Belmont Club

The Library of Babel

Enter the LabyrinthStanley Kurtz at the National Review Online describes how he was first granted and then denied access to the records of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a fund worth $50 million led by Bill Ayers and chaired at one point by Barack Obama. Kurtz’s research purpose was to discover the extent of Barack Obama’s relatinship with Ayers, and the part the Candidate played in Chicago educational politics. The Wikipedia entry notes that the Challenge suggests that its story and the role it played in the politics of education in Chicago promised to be an interesting one.

The Collaborative’s responsibility was to help identify potential grant recipients, prepare requests for proposals and develop other means for the Challenge to intervene in supporting the local school council-led reform process in Chicago. In 1995 the mayor of Chicago succeeded in the first of several efforts to undermine the power of these councils. But the Challenge fought back by funneling millions of dollars into the councils and associated reform groups, including $175,000 to the Small Schools Workshop. The Workshop had been established in the early 1990s by William Ayers who hired Mike Klonsky, a Chicago cab driver who had earned a Ph.D. in education from the University of South Florida, and former activist with Ayers in Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS. Klonsky had achieved limited notoriety in 1977 when he traveled to Beijing to seek the endorsement of Communist China for a political party he had helped establish in the United States, the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist).

At times the attempt by the Challenge was controversial. An effort to funnel $2 million to the Local Schools Councils was criticized by one Challenge board member, Arnold Weber, a business sector representative and former President of Northwestern University, who saw the Councils as a potential “political threat” to school principals. Of course, the councils were formed precisely to provide parent and political activists with the power to influence schools. Board chairman Obama offered to meet with the Collaborative to resolve the concerns raised by Weber.

The answers to many of the controversies may be contained in the CAC’s own voluminous records, which Kurtz had been granted permission to inspect. He wrote of the trove with same anticipation as Edmund Dantes might have felt when he found the cave of jewels beneath on his fated island:

a large cache of documents housed in the Richard J. Daley Library at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC)… that document cache contains the internal files of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. The records in question are extensive, consisting of 132 boxes, containing 947 file folders, a total of about 70 linear feet of material.

As Kurtz prepared to board his flight to Chicago with written permission in hand to access the documents, he received a message informing him his access to the CAC documents had been pulled.

Just before my plane took off, I received an e-mail from the special-collections librarian informing me that she had “checked our collection file” and determined that “access to the collection is closed.” I would be permitted to view the single CAC-related file from the Office of the Chancellor records, but nothing from the CAC records proper. … After arriving in Chicago, I found a message, not from the special-collections librarian, but from Ann C. Weller, professor and head, Special Collections Department. In answer to my question of who had authority over access to the collection, Weller said, that “the decision was made by me” in consultation with the library director. Weller stated that no one currently has access to the collection and added that: “The Collection is closed because it has come to our attention that there is restricted material in the collection. Once the collection has been processed it will be open to any patron interested in viewing it.”

It’s an interesting story because it illustrates how much importance people put upon controlling information. If Kurtz had been represented by someone else, or if he had hired a graduate in education to study CAC as a case study in effective advocacy, he might gotten further. As it was, he probably set off every alarm bell in an unspecified outer defense shield. In this case, it’s not clear who is controlling the information, whether it is at the behest of William Ayers, Barack Obama or whether it has just happened that way. Until the documents are opened — “after the collection has been processed” — then it may turn out there is nothing in those archives at all but dry-as-dust accounts discussions between Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn and others and between Barack Obama, Bill Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn and others. Umberto Eco, writing about a search for the truth — and a crime — in a fictional library, wrote this dialogue between his two principal characters, the novice Adso of Melk and the monk William of Baskerville.

“I have never doubted the truth of signs, Adso; they are the only things man has with which to orient himself in the world. What I did not understand is the relation among signs . . . I behaved stubbornly, pursuing a semblance of order, when I should have known well that there is no order in the universe.”

“But in imagining an erroneous order you still found something. . . .”

“What you say is very fine, Adso, and I thank you. The order that our mind imagines is like a net, or like a ladder, built to attain something. But afterward you must throw the ladder away, because you discover that, even if it was useful, it was meaningless . . . The only truths that are useful are instruments to be thrown away.”

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