A review of Not Seeing Red: American Librarianship and the Soviet Union, 1917-1960, by Stephen Karetzky

Stephen Karetzky, Library Director at New Jersey's Felician College, has produced a compelling indictment of prominent American librarians' affection for the Soviet Union from the time of the Russian Revolution through the 1950s. "In thought and deed," Karetzky writes in the introduction, "they betrayed the fundamental values, goals, and interests of their profession and their country." He weaves together institutional and intellectual history to place these attitudes in the context of similar ones held by many leading American educators and cultural figures during these years—including their willful ignorance of conditions in the USSR, despite numerous reliable accounts of those conditions that were published as early as the 1920s. 

One of the more interesting aspects of this book, in fact, is its description of the transformation of pre-Revolutionary Russia's libraries to a centralized, totalitarian library system that promoted literacy primarily to propagandize the citizenry. Lenin and his wife, Nadezhda K. Krupskaya, played a central role in the formation of this monolithic system, dictating even the proper (and dreary) attitude with which to approach book cataloging. "It is no simple matter to evaluate a book," Krupskaya declared, "but a large question and one must be a good Marxist to tackle it." She also believed in the importance of children's libraries but made sure that classic works of literature were purged of non-Communist ideas. Karetzky shows that Czarist-era libraries were far more numerous and of higher quality than alleged in subsequent Bolshevik propaganda. The Soviets consistently boasted of having an astronomically high number of books and libraries, but the regime defined a "book" as anything more than a few pages and a "library" as any collection of more than 50 books. 

American librarians often repeated such fantastical claims in what Karetzky terms "wonder stories" about Soviet libraries that periodically appeared in professional publications. Several of these authors actually believed that the USSR was on the road to utopia and clearly envied the power of Soviet librarians, conveniently overlooking the fact that they were functioning almost exclusively as propaganda agents. Their writings echoed the clichés of better-known Soviet apologists of the time, such as journalist Walter Duranty and educators George Counts and John Dewey. Nonetheless, a few librarians either always had more realistic views of the USSR or came to such views eventually, as did Counts and Dewey.

Not Seeing Red also confronts the mythology about "paranoid right-wingers" who allegedly wanted to pull books by Communist authors off of library shelves during the 1950s. Actually, as Karetzky illustrates, conservatives usually did not want to remove books but simply wanted anti-Communist authors well represented. In one celebrated case in Boston, prominent conservatives actually defended the public library against the Boston Post's unsuccessful campaign to remove all Communist materials from it. Karetzky proves that several prominent historians of American librarianship, when chronicling such episodes, failed to engage in the most elementary research, such as examining (easily available) primary sources. Karetzky's meticulous scholarship has produced a valuable addition to the literature not only of the library profession but of Cold War historiography.