Ilan Stavans and Muira McCammon
Given its location, it isn’t astounding what periodic international uproar the Guantánamo Detainee Library has generated. Created early in the century, there was great concern and speculation about what measures the U.S. Department of Defense might take to deprive their detainees of intellectual and linguistic stimulation. It isn’t the only library in the detention center—there is also one for military personnel—but it is surely the most controversial. According to reports, there are books in eighteen different languages in the bookshelves. In For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire (2005), James Yee, a former Muslim chaplain, spends multiple pages discussing the architecture of the library, the treatment of the Qur’an, and the ways in which books are distributed. Unfortunately, Yee’s book isn’t part of the collection, nor are other volumes critical of the authorities and, as it happens, of the United States government in general, ranging from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) to Noam Chomsky’s Interventions (2007). In reaction, the American Library Association’s Social Responsibilities Round Table passed in 2008 the 440 word-long Resolution on Guantánamo & the Rights of Prisoners to Read, which “strongly urges that, until such time that the prison is closed, all prisoners shall immediately be afforded the right to read and supplied with materials enabling them to do so by the United States Department of Defense and its libraries.” Five journalists even started a Tumblr devoted to collecting photos of the Detainee Library, showing how it has changed, with detainee art occasionally hanging on walls. Still, it is challenging to identify how it has changed in the past decade.
One of the international uproars happened in 2013, when U.S. Representative (D-VA) Jim Moran visited Guantánamo Bay with a delegation and then released the following statement to the Huffington Post: “Rather than the Qur’an, the book that is requested most by the (Camp 7 detainees) is Fifty Shades of Grey (2011). They’ve read the entire series in English.” Shortly thereafter, James Connell, a Pentagon-appointed lawyer representing Ammar Al Baluchi, told the BBC that his client had never requested Fifty Shades of Grey but had, in fact, received the book from a Guantánamo guard. That same year, John Grisham published “After Guantánamo, Another Injustice,” an opinion piece in the New York Times in which he expressed his consternations that his own books had been banned because of their “impermissible content.” The titles include The King of Torts, which Grisham describes as “a novel about civil litigation involving mass torts” and The Innocent Man, a true story based on a case of wrongful conviction in Oklahoma. Later on, Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale told the Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog that the banning of Grisham’s novels was “a misunderstanding by some junior staff of what constitutes permitted reading materials.” Misunderstanding or not, the Guantánamo Detainee Library, like many prison libraries in the world, is still not a site of freedom. Proof of it is the fact that in 2015, Guantánamo Captain Tom Gresback told Vice News Reporter Jason Leopold that the library had no plans to purchase Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s memoir, Guantánamo Diary (2015), a book that he wrote while appealing his detention.
The following conversation between Ilan Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, and Muira McCammon, a Beinecke Scholar and graduate student in Translation Studies/Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, explores the meaning of democracy in the age of Guantánamo.
Muira McCammon: You have written extensively on translation, censorship, freedom, faith, lexicography, and the fickle nature of books and the words they contain. I want to talk to you about a library that involves all these fields: the Guantánamo Bay Detainee Library.
Ilan Stavans: The fact that it has a library isn’t peculiar. During the Second World War, there were libraries for German POWs as well as in Japanese internment camps. What is unexpected—and, obviously, unwelcome—is the degree to which such a depository of titles is administered through a rigid system, one in which censorship is the rule. I don’t believe the library at Guantánamo has been seen by many an outsider. I understand that, as of 2014, it is made of approximately 18,000 books.
MM: The number has varied over the years in various media and military reports. In February 2009, the Department of Defense released an eighty-one page document called the “Review of Department Compliance with President’s Executive Order on Detainee Conditions of Confinement.” Page 34 explains that the Detainee Library consists of over 13,000 books, 900 magazines, and 300 DVDs, and that these materials span the 18 native languages of the detainee population. In 2011, a factsheet updated by the Joint Task Force Guantánamo estimates there are 15,382 books; interestingly, this document states that the “goal” is to get 20,000 items in the library. The October 2011 issue of The Wire, a magazine for and by the Joint Task Force Guantánamo, says that there are over 25,000 articles in the library. This figure includes magazines, DVDs, books, and other media materials. It is hard to keep track of the collection’s growth and, even more perplexing, to piece together which books have been purchased and/or donated in the past decade.
IS: Altogether there have been 780 detainees incarcerated at Guantánamo: over 500 under President Bush, 242 at the start of the Obama Administration. Only one detainee has been transferred to U.S. soil for prosecution. As of April 2015, the number of detainees imprisoned for more than a decade was 106. Let me put myself in the shoes of the authorities, whose objective it is to keep this population under absolute purveyance. For these, after all, are prisoners deemed highly dangerous whose activities involved terrorism. Yet the vast majority of them is in legal limbo, pending specific charges. What is the purpose of keeping these individuals in darkness for a year, a decade, even longer? Our handling of them is in no way a model behavior. In fact, it is shameful.
MM: It is clear the Department of Defense has grappled with how to provide some form of intellectual stimulation to detainees. In Appendix 12-7 of the Department of Defense review I mentioned, Ilan, there is a fascinating picture of “detainee issue items,” including a National Geographic, an English Grammar Guide, what appears to be an Arabic translation of King Lear, Asharq Al-Awsat (an Arabic newspaper HQed in London), and a few other Arabic books. In another picture, Will Shortz’s Sudoku book sits on a table next to some clothes and a water bottle. Then there is one that has Dar al Bihar’s 2002 Bilingual English-Arabic version of Anna Karenina (1877) next to a Muslim prayer mat and some folded clothes. Another image shows an English version of Naguib Mahfouz’s The Beggar (1965) sitting not too far away from Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859). There is even a French version of Zola’s La joie de vivre (1883).
IS: We are told that the books at the Guantánamo Detainee Library are in eighteen different languages, representing the linguistic diversity of the detainees. Does this mean that the authorities speak these eighteen tongues? My assumption—and I am ready to be corrected—is that the items are mostly anodyne translations of American bestsellers (in photographs I’ve seen plenty by Stephen King) that don’t actually qualify as different in content. Not too long ago, I asked my students at Amherst College if our own library includes forbidden books and, if so, what these are likely to be. Pornography? Volumes that ISIS might use to recruit American youth? By this I mean to say that no library is absolutely free. If it isn’t censored by the administrators, then it is its users who exercise “caution” in the types of items they want to see in their shelves. Obviously, I’m talking here about “degrees of the forbidden.” At Guantánamo, the library isn’t about information but its reverse. But let’s talk about how the place came about…
MM: Rule 40 of the United Nations Standard Minimal Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (1955) reads: “Every institution shall have a library for the use of all categories of prisoners, adequately stocked with both recreational and instructional books, and prisoners shall be encouraged to make full use of it.” This clause was also used in a document (“Coalition Provisional Authority Memorandum Number 2: Management of Detention and Prison Facilities“) signed on June 3, 2003 by Paul Bremer in his capacity as administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, the transitional government in Iraq. This memorandum went into effect a few months after the Joint Task Force Guantánamo wrote their 2003 Standard Operating Procedures, wherein an entire page is devoted to the establishment of the Detainee Library.
IS: To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t a photographic history, or any other type, of the way the library evolved over time.
MM: On October 21, 2011, the Joint Task Force Guantánamo’s journal, The Wire, featured the Detainee Library on its cover. The author of the story, Spc. Kelly Gary, talks with Army 1st Lt. Jerome Hunt, the detainee programs officer in charge, who emphasizes that when detainees are provided with intellectual stimulation, the guards’ job becomes easier. Another cultural advisor quoted echoes this sentiment, that reading keeps detainees busy, which then benefits the guards. This idea that prison libraries can serve as a way of controlling detainees’ behavior as opposed to as a method through which they can access the courts is not particularly new. But to answer your question, the Department of Defense and the Joint Task Force Guantánamo have released a few photos of the library, and Charlie Savage, Carol Rosenberg, Ryan Reilly, Jason Leopold, and Robert Johnson have started a Tumblr to try to trace its spatial evolution and collection growth.
IS: Neither new nor original. Still, it goes against the very concept we hold sacred in the United States: that libraries are temples of knowledge.
MM: In his “Ineffective Assistance of Library: The Failings and the Future of Prison Law Libraries,” Jonathan Abel talks about how Maryland has given each of its death row inmates computers to conduct legal research. He asks, “Does it make sense to provide indigent, illiterate, often non-English-speaking inmates with shelves of library books?” Now, remember, that the Detainee Library is said to have books in all of the detainees’ native languages, 18 in total. To understand the Detainee Library, we have to ask a number of questions. What is the Library beyond its books (i.e. shelving system, space, distribution, visitation policy)? What mechanisms, norms, and policies have impacted the development and occasional shrinkage of its collection? How does it compare to its predecessors in American history and its counterparts in detention centers around the world?
IS: Multilingualism appears to be a central feature. This isn’t always the case of traditional public libraries in the United States, except, of course, when located in an immigrant enclave, in which case the immigrant languages (say, Polish and Spanish in Chicago) appear in prominent fashion. Guantánamo isn’t a public library, of course, but a prison library. Its purpose is manifold: to educate, to entertain, and, why not, to allow inmates an “escape.” In any case, this “picture” of the Detainee Library is based on a basic description included in an executive order as well as an actual photograph of the place. In other words, this isn’t a detailed, first-hand account. It makes me want to visit Guantánamo. I was recently in Cuba but didn’t reach Santiago de Cuba, in the eastern part of the island, which isn’t far, at least geographically—ideologically, it is of course light years away—from the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base, and the detention camp, established in 2002, within it.
MM: The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) actually devotes an entire listserv to the subject of intellectual freedom issues in relation to libraries and librarianship in Cuba.
IS: This makes me think of the Cuban Libraries Initiative, born in response to this 1998 remark by Fidel Castro: “In Cuba there are no prohibited books, only those we do not have the money to buy.” Taking him at his word, this project seeks to establish libraries in the island whose content isn’t aligned along ideological lines, at least not overtly: books, magazines, and other items donated from various corners of the world without restriction. Ironically, the library at the Guantánamo detention center also depends, in part, on donations, at least according to the official line of command. Just as Castro’s regime, in truth, limits the information flow in the country, so does the United States at the center. Ironically, this means that the Guantánamo library is also about censorship.
IS: Do you know if the Qur’an the most important title? It is available in Arabic as well as in English?
MM: You pose a provocative question about the Qur’an. How can we assess the “importance” of a title: in how many times it is checked out, in the number of detainees who have one, in the policies the Department of Defense has created in regards to this special, sacred book? In the March 2004 de-classified Camp Delta (Guantánamo Bay) Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), in section 6.4, individuals needing to search the Qur’an are given the following instruction: “Handle the Qur’an as if it were a fragile piece of delicate art.” The Qur’an is not supposed to be touched or handled by guards; instead, “the Chaplain or a Muslim interpreter will inspect the Qur’an” (6-4.1).
IS: At the heart of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, against the Danish cartoonist who depicted the Prophet Muhammed, against the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, at the heart of what is known as “the clash of civilizations” is, indeed, the Qur’an. One of the most egregious public incidents connected with Guantánamo was the news, released in the April 30, 2005 issue of Newsweek, that a prison guard had desecrated a copy of the Qur’an by flushing it down the toilet in order to agitate a prisoner who was being interrogated. As it turns out, the story wasn’t quite accurate. Copies had been mishandled but none had been flushed into the toilet. In fact, a Pentagon report stated that it was a prisoner who had performed such action.
MM: In my ongoing research of the Camp Delta Detainee Library and the specific books that have caused controversy between the guards, the detainees, and their defense lawyers, three books come to mind: the Qur’an, the Harry Potter series (1997-2007), and Fifty Shades of Grey. As stated in the introduction to this conversation, after Representative Jim Moran visited Guantánamo in 2013, he claimed that the most requested book was Fifty Shades of Grey. James Connell, the lawyer for Ammar al-Baluchi, later claimed that Guantánamo prison guards had placed an English copy of the book—that did not have the official Detainee Library markings—in his client’s cell. Connell said that al-Baluchi didn’t want the book, and so he would be returning it to the Joint Task Force Guantánamo. It’s unfortunate that at the time of this debacle that the Detainee Library Librarian couldn’t have been contacted to share information about the most frequently checked out books. Harry Potter, on the other hand, is so culturally tied to GiTMO that it got some coverage in the recent film Camp X-Ray (2014), wherein Ali, a detainee, slowly bonds with Amy, a guard played by Kristen Stewart, over the fact that the Detainee Library doesn’t have the last book in the Harry Potter sequence; he’s distraught, because he can’t find out if the character of Snape is good or bad.
IS: Images of book burning come to my mind. In the novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953), Ray Bradbury imagines a future in which firemen, rather than putting out fires, start them. Their objective is the burning of all books. Libraries are epicenters of culture. Tell me what kind of library you have and I’ll tell you who you are. The image of burning books also reminds me of Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé (1935). It goes back to the Chinese emperor who built the Great Wall, of Alexandria, and of Kristalnacht. In the First Part, chapter VI of Don Quixote of La Mancha (1605-15), Cervantes includes a scene in which a barber and a priest in Alonso Quijano’s town in La Mancha expurgate his library, thinking it will help cure him of his lunacy.
I’m equating burning with desecration. In Guantánamo, the incident involving the Qur’an, even if poorly reported by the media—or perhaps as a result of lousy journalism—naturally caused fury in the Islamic world. The United States once again was seen as a secular nation in battle against more religious Muslim countries like Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and others where uproars were reported.
MM: In the 2003 SOPs, in section 15.9, “Detainee Library,” states clearly, “Native Arab speakers are allowed one Arabic Qur’an only, while non-native Arabic speakers are allowed one Arabic Qur’an and a translation of the Qur’an in their native language.” But in the 2004 SOPs, the language changes slightly to this: “Detainees at levels 1 through 3 are allowed a Qur’an either in Arabic or in their native language.” In both versions, it is explicitly stated that detainees in levels 4 and 5 do not normally get reading materials. I don’t know to what extent these rules have changed since 2004. I have contacted habeas corpus lawyers representing detainees, former guards and chaplains, as well as the Joint Task Force Guantánamo to learn more about the inner workings of the Detainee Library. It is a complex mechanism. Just take the fact that it’s called the “Detainee Library,” yet, to my knowledge, no detainee has ever crossed its threshold.
IS: I assume these are prisoners with more restricted capacities.
MM: Yes, there are. Ilan, what do you think about the fact that in all Camp Delta (Guantánamo Bay) detainee cells, except those with detainees at risk for self-harm, a surgical mask is tied to a detainee’s cell wall, and the Qur’an is placed inside that crevice?
IS: A fragile piece of delicate art… This, it seems to me, an effort by the authorities to go please, and to go out of their way, to keep the proper balance in regards to faith. For, in the end, it is religion, perhaps more than politics, what the Guantánamo detention center is about. A fundamentalist interpretation of the Qur’an is what drove the terrorists in 9/11 to embark in their mission. Needless to say, this is a religious book whose content is open to interpretation. But, in the international political arena, one interpretation pre-empties all others, at least in terms of attention. The Qur’an says that flowers are the sweetest things God ever made, and forgot to put a soul.
MM: I wonder what sort of access prisoners have had to sacred, religious texts in other twenty-first century cultures of confinement—in Turkey, Tunisia, or Taiwan, for instance, or in places like the International Criminal Tribunal of the Former Yugoslavia’s Detention Unit.
IS: Denying prisoners access to literature is inhuman.
MM: I’m wondering, where do you keep religious texts in your home?
IS: There are plenty of Hebrew Bibles around, in Hebrew as well as in multiple translations. There are also volumes of the Talmud and prayer books. I never thought of where they sit until you asked. Answer: all over, from my office to my studio, from the living room to the kitchen closet.
MM: I’ve never really thought much of the complexity of prison architecture or if the Israeli Prison Service would dictate where Orthodox Jews put their Hebrew Bibles in their cells or if Egyptian prisons give their observant Muslim prisoners Qur’ans.
IS: It would be enticing to imagine that the abundant literature produced about Guantánamo—the testimonies of its prisoners, published in the free world, and so on—make it to the library. In other words, that the Detainee Library is self-referential, making room to self-reflection in its own shelves. Yet that, I assume, is an impossibility, by which I mean a democratic dream.
MM: There are, already, Libraries of Guantánamo. Mark Denbeaux and Jonathan Hafetz have helped launch a digital archive to collect the records and narratives of the lawyers that have represented detainees. Prof. Peter Jan Honigsberg at the University of San Francisco School of Law established the Witness to Guantánamo project and has worked extensively in the past few years to film interviews not only with released detainees but also with chaplains, prison guards, FBI agents, interpreters, and a slew of other stakeholders in the past, present, and future of the Camp. The project aims to mimic the Shoah model, based on director Steven Spielberg’s process of filming Holocaust survivors’ testimonies. Over 50,000 survivors have shared their stories on video.
IS: I have often thought of Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. The vast majority didn’t have a library. This is not to say that books didn’t circulate, though scarcely, among prisoners, as is clear from memoirs such as Władysław Szpilman’s The Pianist (1946), Elie Wiesel’s Night (1955), Imre Kertesz’s Fateless (1975).
MM: My grandfather flew a B-17 Bomber, taken as a Prisoner of War (POW) to Stalag Luft III, 100 miles out of Berlin, so I have thought about the libraries Americans provided to German POWs in the United States during World War II. Comparing Shoah literature to the books of/about/from inside Guantánamo is no easy feat. A genre of Guantánamo literature is also emerging. There are memoirs by former/current detainees (like Murat Kurnaz’s Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantánamo ), narrative nonfiction written by former interpreters (like Mahvish Khan’s My Guantánamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me ), novels written drawing upon publicly released info (like Frank Smith’s French novel or Dorthea Dieckmann’s German one), cross-genre books (like Janet Hamlin’s Sketching Guantánamo: Court Sketches of the Military Tribunals, 2006-2013 ). Frances Cowhig wrote a play, Lidless, about a Guantánamo detainee who tracks down his former guard to ask for a liver transplant; Jennifer Allora, Fernando Calzadilla, and Manuel Raeder published the Guantánamo Bay Song Book (2009), which looks at the lyrics of songs used allegedly to interrogate detainees. But if you go to any academic or public library in America, you will find these books scattered from shelf to shelf. None of them have likely made their way into the Detainee Library, but we can’t know for no complete inventory of the Detainee Library has yet been publicly released.
IS: There is a famous story about the inmates at Auschwitz who in the barracks put God on trial. There was a judge, a prosecutor, a defense attorney, as well as a jury. After a long, excruciating process, God was found guilty. And you know what all the participants did soon after the verdict was read? They joined in prayer. Elie Wiesel has a play about it.
MM: Right, it was published as The Trial of God in 1979 and was translated from French by Wiesel’s wife, Marion Wiesel.
IS: Another major international incident-bogus, it seems, is the news, disseminated by The Huffington Post in 2013, that Fifty Shades of Grey is among the most popular books at the Detainee Library.
MM: Intriguingly, Ilan, of the 51 languages into which Fifty Shades of Grey has been officially translated, Arabic is not yet one of them. Turkish, Hebrew, Chinese, and even Albanian translations are mentioned on E.L. James’ website, but perhaps an Arabic translation has only seen the light in underground online literary circles.
IS: Aha! The versions at Guantánamo are thus in the original. This poses a fascinating question: at what point in their internment do non-English-speaking inmates feel confident reading in English. Needless to say, each of them is unique. And think of cases like Malcolm X, who prove that prison is the place—and space—where one not only gets an education but also experiences all sorts of life-transforming epiphanies. Yes, jail is where people see the light, so to speak. This includes learning to read in other languages, often through books they don’t originally care about but whose impact has the capacity of changing them forever one way or another.
MM: The 2004 Camp Delta Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) differ from the 2003 ones in several significant ways. Dictionaries were added to the list of forbidden content and were to be immediately sent back to their source—be it the International Committee of the Red Cross or a private donor. While the bulk of the collection was purchased by the military, it has also grown over the years thanks to donations by habeas corpus attorneys—like Clive Stafford Smith, director of the legal charity Reprieve—as well as victims permitted to observe the Guantánamo military commissions.
IS: Samuel Johnson would like the idea that dictionaries are deemed threatening…
MM: You teach a class in the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction, in Northampton, Massachusetts. While I watched you once facilitating a conversation about Pablo Neruda, I thought a lot about Guantánamo. Would you teach a class to detainees there, and if so, what reading would you assign? How would your syllabus differ if you were to construct a class for members of the military stationed there?
IS: A fascinating question. If given the opportunity, I would teach the exact same texts in the both sessions, say a scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art,” and Juan Rulfo’s story “You Don’t Hear Dogs Barking.” My expectation is that, in the end, their responses would not be dramatically different.
MM: I recently read in the Irish Sunday Business Post that the Irish Prison Service is planning to have some inmates work as prison librarians; they would receive substantial training in order to achieve this feat and help ameliorate staff shortages in the Irish penal system.
IS: The librarian at Guantánamo, I believe, is a chaplain. Is he also a true librarian? The question is pertinent in that the detention center, by hiring a librarian, would automatically look at the Guantánamo Detainee Library through professional eyes. I’m not sure this is the case. In other words, we call the collection a library because it is a gathering of thousands of books. But is a gathering of thousands of books a library? The answer is: not really. A library is a far more complex endeavor: a systematic collection, carefully organized, with a map and a future. It looks at itself as a living organism, meaning it requires patient, deliberate attention. It must be said that although we do know that chaplains have had rights to visit the Detainee Library and, possibly, check out books, some of their rights changed after Yee, a Muslim chaplain, criticized the ways of the Detainee Library in his book. In any case, it is fair to say that chaplains and librarians interact, that they may work together at some junctures.
MM: It is my understanding that different members of the military have engaged with the library. In articles about Guantánamo, a few American media outlets have mentioned a certain library tech, who goes by the name of Milton. In American prisons, until sometime around the twentieth century, it seems as if chaplains managed nearly all libraries. While there is some disagreement about when the first prison library was built, there is little dispute that most of the earliest jails in America, namely the Walnut Street Jail (established in Philadelphia in 1773), only offered Bibles and other Christian texts to inmates. In 2011, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against a South Carolinian jail that barred prisoners from reading any sort of material except soft cover Bibles. The U.S. Department of Justice declared that policy unconstitutional.
IS: Rightly so. To read is to live and vice versa.
MM: We have to talk about prison libraries. These collections, designed in part to permit prisoners to construct their legal defenses, are, presumably, not available at the Detainee Library. Supreme Court cases, etc. One of the questions I’m seeking to answer is how the Detainee Library can help to mediate the legal, ethical, and linguistic challenges of living in a culture of continued confinement.
IS: Therein my point. Is the Guantánamo library an “intelligent” place? That it, does it serve its users coherently? If it did, it would study its population—which, by the way, is dwindling, and attempt to satisfy their needs. In regular prisons, such needs are clear and recognizable: inmates, within their rigid schedules, have time to spare. Some of them want to explore the world through books. But Guantánamo sits in a fragile, dangerous place. In the United States, the perception of the Guantánamo inmates is both as humans and as enemies. After all, the propaganda disseminated by the media is that, while a few are there by mistake, others are part of the cohort that seeks to bring down America. So helping these prisoners is done through the humanitarian door: since everyone is innocent until proven guilty, these prisoners deserve our compassion. And even when they are found guilty, they are humans after all.
MM: On page 68 of his book, Memory, Metaphor, and Aby Warburg’s Atlas of Images (2012), Christopher Johnson writes of how Warburg thought a library’s purpose was as follows: “to disrupt conventional classifications of ideas or things in order to produce novel thoughts.” Can we do a brief thought experiment, wherein you think of a few of the libraries you have passed through, let’s try to capture the library beyond the book. In perhaps a phrase or polysyllable, can you say how each was unique in aim, architecture, or audience?
IS: Some libraries are just astonishing: the Library of Congress, the British Library, the John Carter Brown, Paris’ central library, the New York Public Library. These are temples of knowledge. The fact that everything ever thought, everything ever written is housed in them, or at least a portion of it, instills a religious feeling in me. It was once said that if Dublin were destroyed, one would be able to rebuild it through James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). Well, if one of these libraries is destroyed, a portion of human memory is erased.
MM: It is important to remember, as we talk about libraries, that there is also a library available to members of the military stationed at Guantánamo. It’s called the Morale, Welfare, and Recreation Community Library, and, according to a 2012 blurb from the Joint Task Force, it has more than 25,000 items.
IS: More than in the Detainee Library, though not more that the total number of military personnel at Guantánamo.
MM: True: in June 2013, Robert Johnson wrote a piece for Business Insider called “Guantanamo Bay is a Lonely Place for US Troops,” wherein he stated that there are over 5,500 troops at the base.
I recently talked to Carol Eyler, Head of Library Technical Services at my alma mater, Carleton College, and a Kenyon College (’73) alumna, about how to imagine how many shelves one thousand books might occupy. Library space planning and prison architecture are two fields that continue to fascinate and perplex me. In 2014, at Carleton, for example, the Gould Libe had 553,600 book volumes on record and about 2,055 students. That makes about 269 books per student. As of spring 2014, in Guantánamo more than 140 detainees remained at Guantánamo. If we approximate that in that year there were at least 15, 382 books (this is the 2011 estimate), then the math would work out to be about 109 books per detainee. It is impossible to make this mathematical comparison; college students have access to Interlibrary Loan, digital books, and other programs that are, we can be sure, not part of the Guantánamo system. What do you think of this?
IS: Just as colleges brag about faculty/student ratio, libraries have the right to call attention to book/user ratio. Yet the equation is deceitful because, for instance, in any given collection you often have plenty of copies of bestseller titles, which by definition tend to be popular.
MM: It is easy to criticize aspects of the Detainee Library—how it is run, what is banned, who manages its shelves—but, to conclude, I want to pose a question that may help underscore the plight of the individuals working at the Detainee Library. If you had a limited budget, how would you determine which books to buy for a prison populace with an estimated 18 native languages? Note: I’m not asking which books to censor!
IS: I will populate it with diverse, heterogeneous works of literature, past and present, from around the globe, including religious texts. I will also make room for an abundance of viewpoints on what justice is and, equally important, on our civil and moral responsibilities are as members in our rapidly changing society. I will not proscribe dangerous books.
MM: Even though over 100 detainees remain in Guantánamo, the future of the Library, much like Guantánamo as a whole, is uncertain, uncharted, unknown. It is possible that lawyers trying to donate books, authors whose books are banned, or even readers of this conversation, may play an integral role in dictating how the Detainee Library is remembered.
IS: The jury is no longer out on how posterity will assess it.