Attacks on Libraries Are Attacks on Labor

Emily Drabinski, a self-described Marxist lesbian, was elected president of American Library Association (ALA). She tweeted her excitement at the possibility that she, a self-described Marxist lesbian, could win enough votes to lead the oldest and largest union of library workers in America. The ALA was created 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 desire. According to the Pew Research Center almost 80 percent of American adultsThe majority of political parties agree that libraries can help people find reliable and trustworthy information. This is not surprising. This is not surprising.

It turns out that there are enough people who 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.

These challenges can be understood as part of a white supremacist patriarchal backlash against social movement that has produced waves of protest against violence by police officers, a mainstreaming prison abolition as an option, the normalization and acceptance of queer life in media and a union movement winning victories once thought impossible against corporations like Amazon and Starbucks. These are also attacks on labor. Librarians are trained so that they can select books and other resources for groups of readers. This is what we are paid for. 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 the current wave of highly politicized and well-organized library challenges is designed to bypass all of these normal processes. We are witnessing concerted attacks on authors and books, as well as on the library workers’ expertise.

This is something that no one knows better than the rank-and-file librarian workers. Many of us work an additional shift to stop these incursions. We need the support of our institutions as well as the public to do our jobs effectively. Libraries are the battlefield of struggle. We are the most direct participants in this fight. Our efforts are made more difficult by the fact that our institutions actively hinder us. Library workers face many other challenges, in addition to the public effort to ban books from libraries shelves. These challenges directly impact our ability to do the necessary work to preserve these institutions. In the wake of a strike by Baltimore County union members, management has adopted a stringent attendance policy. People then take control of library boards in Flathead County, Montana and Niles, Illinois. Part-time positions are created to replace full-time librarians, who move to other work sectors or retire. 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. The school librarian ranks are slimmed because only the wealthy can afford them. These issues may not be as well-recognized as they seem. 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 a vital part of the social infrastructure. They are similar to the post office in that they allow for the circulation of public goods like books and movies, as well as tax forms, overdose prevention medications like Narcan, and COVID testing. Library buildings are like parks. They provide public space where anyone can use the toilet, get some computer time, sit down and stay warm in the cold or cool in the heat. Like all social infrastructures, libraries are under attack from an organized group that knows full well that the best method to destroy public institutions is by relentlessly attacking them until they become unusable. We need strong library workers to resist the destruction of our public institutions. Rightly, there has been a lot public outcry against right-wing attacks upon libraries, the books and other material they contain, as well the people who use 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 it very clear that organizing collectively for the public good is the most important thing library workers could 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.