The years after 9/11 saw a vast change in how the American government kept tabs on its citizens. The passage of the Patriot Act allowed a much broader use of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) warrants to obtain information in ways that were not always made clear to Americans. One place where the FBI and other agencies attempted to inject these sub-rosa investigations was into American libraries. The problem with this, outside of the fact that Americans were not being told about these searches, is that American librarians are taught, from their first days in library school, that a patron’s rights should always be upheld. One of the core ethical principles of the American Library Association (ALA) is that “We protect each library user’s right to privacy and confidentiality with respect to information sought or received and resources consulted, borrowed, acquired or transmitted” (Professional Ethics). In the wake of 9/11 and the institution of the Patriot Act, this need to protect patron privacy became even more important.
Even with the broadened scope of FISA warrants, they were still difficult to obtain and while the Patriot Act itself contains a provision called Section 215, “the library provision,” actually getting approval to implement this section was difficult because of the information that could potentially be obtained. In the event that a warrant was obtained, these records requests were also being coupled with the admonition that libraries were absolutely, under no circumstance, to notify patrons if their records had been requested (Newton). Unfortunately for the FBI and their governmental brethren, these warrants were not happening quickly enough or often enough and they began to feel stymied by their attempts to gain information from American librarians who refused to give up the goods. This frustration became public knowledge in 2005 when internal FBI emails were released. Numerous news sources, including NPR and the New York Times shared the emails, including the gem that would incite so many people. In the email, the sender stated that the Office of Intelligence Policy and Review (OIPR):
…should be embarrassed that the FBI has used this valuable tool to fight terrorism exactly ZERO times… The inability of FBI investigators to use this seemingly effective tool has had a direct and clearly adverse impact on our terrorism cases. While radical militant librarians kick us around, true terrorists benefit from OIPR’s failure to let us use the tools given to us. (Abramson)
Clearly, American librarians were not playing around, and instead of making a clear case for why they should cooperate, all the FBI did was create a meme that librarians latched onto in record time. By the end of 2005, librarian Karen Ulric had created the image of the Radical Militant Librarian after hearing about the situation on an NPR broadcast. She quickly posted this to a CafePress website where it took off. It wasn’t long after this that the concept of the Radical Militant Librarian began to pop up on t-shirts and buttons across the country. Even the ALA got in on the act, releasing their own buttons for sale on their website. Essentially, what should have been a quiet, internal complaint became very broad public knowledge and helped pave the way in a renewed campaign to protect privacy in libraries. Ulric’s image stands as the forerunner in this campaign because it both reminded librarians of what was at stake and let their patrons know how librarians were quietly working to protect their rights, even when they weren’t aware that they had any.
When considering how this image had such a strong effect on American librarians in a post-9/11, it’s helpful to consider it through a source like Edward Tufte, who wrote Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative in 2007. Breaking down this image by Tufte’s “visual techniques” it is clear to see that “direct labeling” plays an important part (13). There is no subtlety in what this image is supposed to represent. Ulric has taken the words that the FBI was attempting to use to denigrate and defame librarians and placed them in a way that makes it clear that being a Radical Militant Librarian is something to be proud of and something that should be announced. Her brilliant red sash declares “Read me my rights,” indicating both the concept of the viewer’s rights as an American citizen, and the rights of librarians and patrons as laid down by the ALA.
This also ties into cultural encoding, as does her pose with the stereotypical “shushing” finger. Librarians are often portrayed in this way but in this instance, the viewer is given the idea that perhaps she is not shushing her patrons so much as indicating that she, herself, is keeping quiet in order to protect her patron’s privacy as she hands them the material that they’ve requested. There is also very specific encoding in this image with the way it purposefully utilizes a color scheme that is distinctly and intentionally American (13). The young woman is wrapped in an American flag that has been adapted to suit her purposes, much like the old Uncle Sam images from the World Wars. She tells the viewer that she is a librarian and an American and that the FBI and other governmental agencies after 9/11 are infringing on American rights and civil liberties.
When comparing this image to wartime propaganda like the Uncle Sam image, it’s easy to see how it was created but it’s also easy to see how it could have a similar effect. Tufte believes that “the idea is to use just noticeable differences, visual elements that make a clear difference but no more-contrasts that are definite, effective, and minimal” (73). Ulric has been able to do this by using several components from original wartime propaganda.
The background color is very much the same as that which can be seen in the original propaganda and the Radical Militant Librarian is wearing an outfit that is very similar to the outfit worn by Uncle Sam, which is drawn in recognizably American colors. As with wartime propaganda, the text is bold, commanding, and unapologetic. The viewer is expected to take some kind of action, whether it is to enlist in the war effort as wartime propaganda expects, or to be a Radical Militant Librarian. The implication is that both actions are important and both are inherently American. Ulric’s image, while sharing a somewhat different message than that of Uncle Sam, is still recognizable as promoting necessary actions for Americans.
The power of the Radical Militant Librarian, and what the image inspired in American librarians, went to the heart of how many American librarians view themselves. The image is simple, direct, and powerful. Much like an image in a comic strip or graphic novel, there is a lot of information packed into a relatively small space, leaving the audience to make their own interpretations, though, as previously discussed, these interpretations are bound to be tied into our own cultural conditioning.
For Scott McCloud, images like this one allow the creator a “chance to be heard far and wide without fear of compromise” (212). In creating this image and immediately making it available on CafePress, Ulric’s message was absolutely spread far and wide and circulated heavily among American librarians. The image is stark and straightforward and contains all of the information that the viewer needs by “focusing on specific details” which can “amplify… meaning in a way that realistic art can’t” (30). The cherubic interpretation of the American librarian defending her patrons comes across in a much different way than it might if this image were to have featured a living model, either in a painting or a photograph.
And too, the nostalgic nature of the image appeals to our more emotional side, connecting with ideas of patriotism and Americana,while still indicating that this librarian is standing in defiance of the American government. In a telling moment, McCloud discusses how people growing up in the late twentieth century “didn’t want Goals so much as they wanted Roles” and that speaks to the entire nature of this image and its place in cultural iconography (59). The Radical Militant Librarian was, and still is, a role that many librarians want to fill, even if they aren’t exactly sure how to accomplish that.
And that is perhaps where the image both succeeds and fails. The ideal of the Radical Militant Librarian is one that can be exceedingly difficult to live up to. While the ALA promotes a culture of privacy for their patrons, this was not always the case. The ALA didn’t release their Freedom To Read statement until 1953, as American libraries began to see more and more incursions from government agents looking for communism (Thur, 441). Indeed, during World War II, libraries were commonly used as listening posts to intercept intelligence and librarians were pressed into service as spies for the FBI (Thur, 439). This brings a certain amount of irony to the idea of creating an image based on wartime propaganda that implored librarians to protect their patron’s privacy when the actual wartime librarians were doing anything but.
Of course, this isn’t common knowledge and so the image of the Radical Militant Librarian, when taken solely as a standalone icon, can provide a number of meanings. Whether Ulric realized it or not when she created it, this is an image that speaks to the experience of American librarians in a number of different ways. While it was ostensibly geared towards the FBI and their anger over the actions of librarians, one could draw multiple interpretations, based solely on experience and perception. It is undoubtedly a powerful image but it is one that comes with a layered and very complex history and speaks to a multitude of ways in which one can embrace both the goals and the role of being a Radical Militant Librarian.
Abramson, Larry. “The Secret Court of Terror Investigations.” NPR, NPR, 13 Dec. 2005,
McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: the Invisible Art. Harper Perennial, 1994.
Newton, Christopher. “FBI Begins Visiting Libraries.” GovTech, GovTech, 23 Apr. 2021,
Professional Ethics. Tools, Publications & Resources. (2019, May 6). https://www.ala.org/tools/ethics.
Thur, Victoria L. “War, Law, and the Librarian: The Creation, Precedence, and Passage of the USA PATRIOT Act and Its Effects on Libraries.” Journal of Access Services, vol. 6, no. 4, 2009, pp. 437–445., doi:10.1080/15367960903098838.
Tufte, Edward R. Visual Explanations: Images and Quantities, Evidence and Narrative. Graphics Press, 2007.
Ulric, Karen. “Radical Militant Librarian.” Karen the Librarian – Radical Militant Librarian, 2005, www.cafepress.com/karenlibrarian.