Appreciating Zoia Horn (1918-2014)

Becky O'Malley, with help from Tom Lord
Saturday July 19, 2014 - 09:33:00 AM
Jacob Schiller

Commonly people think of heroes as big strong young guys riding white horses. Not me, not always.

This week I was sorry to learn about the death of one of my heroes who was, when I knew her, a little gray-haired lady wearing spectacles. Reference librarians in general have always been my heroes—when I was writing for magazines they rescued me from many sticky situations. In those pre-Wikipedia days they were essential. Zoia Horn was a librarian’s librarian, and a hero in other ways to boot.

In 2004 Dorothy Bryant wrote a wonderful appreciation of Zoia when she was a youthful 85. You can read it here if you want to get to know her: Zoia Horn Takes Pride in Provoking.

The money quote from that article:

"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)." 

When she died last week she was 96. A younger colleague, Rory Litwin, wrote a tribute to her, which includes a picture as well as links and reminiscences from other admirers: Zoia Horn has passed on

I knew Zoia toward the end of the seventies when I was at the Center for Investigative Reporting and she was at the Data Center just down the street in grungy pre-hip downtown Oakland. I’m surprised to learn from a comment on Litwin’s piece that Zoia was only a volunteer there—I always thought she ran the place, and she probably did in fact, without pay of course. 

When I needed information about something I was working on, all I had to do was ask, and she could produce fat file folders full of clippings on any subject, information as esoteric as anything which can now be found online with a Google search and much more. And if she had an opinion on the topic, as she frequently did, she wasn’t shy about sharing it. 

When we took over the Planet, we got the first of a series of encouraging notes from Zoia. In 2006, when we had problems with poorly-behaved critics of our free speech policy she sprang to our defense with a spirited op-ed essay, one of several fine contributions she made to our Commentary section. She was 87 at the time. 

As we get older there’s a strong temptation to retire from the job of healing the world. I didn’t even get to know Zoia Horn until she was well past the age when many have given up, settled into an easy life of conflict avoidance without regard to what they’re leaving for the next generation. With her example before us, it’s hard to claim that it really doesn’t matter what we do, just because we’ve gotten older and are feeling a bit tired. 

There’s always work that needs doing. 

We should all hope to get old, considering the alternative, but we should also hope never to get too tired to speak up against injustice wherever and whenever it’s to be found. 

Here are a few examples of how Zoia did it: 

Commentary: Outcry at Library Meeting Justified by Substantial Issues  

Commentary: Sunshine is the Best Antidote for Bigotry 

Commentary: Oakland Measure Will Not Aid Libraries