Libraries: hallmarks of freedom, democracy

Guest column by Trish Navarre

In March when I headed to Beijing for another teaching stint on behalf of Whatcom Community College, my wallet held an international VISA card from WECU, a recent “upgrade” from my conventional card.  Little did I realize that this card would prove almost useless, while my sweet little WCLS library card became priceless- my real international passport.  With my library card I explored Alaska, the Middle East, London and New York.

Unlike in America, Chinese people typically do not simply strike up conversations on the bus or subway. Because Beijing is a vast city, travel time can be extremely long and tiring.  Visiting friends in another part of the city sometimes required two and a half to three hours each way on public transportation! What might seem an interminable ride in silence became an adventure while listening to an audiobook.  While most of my fellow passengers were glued to their phones, I was free to look around, observe my surroundings, smile, notice landmarks and generally still be connected to my environment. I was in heaven!

At the school where I taught, a small cadre of four foreign teachers (two Russian, one Armenian, one American) shared space with four Chinese, all tucked amicably in a large open space with very little privacy. Therefore, we often could hear conversations in many languages, and for several weeks people shouted out results from World Cup games.

However, a surprising amount of intrigue surrounded my enthusiasm and dedication to listening to audiobooks, which I could download onto my phone (assuming it was one of those rare moments of internet connectivity). Several teachers asked if they could also listen to the stories and books I had downloaded from my library.  A few of my closer friends even begged to borrow my library card to get books or information for themselves.  Sadly, this was impossible, and, once again, I regretfully explained that my library card is uniquely my own and not transferable.

Increasing use of facial recognition technology, surveillance cameras, and government control over the lives of 1.5 billion citizens is a reality in China. Asking questions and challenging authority is not a norm for anyone and students are not encouraged to speak their minds. Those “nails who stand higher than the others” are hammered down.

Much has been made of the “Great Firewall of China,” which stops and also controls what information people can access through the Internet. Admittedly, much of what flies around in cyberspace is trashy or maybe downright dangerous. That is why, during Banned Book Week (the week of September 24), we take time to examine who or what makes something objectionable to the point that it is forbidden.  And why, after so many centuries of trying to control what people do or think, have we not learned that it is “the forbidden fruit” that attracts the most attention? Would it not be better to help teach the art of discernment, of critical thinking and independent searches for truth?

Thank you, libraries and librarians and citizens who have fought to ensure that public access and privacy to ideas and information have been preserved for each generation.  Let us not take this hard won freedom for granted.  I, for one, most certainly do not

Trish Navarre, M.Ed., is an instructor of the ESLA Program at Whatcom Community College and a board member of the Whatcom County Library Foundation.           

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