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“Take them away”: Cletus Bookworm’s acquiescence to censorship

Shadowy figure threatens Rocky and Bullwinkle with a gun in the library

Forty-three years before Francis Clara Censordoll, the librarian of Moralton who spends her time destroying and censoring books, appeared in Moral Orel‘s first episode on December 13, 2005, was a White male stereotypical librarian named Cletus Bookworm, appearing in a 1962 episode of The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, also known as The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, which aired from 1959 to 1964. [1] In this post, I’ll explain Bookworm’s role in the episode, how he supports censorship, and again shows, like Censordoll, that librarians are not neutral and can end up actively supporting oppression through their actions.

Seeing the massive weather changes in their community (Frostbite Falls, Minnesota), Rocky the Squirrel and Bullwinkle the Moose are concerned. Rocky becomes suspicious after he learns that the weatherman has an unlisted number, sees that the weather report in the newspaper is “classified information,” and reads in the newspaper the report has been cancelled during “the emergency.” Realizing it is his duty as a citizen to know the weather, he and Bullwinkle travel to the Frostbite Falls Library in hopes of finding books about the weather. Little did they know, but a pack of beady eyes is watching them, with a mysterious/malignant figure bonking Rocky on the head and blocking the way out of the library for Rocky and Bullwinkle.

When the story continues, Rocky and Bullwinkle are stopped by a strange figure who tells them to hold it, pointing a gun at them, as they are carrying out books. Rocky thinks that the person with the gun is the librarian, saying he is threatening them because of their overdue books, ha. That is one vivid imagination, Rocky! They get threatened by the stranger and with their hands up, leaving the books behind, despite wanting to know about the weather. They go right by the desk of Cletus Bookworm, the town librarian. Rocky believes that it will all be fine, thinking that Bookworm will save them. Instead, he snarls and declares “I see that you got both of them. Good work.” Rocky tries to appeal to Bookworm, and he is unwavering, adding “take them away.”

As a result, Rocky and Bullwinkle are pushed out of the library by the shadowy figure, X3, at gunpoint, and through the streets of the town, still moving forward by gunpoint until they get to an office building, They come to a door titled “censored” and are brought inside. There they meet Captain Peter Peachfuzz who tells them that the weather is classified and that the weather is changing because the world is turning upside down. Ultimately, we learn in later episodes that the accumulation of ice at the North Pole tilts the world so the South Pole lies in the Pacific Ocean, with the villain, Boris, trying to steal people’s presents so he can become the next Santa Claus. [2]

Bookworm lets Rocky and Bullwinkle be taken away by gunpoint in two scenes in the second segment of “Topsy Turvy World”. He also supports their removal from the library.

It says a lot that Rocky, one of the show’s heroes, believes that Bookworm will be on their side, but then he literally lets them be taken out of the library by a man at gunpoint. Is he also part of the conspiracy to keep the reality of the changing weather from the public? Has he been paid off? Its something that is never answered in the episode, although it is implied. Furthermore, by not standing for the patrons, he is allowing and facilitating state violence against citizens, as it turns out that X3 is a secret agent who works for the government.

If we apply the Librarian Portrayal Test here, it would obviously fail. While the depiction of Bookworm would pass the first criterion, he would fail the next two as he is defined primarily as a librarian, and while he is integral to the plot, he is a stereotype in many ways. Unlike other librarian depictions, he is not a foil, nor is he there for laughs or does he shush patrons. He isn’t an information provider either, naughty (he is presumably prudish), or fulfilling any of the character types Jennifer Snoek-Brown outlines, but he also is not atypical. However, his appearance and demeanor seems to fulfill the old, miserly, curmudgeon stereotype embodied by librarians in animation time and time again. A recent example is the unnamed White female librarian in an episode of DC Super Hero Girls, although there are other examples as well.

Although I’ve noted how Bookworm contributes to the episode, about his depiction in the episode, I’d like to pose whether the episode itself could have worked without this. I believe that it could have been more interesting if Bookworm has stood up for the heroes and against censorship, even if he got injured in the process by X3. However, this was an animation for kids, so that storyline would have never been considered. The existing storyline and his actions, have an even deeper meaning, in terms of librarians supporting oppressive systems, and oppression itself.

For Rocky and Bullwinkle, the Frostbite Falls Library was undoubtedly seen as a respected “center of truth,” free, open to research, and disseminating knowledge, which has a “social responsibility to inform and educate for progress” as some libraries have stated about themselves. [3] They may have also seen the library itself as one that is inclusive and accepting, with “circles of knowledge.” However, they likely did not think about how their small town of 48 people, presumably with all White inhabitants, is immune to racism, nor how oppression and privilege play out in public libraries, whether institutionally or interpersonally. The latter has been stated by various libraries and an ALA division in the past. [4]

In this specific instance, Bookworm sides with the forces of censorship, represented by X3 and Captain Peachfuzz, all of which are White people. The supposition that librarians are said to be committed to education and open access to information is thrown into question with Bookworm allowing a X3 to remove the weather-related books from the library and remove library patrons from the library at gunpoint! Even so, the portrayal of the library as a place where commercial values dominate, but rather one with “democratic freedom” and “critical reason” is maintained, unlike the library in a few issues of the well-known webcomic, Girly, which is literally owned by a corporation, to give one example. [5] However, even advocates of these values in libraries have to admit that libraries can be “implicated in neoliberalism” and oppressive, abut can be “liberatory” and “allow the noncommercial values of freedom, equality, democracy, and reason.” And that brings us to further discussion of oppression within libraries.

Children looking at a window display in Asheville Colored Public Library, courtesy of the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center and section of Digital Public Library’s exhibit on history of public libraries focusing on segregated libraries.

Some librarians have argued, rightly, that libraries aren’t neutral in fighting against White supremacy and systemic racism, and said that current and historic inequities are inherent in libraries themselves, with librarians having their own internal biases. [6] Others have argued that oppression manifests itself in the oppression itself, including gender oppression, with gender-based stereotypes, sexual harassment, and men advancing more quickly to leadership positions than women, or noted institutional racism in libraries. Some have also noted systemic social issues which have plagued the library and information science professions, and called for cultural an structural change to institutions to address these issues, including adjusting and analyzing collecting policies and library practices. A number of libraries went further in their arguments, saying that libraries are not neutral, as they have “benefited from a system that privileges a dominant narrative and the perspectives and experiences of a select portion of our society,” have a history of systemic inequity and bias in collections, services, spaces, cataloging, and recruitment, and other library work, even described libraries themselves as as institutions which “hold power and privilege born from white supremacy culture.” [7] Then there are those who have said that libraries, like other institutions, have systems with inequity, as they have been “traditionally centered on whiteness and patriarchy as a default,” and has professional policies which have “furthered systemic oppression against under-represented groups.” These arguments make clear that libraries are not neutral, as stated by Chris BourgDavid Lankes, and Emily Drabinski, noting that neutrality is impossible.

This is in opposition to those like Ron Kelley, a former librarian in Arizona, who complained about the ALA asking people to supposedly join in Black Lives Matter protests. He declared that libraries should be apolitical and neutral, and grumbling about critical librarianship supposedly going against “a free society” and the values of a library, declaring that librarians should “provide access to information from all points of view, and let people make up their own minds,” acting like librarians have no opinions, biases, or whatnot, which is a clear lie. [8] His argument also invalidates the opinions of those like Meredith Farkas, a faculty librarian at Portland  Community College. She stated that neutrality upholds inequality, represents indifference toward marginalized communities, and said that if the majority of what is published representing “a white, male, Christian, heteronormative worldview, then we are not supporting the interests of other members of our communities by primarily buying those works.” This connects with the argument of librarian Sofia Leung, who stated, to the consternation of some, that much of library collections in the U.S. are “written by white dudes writing about white ideas, white things, or ideas, people,” and things stole from people of color, then “claimed as white property,” adding that the library field and educational institutions have been “sites of whiteness.” She went onto say that library collections which have materials by mostly White authors continue to promote Whiteness, with these collections indicating that said libraries don’t care what people of color think, consider them to be scholars, or as “valuable, knowledgeable, or as important as white people.”

Beyond this, other librarians argued that the dominant culture of the librarian profession normalizes bias, stated that libraries are on the one hand an intersection of “the individual, communities and knowledge” but are also places where “structures of injustice, exploitation, control, and oppression are nourished, normalized and perpetuated,” asked  about the current reality of academic, school, and public libraries in today’s society. Some, in noting efforts by Cuba after 1959 to build their own information infrastructure and computing industry, called for being skeptical of claims attached to algorithms and models of information retrieval, designing “alternative models and algorithms” outside of those in Silicon Valley, and having a project of critical search which qualification of what is relevant an inherently “interpretive, normative, and politically consequential act.” [9] Digital Projects Librarian at York University, nina de jesus, argued that since libraries exist within a culture and society of oppression and great disparity, they entrench oppression through their structure and values. de jesus also noted that, in their opinion, libraries contribute to ongoing colonization, are political (and liberal) institutions which are not neutral, stabilize intellectual property itself, rooted in ongoing Indigenous genocides, and are far from neutral, with information organized to construct whiteness as the “default, normal, civilized and everything else is Other.” They later noted that libraries, due to their relationship to the state itself are oppressive, and argued that libraries as they currently exist in the U.S. and Canada are “a tool of oppression, rather than of liberation.” [10]

Shadowy figure blocks heroes from leaving the library

Some readers may be asking why these last three paragraphs were added. Such readers might even say “I’m reading a pop culture review, not an academic article!” While it might have seemed like a bit a tangent, I will assure you that it is not. Instead, I was summarizing some perspectives from the librarian community which note, rightly, oppression within libraries, the librarian profession, and among librarians themselves. In a broader note, libraries themselves, as noted by Joshua Note, are “potentially key tools of oppression because they target the mind” and is connected to the conception that information literacy is a “potential tool of oppression.” [11] This is possible even if librarians consider all forms of racism and bigotry as wrongheaded, anti-intellectual, and unethical, and promote openness to rational dialogue and ideas, as Thomas B. Wall, University Librarian of Boston College stated in June 2020. Information literacy was once defined by the ALA as a set of abilities requiring individuals to “recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.” On the one hand, Bookworm is impeding this literacy by giving official sanction to the forces of censorship, as I stated earlier. On the other, he is shaping this literacy by limiting the resources available to fulfill the information needs of Rocky and Bullwinkle (finding out the weather). Even so, by aligning with censorship, he is clearly violating standing ethics of the library profession, but I don’t think he cares much about that, just as Censordoll was totally fine with literally burning books she declared “obscene” and despised.

Bookworm, by allowing an armed g-man to take away the protagonist at gunpoint, is obviously not engaging in any racism, sexism, or the like. But, he is actively encouraging and applauding violence and intimidation, even of his own patrons, so he can lord over his quiet library “temple.” If Rocky or Bullwinkle had made too much noise, I imagine he wouldn’t be opposed to shushing them. Not in the slightest. It is definitely in his nature to do so. However, what he is doing does not seem to be systemic. That makes it different than, for example, segregation of libraries in the Jim Crow era when Black patrons either had to enter through segregated entrances, go into different reading rooms than White people, have worn-out books, and those who entered the White areas were asked to leave, ignored, or even police escorted them, with others “beaten and ended up in jail.” Protests against segregation in libraries began in the 1930s, but more were emboldened in 1950s and 1960s to integrate public libraries with sit-ins and lawsuits. Now, that is a story I’d love to see in film, animation, or some other media, in whatever way, shape, or form worked best. The closest we have come to this is a segregated library shown in scenes of Hidden Figures, where the reel White librarian is a gatekeeper, “literally keeping Black and Brown library users from knowledge and resources available to White members of the public.”

There’s another factor: violence and intimidation against librarians themselves, including sexual harassment against female librarians by patrons, or even murder in some cases. Is it possible that Bookworm was siding with the g-man in an effort of self-preservation? That might be one of the reasons for his actions. While one could say that he would have sided with the protagonists if the g-man didn’t have a gun, as I’ve already demonstrated, he was almost gleeful that that they were ejected from the library. Perhaps he was annoyed at them for not returning their late books? In any case, his acceptance of an armed man literally coming into the library and escorting out two loyal patrons, from what one can imply from how Rocky describes the library and even Bookworm, is inexcusable. No librarian should allow anyone to intimidate and threaten their patrons, as it makes the library environment itself unsafe. In the end, Cletus Bookworm’s acquiescence to censorship connects to systemic problems within libraries themselves and the librarian profession, but to values of libraries and what they stand for in society as a whole.

© 2021 Burkely Hermann. All rights reserved.


Notes

[1] The episode is “Topsy Turvy World,” and it aired in 1962. The segments analyzed in this post are three shorts within a YouTube video on the show’s official channel: “Topsy Turvy World” (1:44-5:13), “Funny Business in the Books” /”The Library Card” (17:55-21:22).

[2] William D. Crump, Happy Holidays–Animated!: A Worldwide Encyclopedia of Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and New Year’s Cartoons on Television and Film (US: MacFarland, 2019), p 5. The episode itself ended up running afoul of censors, but not because of the plot about censorship, but due to something else they deemed offensive.

[3] James Hilton, “U-M Library statement: work against systemic racism,” University of Michigan Library, June 10, 2020; Holly Mercer, “A Message from UT Libraries,” University of Tennessee Knoxville Libraries, June 4, 2020; Nancy Dwyer, “Library Statement on Racial Injustice in Our Society,” Vanderbilt University, June 5, 2020; Staff of the William R. Jenkins Architecture, Design, and Art Library, “A Pledge to Our Students and Community,” University of Houston Libraries, July 7, 2020; “Special Message from the University of Georgia Libraries,” University of Georgia Libraries, June 12, 2020; Robert McDonald, “Statement from Dean Robert McDonald: Social Justice for All,” University of Colorado Boulder University Libraries, June 4, 2020; Melissa Cox Norris, “Standing in solidarity against systemic racism,” University of Cincinnati Libraries, June 3, 2020.

[4] “Understanding Power, Identity, and Oppression in the Public Library,” Public Library Association, American Library Association, accessed October 6, 2021; David Leonard, “Reflections on this week,” Boston Public Library, June 5, 2020; “In support of eliminating racism,” University of Iowa Libraries, June 17, 2020.

[5] In Issue #259, Autumn is seen at the Cute Town Library, which is owned by a corporation. It appears again in Issue #300, owned by Happy Co., later seen in Issue #545, where the protagonists go to the library to learn more, having arguments about what they know about specific subjects. In Issue #560, HappyCo. prides itself on fixing up old buildings to make them better, like the library. For an advocacy for these values in library’s see Wayne Bivens-Tatum’s smug post, and his comments, titled “Libraries, Neoliberalism, and Oppression.”

[6] “Preserving history, telling stories: in the service of justice and equity,” Arizona State University, June 3, 2020; Virginia Steel, “A Message from University Librarian Virginia Steel – June 2, 2020,” UCLA Library, June 2, 2020; “Statement from the Dean: Shouts for justice,” Indian University Bloomington, June 5, 2020; “A message from the Iowa State University Library: A stand against racism,” Iowa State University Library, June 3, 2020; “UK Libraries’ Commitment to Equity,” University of Kentucky Libraries, accessed October 6, 2021; Deborah Jakubs and staff of Duke University Libraries, “A Statement of Our Commitment,” Duke University Libraries, June 8, 2020; Andrea Smith, “A statement from the UIC University Library,” University of Illinois Chicago, July 1 2020; MIT Libraries and MIT Press, “A Message from the MIT Libraries and MIT Press,” MIT Libraries, June 3, 2020; “Our Commitment to Anti-Racism,” NYU Libraries, June 23, 2020; “A Statement of Solidarity,” UW-Madison Libraries, June 2, 2020; Laura Saunders, “Connecting Information Literacy and Social Justice: Why and How,” Communications in Information Literacy, Vol. 11, No. 1, 2017.

[7] Simon Neame, “Dean’s Statement on Acts of Racial Violence,” University of Massachusetts Amherst, June 2, 2020; Neil Romanosky, “Ohio University Libraries’ Commitment to Social Justice,” Ohio University Libraries, June 9, 2020; “A Statement from University Libraries Supporting Black Lives Matter,” Ohio University Libraries, June 15, 2020; Constantia Constantinou, “The Penn Libraries Stands Against Racism,” Penn Libraries News, June 5, 2020; Gwen Bird, “The SFU Library stands against anti-Black racism — progress update from the Dean,” Simon Fraser University, May 25, 2021; Catherine Quinlan, Nancy Olmos, Louise Smith, and Chiméne E. Tucker, “Message from the Dean and Faculty and Staff Leadership of USC Libraries,” USC Libraries, June 3, 2020; Cristina Hatem, “From the Dean and the SU Libraries Diversity and Inclusion Team,” Syracuse University Libraries, June 4, 2020; Multiple authors, “Library faculty and staff members add their individual voices to national issues of race and racism,” Virginia Tech Libraries, accessed October 6, 2021; Elaine L. Westbrooks, “The University Libraries’ Role in Reckoning with Systemic Racism and Oppression,” UNC University Libraries, June 1, 2020; Lizabeth (Betty) Wilson, “Responding to the Call: George Floyd, Black Lives Matter and Systemic Change,” UW Libraries Blog, June 5, 2020; Jessica Aiwuyor, “Association of Research Libraries Condemns Racism and Violence against Black Communities, Supports Protests against Police Brutality,” Association of Research Libraries, June 5, 2020; “Critical Cataloging and Archival Description,” UW Libraries, accessed October 6, 2021.

[8] His views were summarized in a Washington Free Beacon article with an inflammatory title “Arizona Librarian Fired for Push to Keep Politics Out of Libraries” and published on January 21, 2021, with the article reprinted in various conservative websites.

[9] This article also said that critical search would “actively strive to increase the visibility of counterhegemonic intellectual traditions and of historically marginalized perspectives” and called for building “systems of information diffusion and circulation that seek to amplify critical voices and to cut across linguistic, national, racial, gender, and class barriers.”

[10] de jesus also stated that the solution is decolonization, disrupting the system of intellectual property and other capitalist aspects, supporting Indigenous resistance, working to dismantling anti-Blackness, calling for daring and drastic changes if libraries are seen as “fundamentally white supremacist institutions,” while saying that libraries have “some emancipatory potential,” noting that if this is done then “libraries really could come to represent and embody freedom…becom[ing] focal points for the free exchange and access of ideas, knowledge, and imagination.”

[11] The original outline of de jesus’s article for In the Library with the Lead Pipe, stated that libraries, as “sites of indoctrination” even “target our minds,” and noted the perception that White people are the only ones with stories, with people of color not existing, while saying the police should be feared, and noted the faulty idea that people should “defer to white men.”

By histhermann

Marylander with MLIS who loves archives, libraries, genealogy, reviewing pop culture, and writing fictional stories. UMD '19 & SMCM '16 grad. I've been running various WordPress blogs for a while now, about genealogy, libraries, archives, and more.

One reply on ““Take them away”: Cletus Bookworm’s acquiescence to censorship”

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