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The Library as Art Project: The Clandestine Reading Room

by Dolsy Smith, Humanities Librarian

The Clandestine Reading Room

When my brother asked for my help with a proposal in response to the open call for a “Monument to Cold War Victory,” I was intrigued. The organizers of the competition were seeking work that would move beyond the conventional stories, as told by Hollywood and history textbooks, of “good” versus “evil” empires – seeking work that would probe the complex legacy of the Cold War. I am a librarian, not an artist. But while thinking about the “legacy of the Cold War,” my mind jumped to the guiding ethic of my profession: the conviction that the free and open exchange of information and ideas is vital to democracy. As liberal Western governments have become at once more secretive and more willing to scrutinize their citizens, librarians have stood fast by this conviction. As a profession, we have voiced our opposition to the broad powers of surveillance granted by the Patriot Act; we continue to protect our patrons’ privacy; and we advocate for making information as public and accessible as possible. Here at GW, the Libraries proudly house the National Security Archive, an independent non-profit organization that for decades has blazed trails by getting government documents declassified and into the public domain, allowing crucial parts of Cold-War history to be told.

With these commitments in mind, my brother – Kant Smith, a visual artist based in New York – and I developed a project we have dubbed the Clandestine Reading Room: a pop-up library devoted to exhibits and programming about government secrecy and surveillance. To our pleasant surprise, our project was selected for inclusion in the “Monument to Cold War Victory” show, which opened in October of 2014 at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in downtown Manhattan. Combining our skills as artist and librarian, my brother and I transformed a wing of the gallery at Cooper Union into an interactive exhibit: a visual timeline showing the history of the U.S. government’s use of surveillance and subterfuge to control and suppress political dissent. Drawing on the rich trove of material in the public domain, we let the documents speak for themselves. And the walls of the gallery told a chilling story, one whose elements range from the banal to the outrageous and the bizarre. But whether it is the anonymous hate-mail that the FBI sent to Martin Luther King, Jr. in the early 1960’s, threatening him with blackmail and advising him to commit suicide; or the NYPD reports on “locations of concern” in Middle-Eastern immigrant communities in New York, documenting police stake-outs of cafes, bakeries, and newsstands, a common thread emerges. Shielded from public scrutiny, the powers of surveillance become normalized, taking on a life of their own. Far from an extreme measure taken in times of crisis, surveillance becomes routine, a part of bureaucratic operations. And so it is crucial that we work to bring these activities into the light of public scrutiny, putting them to the test of civil liberties and open debate.

Nate Jones giving a Freedom of Information Act WorkshopThis work starts with conversation and strategy. Thus, we complemented our exhibit with two events: a workshop on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and a panel discussion titled “Dissent under Surveillance.” Nate Jones, a FOIA expert with the National Security Archive, led a lively and informative session about how to request government documents under FOIA and a related federal regulation, the Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR). To a packed room of journalists, academic researchers, and legal activists, Nate offered practical advice for working with these important but under-used tools. Anyone can file a request, and with a little savvy, one can get results. Do your homework, and be specific in your requests: these were Nate’s main suggestions. As he explained, government officials are not necessarily opposed to releasing documents to the public; a well-written request that provides both a rationale for the documents’ release and enough details for the official to locate them easily will often do the trick. All the same, some agencies are more compliant than others: Nate showed examples where the entire text of the document had been redacted, leaving only a tantalizing blank.

Such is the case with many of the documents obtained by Ryan Shapiro, a Ph.D. candidate in history at MIT and one of the speakers on our panel, “Dissent under Surveillance.” Ryan’s FOIA efforts focus on the U.S. government’s treatment of animal-rights and environmental activists and, more recently, on U.S. surveillance of Nelson Mandela. Ryan’s innovative FOIA strategies have prompted the FBI to label his research “a threat to national security.” Alongside Ryan, our panel featured several other experts on the intersection of activism, free speech, and national security, including Heidi Boghosian, legal activist and author of the book Spying on Democracy; Carey Shenkman, a First-Amendment lawyer who has worked with Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange; Kevin Gosztola, an independent journalist; and Lisa Lynch, a scholar of journalism and the media.

In the age of social media, it is truer than ever that speaking and writing – and even reading – are political acts. To be wise to the risks, and alive to the ethical implications of what we read, write, and say: these are the conditions for participation in a democracy, and to prepare people for such participation remains the goal of an education – and of a library. The Clandestine Reading Room is meant to wake people up to the risks. Now that the exhibition in New York is over, we plan to take our pop-up library on the road. But in my work at the GW Libraries, I have the daily satisfaction of contributing to the second condition: helping people discover the resources with which to forge ethical positions, build solidarity with others, and contribute to public life. In the library, we don’t just provide access to information. In the library, we tend the innumerable paths through information to knowledge, inspiration, wisdom, solace, compassion, and justice. Every library is like an art project because, like art, libraries offer us new ways of seeing and feeling – like works of art, libraries don’t give us answers, but they help us pose questions – the questions on whose answers the future rests.

Dolsy Smith, Humanities LibrarianDolsy Smith is a librarian for the humanities at GW. A collaboration with the artist Kant Smith, The Clandestine Reading Room will appear at the Wende Cold War Museum in Los Angeles in 2016, and in the meantime, in Washington, DC.

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