LEXINGTON, Mass.—Cary Memorial Library of Lexington, Massachusetts is home to a growing World Language Collection, a program offering members of local ethnic groups an opportunity to request library books in their mother tongue. As the town of nearly 33,000 has diversified over the years, welcoming new immigrant communities from China, India, and Korea into its ranks, the library has added these languages to its stacks, in the hopes of making the public library a more representative and accessible institution to residents. In this vein, Lexington’s Turkish community have been working with staff to curate a new collection of over 100 Turkish-language books to the library’s repertoire.
The launch event for this new collection, which took place on Monday, included speeches from local Turkish community members, the Turkish Consul General Ceylan Özen Erişen and library staff. In her address, Erişen described the importance of books in cultivating a more open and tolerant society. “This is about the Turkish community contributing in a very positive way to the society in which it’s living,” she said. “We are always telling the Turkish community to open up and to be a true and positive contributing part of the society that they are living in. This is one example. What better way is there than books? … We will make the world a better place to live in step-by-step. Our doors are open.”
Erişen’s universal message of openness and intellectual freedom, however, were buffered by a deep irony. In the modern era, fewer governments can be said to be less open than that of Turkey, whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has ruled in an increasingly dictatorial fashion, advocating state policies of censorship, press suppression and denialism. According to a 2018 Human Rights Watch report, Turkey under its current administration is “the world leader in jailing journalists and media workers… with around 150 behind bars at time of writing.”
At the time of the Armenian Genocide over a century ago, in which Ottoman Armenian citizens were systematically exterminated and deported from the empire, the United States offered refuge to those fleeing ethnic persecution at the hands of Ottoman authorities. Yet today, far from recognizing the atrocities committed by its direct predecessor, Turkey’s government has engaged in a widespread propaganda campaign to discredit and endanger the journalists, scholars and activists working to publicize this history.
Today, thanks to its large and well-organized community of Diasporan Armenians, Massachusetts is one of at least 11 states which recognizes the Armenian Genocide and mandates teaching it in public schools. For some attending the launch of the new collection, like longtime Lexington resident and documentary filmmaker Roger Hagopian, it was important that Genocide recognition also be reflected in his community’s public libraries and that “no books in this new collection contain Turkish denialist agenda regarding the Armenian Genocide.”
As reported by the Weekly’s Leeza Arakelian, a group of young people, members of the local Boston chapter of the Armenian Youth Federation (AYF), stationed themselves at the library’s entrance to distribute flyers to event-goers, and delivered a long-awaited letter to Erişen. The presence of demonstrators created an air of tension throughout the event, evident when the Consul muttered, “Protect me from the negative energy” during the ribbon cutting ceremony.
“What is the peaceful way we can solve this instead of hating each other?” said Tolga, a documentary filmmaker from Turkey, who preferred not to disclose his last name. Tolga was in town visiting from Turkey and had found out about the event from his sister, a resident of Lexington. “One side claims something, then the other side. In order to mediate, we have to have like a think tank group a group of committees that can mitigate this… The answer is in education. If you educate people more, you won’t have these problems.” But educating people in Turkey, Tolga admitted, is difficult to do. “Erdogan is a dictator. We do not live in a secular country. We are oppressed. There is no freedom.”
Cary Memorial Library Director Koren Stembridge explained that books in her library’s World Language Collections are often not history books, but are rather ones that can be used for children and language instruction. This is what attracted Yasemin Sari, a Turkish woman living in Lexington, to the collection. Fearing linguistic assimilation, she says it’s important to her that her three children to grow up bilingual and able to read Turkish. She said she always used to be up to date when she lived in Turkey, always reading the language, but now that she lives in the U.S., she doesn’t read as much anymore.
Though the purpose of the collection is to help immigrant communities feel their diversity is represented in the library, Stembridge said she and her colleagues are mindful of the political implications involved in a program like this. “We do have conversations with our groups about political topics, and we talk about the same rules that apply to our selecting materials in English,” she said. “When we don’t have staff who speak that language, we do have to work with the community members to make sure we understand one another. We’re holding a complex collection that has multiple perspectives… We’ve done it with the Indian community, Korean, Chinese, Portuguese, Hebrew, Japanese Russian.” Turkish is the library’s twelfth language.
Jennifer Webb, the Bibliographic Services Manager, said that while their library is not currently home to an Armenian language section—partially because the Watertown branch has such a robust one—she welcomes the idea, stating “the more voices, the better.” She says the size of a community does not determine whether to host a collection, rather it’s demand. In the case of the Turkish collection, it was five to seven individuals who initially approached the library.
Webb admitted the potential for conflict resulting from the fact that selected books are in a language she and her staff do not understand. But she said her staff adheres to a policy of trusting community members to choose books that are balanced. “Of course, since this is a Turkish collection, there are a lot of potentially sensitive issues that could come up. I don’t have the ability to totally evaluate every book to know exactly what the nuances are, so when I explained to Ceylan what we were trying to achieve, I think she really tried to keep that in mind. I’m sure over time we are going to need to provide books to add more balance and more viewpoints… Not every book in the library is going to be balanced, but overall we hope that people will feel represented by what they see.”
As for what the Turkish collection actually contains, library staff say it’s a mix of things. So far, it is just over 100 books, made up of primarily fiction, children’s works, and language instruction materials, but library staff promise it’s sure to grow. They also confirmed that the Turkish Consulate played no role in the initial curation of books, but that it did make a private donation of additional books, which staff would be reviewing soon.
Webb encourages anyone with complaints about a book to reach out to their staff, who will review the issue and talk to concerned readers directly. She assured that when it comes to Genocide denial, this is something she, as a Jewish American, is particularly sensitive to, but that at the end of the day, the community will never have exactly a librarian’s perspective on it. “Do you represent the most extreme ends of this political spectrum?” she asked rhetorically, “Where do you draw the line?”