Visual Rhetoric in American Libraries

For my summer 2021 class in visual rhetoric, we were assigned two projects that would analyze the rhetoric behind certain images of our choice. Because of my love for, and work with, libraries, I chose to focus on particular pieces of American library propaganda and the politics involved. While that may seem odd, libraries are just like any other institution and so they are not immune to the need for these kinds of images. As humans, we are stirred by visuals in a particular way. In order to be effective, propaganda must contain both an image and text that is powerful and speaks to our thoughts and beliefs as well as our cultural understanding of our world. Both of the pieces I created have combined into a “final portfolio” of sorts, so that they could show a more complete picture of how propaganda has been used in American libraries over the last century. 

In “What Do Pictures Really Want” W.J.T. Mitchell states that “The picture as subaltern makes an appeal or issues a command whose precise effect and power emerge in an intersubjective encounter compounded of signs of positive desire and traces of lack or impotence” (79). The images that I will be using in both of my projects display this paradoxical relationship between positive desire and traces of lack. All of them tell you what you CAN do and what you SHOULD do, whether it’s protecting the privacy of your patrons or ensuring that the boys overseas have enough to read in their admittedly-slim downtime, while also intimating that some of you haven’t done quite enough up till now.

Each of my projects contain imagery that differs wildly, however, when it comes to what they’re trying to convey. In The Rise of the Radical Militant Librarian: How the Alphabet Agencies Birthed a Meme in the War on Terror, I discuss an image that was created in 2005 in the wake of the Patriot Act. This image speaks to the ways in which some librarians were standing up to government agencies and stymieing their efforts to breach patron privacy in the name of “homeland security.”

On the other side of this is Yanks in Germany Want More Books”: Visual Rhetoric in American Libraries During the World Wars which analyzes the use of propaganda in American libraries during these wars. In these instances, the patrons and the librarians were made active participants in the government’s wartime efforts with the support and encouragement of the American Library Association.

Each of these conversations are meant to tackle the ongoing issue of neutrality within American libraries, how political/apolitical they should be, and whether they ever can be truly apolitical at all. The short answer, of course, is no. The complete answer is much longer, much more involved, and requires an understanding of the situation in which American libraries find themselves today.

Work Cited: Mitchell, W. J. “What Do Pictures ‘Really’ Want?” October, vol. 77, 1996, p. 71., doi:10.2307/778960. 

For more information on my adventures in Visual Rhetoric this summer, please see the following posts: The Visual Rhetoric of Iconic Images – VJ Day in Times Square, A Bit About Final Girls, Dead Girls, and Brutalized Heroines, But Seriously, Look At Those Pants, Y’all, Witches, Y’all, and On My Complicated Relationship with Law and Order: SVU