation. In the upper left corner of this diagram we see the elements of “the right to Know” which includes access to history books.



The fact that there are 50 books available on library shelves and indexed in a global library catalogue was not the same thing as making them “accessible” as intended by these recommendations; as Sanford Berman would put it (in his 2001 article “Inside Censorship”), many of these titles are the victims of bibliocide, their contents “murdered” by biased cataloguing and classification. What is evident in the treatment of Native American genocide is deliberate and studied obfuscation that both reflects and reinforces the exclusion of this history from what Katherine Bischoping and Natalie Fingerhut called the “border lines” of genocide studies.

My presentation over, the discussion period saw what was for me one of the most emotionally powerful moments of the entire conference: A lawyer who had immigrated from Asia and become a Canadian citizen, and having never known anything about Canada’s genocidal treatment of Aboriginal people, described how, in the course of preparing a legal case, he had been going through records in a warehouse and had been horrified to discover files and photographs about the residential school system. The realization of the truth had brought him to tears, and ever since when he returns to his country of origin he tries to tell his friends and colleagues about Canada’s true history, to much disbelief. That people in other countries might know nothing about Canada’s genocidal history is hardly surprising, however, given what TRC Commissioner Dr. Marie Wilson called the “ribbon of ignorance” about residential schools among Canadians themselves.

I believe that what my research suggests is that this “ribbon of ignorance” about Native American genocides not only runs through our libraries, but has been perpetuated by libraries, and the language used to obfuscate authorial intent in the relevant literature.


Worldviews, Languages and Community Development: “Hospitality for the Gift” of Indigenous Worldviews at OLA 2016

In the last week of January 2016 I travelled to Toronto to attend the Ontario Library Association Superconference to present my paper A Little Matter of Genocide and attend as many of the sessions in the Aboriginal sector as I could. It promised to be an intense week, not only because the Aboriginal stream looked so rich, and that I was also attending the editorial team meeting for the journal Partnership,  (for which I edit the Viewpoints section) but because I actually hadn’t finished working on my talk yet.

(I was also really please to learn while I was in Toronto that The Decolonized Librarian is listed as a required resource for an online course through the University of Alberta School of Library and Information Studies – LIS 541 – Library and Information Services in a Culturally Diverse Society, taught by Moyra Lang, while that the students in LIS 592 – Intellectual Freedom and Social Responsibility in Librarianship, taught by Toni Samek had been particularly introduced to my work on LCSH and genocide).

As it turns out, given all the pressures and commitments with which I was dealing, I was only able to take in five sessions from the Aboriginal stream – (not including, owing to my scheduled flight, Wab Kinew’s closing keynote. But check out this amazing graphic by Liisa Sorsa!) The impressive Aboriginal sessions were organized by Feather Maracle Luke of Timmins Public Library, and I will attempt here to respectfully share some of what I learned.

The first session I attended, on Indigenous Worldview Education was an engaging, sometimes humorous and always fascinating introduction to Indigenous understandings of the world and universe and our place within them, and how these are only now beginning to be adopted by Western sciences. The session’s leaders Maria Montejo and Jordan Teshakotennyon’s Miller offer youth programming through the R.E.A.L. School (Reality Education & Applied Lifeskills Leadership Development Program).  Maria (Deer Clan) described how she had come to Canada when her family escaped the horrific Guatemalan Genocide, in which 20,000 people (most of them Indigenous Mayans) lost their lives over a 36-year period. Her personal journey helped frame the session in a powerful way: in her search to understand peace and change she had learned the violent history of Guatemala and went to visit the ruins left by her people, but it made her angry; to which her father told her, “your mind is twisted; you’re trying to understand your people with the mind you have.” She ended up in university for two years studying racism which mostly involved working in a circle discussing the shared experience of racism with others.

She and Jordan compared three world views, the Newtonian (reductionistic), Quantum (holistic) and Indigenous (holographic) worldviews. The differences are profound: in the first only the evidence of the physical world as detected by our senses is considered real; in the second, everything both seen and unseen are connected; but in the third all material essences represent an invisible spiritual dimension. At the REAL school they teach that we need to decolonize to learn the things that we have forgotten. Our Western education is based on linear, Newtonian categorizing. Think of a box, said Maria: we know what is “normal” by what is inside the box. Our minds according to this worldview only know what is separate, and so our minds create strategies and structure and hierarchy to help us make sense of it. But in the Indigenous, holographic worldview, the inputs of the five senses support only very low-level thinking. Instead, she says, we are actually “heart people” and the heart only understands connection.

In the holographic view, we are projection systems, and what we see is what we project. Accordingly, change only comes when we are uncomfortable.

Maria asked, we’re all Indigenous to planet Earth – which Indigenous peoples refer to as “all my relations” — but why is it so many of us can’t remember Her teachings? Where are our original teachings? The Drum is the heart of the Earth, which has a magnetic field, just like each of us. Maria and Jordan demonstrated this through the use of a handheld device that lit up and glowed when they held both hands, closing a circuit with their mutual fields. Drumming, we were taught, connects to our magnetic fields through the heart.

Another major difference between the Newtonian and Holographic world: the first sees a world of scarcity over which conflicts must be waged; the Indigenous world is an abundant world. Why, then, would we fight over it? The Nation-to-Nation relationship we need to move to reconciliation was demonstrated by Jordan, who held up a Wampum belt showing two courses of water, one for a ship and one with a canoe. You can’t steer one from the other, he said.

After such a rich morning — with so much to absorb — I was eager to hear what our keynote speaker R. David Lankes had to say. I’ve been intrigued by his work – mostly in thumbing through his imposing The Atlas of New Librarianship. His topic was innovation (the conference theme) and in addressing the common myths around it. Innovations, he said, should be out of quest for social equality and highlighted the work of the Ferguson Missouri and Baltimore Public Libraries which had offered such services as free food and diapers for families dealing with militarized policing and racial conflict. This was a powerful message, but was undermined somewhat at the end by his unfortunate exhortation for us to think of ourselves as “missionaries”. I imagined there was a lot of cringing in the room around me.

The following day, my colleague Monique Woroniak from Winnipeg Public Library spoke on the theme of Choosing to Walk a Path: Library Services to Indigenous Peoples with a Purpose. She began her talk with a particularly sincere land acknowledgement to the Territory of the New Credit First Nation of Mississauga Ojibwa, stressing the importance of these – that acknowledgements are not to be uttered by rote as an obligation, but that they mean a great deal. She then set the stage for her work in Winnipeg by reviewing the contexts: the one year anniversary of “the article” in Maclean’s naming Winnipeg as the country’s most racist city, which started a still-ongoing conversation in our city. Current initiatives such as the Bear Clan Patrol, my own university’s mandatory Indigenous course requirement, and the recent launch of Red Rising Magazine all point to the vitality of Indigenizing efforts in Winnipeg.

This led Monique to next reflect provocatively on the key terms (which I’ve of course used heavily on this blog) of “decolonizing” and “indigenizing.” In the first place, she stressed, we need to understand colonialism as a structure, not an event, and referred us to Patrick Wolf’s 2006 article in the Journal of Genocide Research, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native” (which I noted as a must-read for my own research).  She believes the term “decolonizing” needs to be used with a lot of caution, as nobody knows what a “decolonized” Canada would look like. (As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang argue, “decolonizing” isn’t just a metaphor, it actually requires the return of land). For her part, she prefers to frame her work in terms of Indigenizing — giving over significant control to Indigenous persons or bodies, to let them have the last word.

Other oft-used phrases in public libraries include “outreach” and “diversity”. She sees diversity as existing on the most basic end of a spectrum, with genuine anti-racism efforts the most complete realization. “Diversity” she argues celebrates differences but doesn’t challenge power or change the structure. Institutional (systemic) racism is structured racism, which requires something more focused. Anti-racism work acknowledges power differences, privilege and works to address injustices, she said. A library can only go so for with “diversity.” Outreach as well doesn’t involve divesting power, as collaboration is minimal. But in Community Development efforts the Library is a partner, an ally, and decision-making is shared. (For more of Monique’s thoughts on these ideas, check out her chapter in the book I edited for ALA Editions, Public Libraries and Resilient Cities).

Monique’s most important message: Indigenous people know what they need. It’s the job of institutions and professionals to listen, or get out of the way.

The metric here she says is on relationships: How many relationships did you build? (This also resonated with me in my own on-campus outreach work: on some days I might not actually get a lot of students wanting help with their papers, but just by being out of the library and in a student centre I am building relationships with students and staff),

Following these theoretical foundations, Monique highlighted some of the amazing Indigenous placemaking efforts at WPL, including the Aboriginal Reading in the Round which was renamed Ah kha koo gheesh or “Children emerge from learning.” The new Adult space renamed Wii ghoss or “birch bank place,” and now features installations of art loaned by community groups. With this sort of collaborative, thoughtful Indigenizing processes, she said, the Library doesn’t actually have to do so much outreach anymore, when you invite people in. A real achievement was the Library’s 2012 Last Word on First Words contest, in which at a featured poet’s suggestion the Library chartered a bus to Winnipeg’s North End for poetry reading, stopping at locations referred to in to poems, with bannock served on the bus.

There was a vigorous discussions following Monique’s talk, including Feather Maracle Luke urging us to check out the Ojibwe and Cree Cultural Centre Library in Timmins Ontario, which has developed its own classification numbers – an exciting development on which I determined to follow up for my own paper.

On Thursday afternoon I attended two back-to-back sessions on Revitalizing Indigenous Languages — the first hosted by Iehnhotonkwas Bonnie Jane Maracle, Alex McKay, and Tw^tahawiht Dawn Antone and the second by Maracle, Sara McDowell and Melanie Ribau. McKay offered extensive greetings in Anishnaabemowin – deliberate, he said, because he knew we would feel frustrated – as frustrated as he felt learning English when he was younger!

Language revitalization, we were told, is not only mandated by the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (which recognizes the rights to languages, knowledge, place names, and education in own culture & language) but is a significant part of the Calls to Action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It’s not just the responsibility of Indigenous Canadians to learn these languages but is an obligation of the rest of us to support (but not lead) these efforts.

We then learned of the Ciimaan/Kahuwe’yá/Qajaq Indigenous language initiative at the University of Toronto which offers space, programs and support (e.g., events, workshops, presentations) for Indigenous Language learners. It features a Language Cafe open to anyone wanting to come in and use their language.

In the second Language Revitalization session, Melanie Ribau from the Toronto Public Library introduced herself in Ojibwe adding every Indigenous word spoken is one more step towards revitalization. Toronto has Ontario’s highest population of Indigenous peoples, from a diverse range of cultures, and to support Indigenous readers the Spadina Road Branch has a dedicated Native Peoples collection, replaced English street signage for Spadina with its Ojibwe name and has initiated an Elder in Resident in the branch library. We were also urged to seek out The Green Book of Language Revitalization

The University of Toronto’s Sara McDowell then showed us how the University of Toronto’s Robarts Library created some outstanding language displays taking visitors through the seasons and has LibGuides features resources in multiple languages.  Her commitment to language revitalization is that she feels an obligation as one within a system that oppressed and sought to eradicate Indigenous languages to do what she can to revitalize it. Next steps to include permanent Indigenous language signage.

I was only able to take in less than half of what was offered in the Aboriginal sector, but was most impressed with what I learned of the profound worldviews of Indigenous peoples, and how these are being incorporated into brilliantly designed Indigenized spaces and collaborative community development efforts at the Winnipeg Public Library, as well as innovative and responsive language revitalization projects at Toronto Public Library and the University of Toronto. I believe we can see in these institutions’ acceptance and incorporation of Indigenous values the beginning of a realization of what Indigenous scholar Rauna Kuokkanen (Sami) refers to as “hospitality” to the “logic of the gift” of Indigenous epistemologies, a gift with the power to transform our institutions from their former hegemonic Eurocentrism to “tolerance to engagement and to active participation in the logic of the gift.” She writes (and I would suggest that we could easily swap out “the library” for “the academy” in the following):

[T]he future of the academy is dependent on the recognition of the gift of Indigenous epistemes—recognition as understood within the logic of the gift that foregrounds the responsibility in the name of the well-being of all. As in Indigenous epistemes, the future of the academy is dependent on its ability to create and sustain appropriate reciprocal relationships grounded on action and knowledge. In other words, recognizing the gift requires acquiring and adopting a new logic that is grounded on the responsibility toward the other that is defined as the ability and willingness to reciprocate at the epistemic level, not only at the level of human interaction. The call for the recognition of the gift of Indigenous epistemes is a call for an epistemic shift grounded on a specific philosophy and as such, a more profound transformation than efforts toward the inclusive university seeking to “democratize” the traditionally Eurocentric curriculum and the canon.

These sessions had certainly given me a great deal to think about in terms of my own work, and renewed my confidence in incorporating Indigenous languages into my presentation. The Friday morning keynote by writer and actor Darrell Dennis, “Peace Pipe Dreams: The Truth About Lies About Indians” also gave me a perfect lead-in: In his entertaining and sobering speech he pointed out that he’s seeing more Native people going online to combat ignorance and racist comments by saying, “Read a book. Don’t google, don’t go back to school. Just read a book.”

As I would argue in my talk (and describe in my next post), this excellent advice does come with a caveat: You have to be able to discover the book exists first.