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Zoia Horn Takes Pride in Provoking

By DOROTHY BRYANT Special to the Planet
Friday January 09, 2004

“I get ideas, I start things, but then I don’t know what to do with them. I’m not a good administrator. It’s a serious fault,” said Zoia Horn, looking down apologetically. 

I suggested that simply provoking action was useful, and that maybe I ought to title this sketch of her “A Provoking Woman.” 

She raised her eyes, and her face lit up. “Oh, yes, I like that!” 

Zoia is best known for provoking a lot of people in 1972, when she, a proper lady-librarian then in her fifties, refused to testify in the conspiracy trial of the Harrisburg Seven—Phillip Berrigan and other anti-Vietnam War priests and nuns. She spent 20 days in jail, at which point the jury deadlocked, the judge declared a mistrial, and the charges (one of which was plotting to kidnap Henry Kissinger!?) fell apart. But that was only her most dramatic act at the mid-point of a long life of provocation. 

Zoia was born in 1918 to a secular family of shopkeepers and small businessmen in Odessa, Ukraine. “I didn’t know I was a Jew until I was six, and a schoolmate told me I had ‘killed Christ.’” In 1926 her family emigrated to Canada, then to New York City. She was a good student, both in academic subjects and in music. After high school she attended Brooklyn College, and later the Pratt Institute Library School. 

While in high school and in college she was already developing her talent for provocation: boycotting silk stockings when Japan invaded China; marching with labor unions in May Day parades; protesting Franco’s takeover of Spain. 

In the 1940s and 1950s came her first library jobs, her marriage, her two daughters, and a spell of rural living.  

But in the 1960s her life, like the lives of so many people, changed radically. One catalyst for change was her winning a 1964, one-month Humanities Fellowship to the University of Oregon. That was the start of her growing activism in librarians’ organizations and conferences, where she met people who shared her passion for the educational mission of libraries—including the tall, soft-spoken Dean Galloway, Director of library services at Stanislaus State College in Turlock, California.  

In 1965 Zoia drove west, ended her marriage, and got a job at the UCLA library, where every day at noon she joined a silent vigil against the Vietnam War, “always wearing good shoes and gloves, the proper lady-librarian. I think that’s important, for people to see that protestors are ordinary folks very much like themselves.” 

In 1968 she headed east again, hired as Head of the Reference Department at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, PA. There she also worked with other peace activists. Three years later, she was back in California, where she and Dean were married, and Zoia began working at the Modesto Public Library.  

In 1972 she was summoned back to Lewisburg to testify in the “conspiracy” trial. When she asked herself whether she should protest by refusing to testify (both the defense and the judge had said her testimony would not affect the outcome), Dean assured her that he would support her decision, whatever it was. The American Library Association was more ambivalent than Dean. At first, they issued a statement of non-support for any refusal to cooperate with the government; later they issued a commendation for Zoia’s refusal. (Her lifelong participation in the ALA continued to be—we might say—provoking.) 

After the trial, she returned to the Modesto Library, where she started something she is still proud of. “I saw that we had many Spanish speaking patrons, so I polled the librarians, then got someone to come in at 8 a.m. and teach us Spanish. Before you knew it, I was getting calls from other city agencies, asking if they could send some of their people over to learn too!”  

But Zoia felt uncomfortable as an administrator in Modesto. “I don’t know if it was the trial publicity or just the times, when younger librarians were questioning all authority. Anyway, I quit.”  

Zoia would never land a job as a full-time librarian again. “There was the two-year, six-county Interlibrary Co-op Project funded by a Federal grant (1974-76), and much later a part-time job in the library at DVC (1977-92). But when we moved to the East Bay in 1977, I applied all over, had good interviews, everyone commending me for my ‘courageous’ stand at the trial. But I would never get the job.” 

The reasons are probably broader and more complicated than anything having to do with the 1972 trial. 

“What I’ve always tried to do is to redefine the definition of censorship, broaden it, because censorship means barriers that restrict access to knowledge. It includes pervasive prejudices like sexism and racism that distort judgment or simply screen out realities. It includes monopoly media cut out many facts and opinions. Censorship takes so many forms.”  

Zoia held to this conviction when she was elected to the ALA Council (1974), and appointed to the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee (1977). There, and on various other committees, she found herself engaged in complicated bureaucratic conflicts, as when she protested 1977 changes that she felt weakened the wording of the (1939) ALA Library Bill of Rights. That same year she joined African-Americans in protesting an ALA-sponsored film made ostensibly to promote protection of free speech. This messy conflict nearly tore the ALA apart for a while. (You’ll find fascinating details on this and other struggles, in ZOIA! Memoirs of Zoia Horn, Battler for the People’s Right to Know, published by Mc Farland & Co., 1994). 

Also found in this memoir are references to Zoia’s 15-year labor of love, starting in 1977, when she volunteered at the Data Center in Oakland. “It’s a super-reference library, gathering data on vital issues. People come from all over to get information they can’t find anywhere else.”  

Zoia laughed. “The Federal Government even came to us once because they didn’t have a complete list of industries that had moved offshore. We had it!” 

At the Data Center she began the Right to Know Project, for which she edited four volumes of resources on specific issues. This led to her working with distinguished journalists at the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco. From her list of organizations participating in the Right to Know Project she helped establish the American Library Association’s Coalition on Government Information, which has worked with many organizations to provide access to essential information. 

“All this was possible because of Dean’s support, which went beyond earning our living,” she said. “He’s a great advisor and editor.” 

Official awards and honors come in regularly now; the latest is the California Library Association’s newly established annual Zioa Horn Intellectual Freedom Award. “I have especially warm feelings toward this honor because the CLA has been very supportive of my efforts.” 

But at 85, Zoia refuses to become a quiet icon. She is still provoking people, protesting attempts to charge fees for library reference services, defending a gay librarian in Oakland attacked for creating a display of gay library materials, speaking at community meetings urging the Oakland Public Library and the Oakland City Council to adopt resolutions against the Patriot Act (they did). 

And you can be sure that she appears to make her protest with every hair in place, wearing a stylish but conservative outfit--every inch the lady-librarian.