When Emily Drabinski was elected president of the American Library Association (ALA) in mid-April, she tweeted her excitement that someone like her, a self-proclaimed Marxist lesbian, could garner enough votes to head the oldest and largest association of library workers in the United States. The ALA was founded in 1876 “to enable librarians to do their present work more easily and at less expense,” thereby incorporating the Gilded Age’s capitalist efficiency into libraries from its very beginning. Given the now near-total dominance of neoliberalism in the field — from ever-escalating austerity budgets to constant calls to manage libraries as if they were businesses — Drabinski’s election was anything but a given. It’s exciting, because only a densely organized library workforce can have the power to push back against political entities that would strip libraries, alongside other public institutions, of what remaining power we have to make our communities better places to live for everyone. Strong libraries are what most people want. According to the Pew Research Center, almost 80 percent of American adults, across the political spectrum, believe libraries help people find trustworthy and reliable information. This comes as little surprise. After all, who could be against a library?
Well, it turns out that enough people could be. Drabinski’s election was immediately picked up by right-wing trolls who cast her as yet another “groomer” pushing gay books on young children. These attacks mirror the attacks on library workers — particularly at school and public libraries — who have been battling challenges to books about racial inequality and gender and sexual identity at rates not seen since the McCarthy era.
We can understand these challenges as part of a white supremacist and patriarchal backlash against social movements that have produced waves of protest against police violence, a mainstreaming of prison abolition as a political possibility, the normalization of queer life in media, and a union movement seeing wins once thought impossible against corporations, such as Starbucks and Amazon. These are also attacks against labor. Librarians are trained to select books and other resources to be shared in common by groups of readers. This is the job we are paid to do. The books that are making it to target lists, such as Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, Kyle Lukoff’s Call Me Max and Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, don’t find their way to library shelves as part of the gay or Black “agenda.” They are selected and acquired by librarians who use funds to purchase books that meet the reading needs and interests of our communities. Of course, those decisions are often made collaboratively with those communities — faculty and students make book requests, parents express concerns that are then managed through existing policy and protocols. But this current spate of highly politicized and well-organized challenges is meant to circumvent all of these ordinary library processes. What we see now are concerted attacks not just on books and authors, but on the expertise of library workers.
Nobody knows this better than rank-and-file library workers. As many of us work a second shift pushing back against these incursions, we need the support of our institutions and the public to do our work effectively. If libraries are the terrain of struggle, we are the people most directly involved in the fight. Our efforts are made all the more difficult when our institutions actively work against us. Alongside the very public efforts to ban books from library shelves, library workers face a host of other challenges that directly impact our capacity to do the work necessary to preserve these institutions. Management rolls out absurdly strict attendance policies in the wake of a union campaign in Baltimore County, Maryland. Library boards are taken over by people who then vote to slash funding and hours in Flathead County, Montana, and Niles, Illinois. Full-time librarians flee to other employment sectors or to retirement, and are replaced by part-time positions. Core library functions, including collection development and resource description, are contracted out to for-profit private companies that lock us into expensive systems we don’t control. School librarian ranks are thinned as only wealthy ZIP codes choose to afford that staff. These issues may not be as well-discussed as Breitbart calling us all “groomers,” but they are every bit as insidious, stripping our institutions of the very people best positioned to save them.
Libraries are crucial social infrastructure. Like the post office, they are a site for the circulation of public goods such as books and films, but also tax forms, overdose-prevention medications such as Narcan, and COVID tests. Like parks, library buildings produce space for the public where anyone can use the bathroom, grab some computer time, sit down, stay warm in the cold and cool in the heat. And like all social infrastructure, libraries are under attack from an organized right that knows well that the best way to crater public institutions is to relentlessly attack them until they become unusable, leading to their abandonment by everyone except those who have no other choice. We need a strong library workforce equipped to resist the dismantling of our public institutions. Rightfully, there has been ample public outcry in response to right-wing attacks on our libraries, the books and other materials they contain, and the people who read those books. However, what worries me is that in our focus on book burnings we’ll forget to build the power of our most potent weapon: the people who work in the library.
Drabinski’s election to the presidency of ALA — in a year that saw more votes cast than any in the past decade — represents a vote for labor organizing as a mode of both vocational and political change. Her campaign put labor front and center, making a very public argument that organizing collectively on the behalf of the public good is the most important thing library workers can be doing right now. Whether she’ll make good on this Marxist lesbian promise remains to be seen, and will require all of us who work in and use libraries to join the fight.