At this month’s Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL) conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a librarian shared a list of community collaborations her institution has built over the last several years. These partnerships have enabled the library to offer services such as a food pantry, diaper bank, blood drives, and other services that aren’t normally associated with library work. Based on research about so called “so-called” libraries, anchor institutions, she made the case that the library, particularly in rural settings, is at the center of the community, often the place everyone knows they can go when they need something — the new James Patterson novel or something else. During the Q&A, she was asked how the library responded when armed protesters showed up to shut down a recent Drag Queen Story Hour.
“They didn’t get a lot of traction with our patrons,” she said. “I mean, they all know we’re a diaper bank.”
In the wake of rising attempts to censor books about Black, Brown and queer lives — American Library Association statistics demonstrate that we are on track to blow past last year’s record-setting book ban numbers — the role of libraries in our communities is under attack. Libraries don’t exist to give smut to children. After more than 40 years of declining support for public goods, we are one of the last remaining public institutions. We serve as a beacon against the decline of civic life.
In the last 18 months, many who see libraries as a danger have been vocal. From armed threats against public librarians in northern IdahoTo the defamation campaigns run against school librarians in LouisianaThe narrative is being controlled and controlled by the organized extremist left. However, study after study These are minority opinions. evidence suggests that such attacks on the right to read are largely “public and performative.” The sound of censors is loud indeed, and our institutions have their hands full responding to attacks, assuaging fears and reminding library workers that even though it may seem easiest to just keep books that attract attention off our shelves, such “silent censorship” is as insidious as the fire-and-brimstone that lands on the front page.
But censorship does not mean that books will be removed from the hands and minds of readers. If a library doesn’t have the budget to purchase a volume, that book is effectively banned. Books are effectively prohibited if they are restricted by publishing company licensing terms that prohibit libraries from sharing digital materials widely. Books are effectively prohibited if a library building is closed due to having too many buckets under too many drips 20 years ago from a roof that was badly damaged. Books are effectively banned if a library lacks sufficient staff to acquire and catalog materials, classify them, preserve them, and read to children. Books are effectively banned if a person is too far from a library to access it. If they show up and it’s closed due to staffing issues, books are effectively banned. There are many options to ban a book.
The current wave of challenges is just one part of a larger story about bipartisan support to disinvest in public goods, public infrastructures and public sector workers. The right is right about libraries. It says that libraries matter and that any vision for a fully privatized, corporatized society must dismantle those institutions that have survived from the Reagan era to today. Moral panics can often be used to cover for organized abandonment or violent attacks, and this blockbuster ban on books is no different.
We all know that how we define a problem influences what solutions we can envision. As long as we agree to the terms set by a Christo-fascist right, organized over decades and currently mobilized to attack schools and libraries and the people who work in them, we’ll be stuck defending the indefensible, arguing for the right to read on very narrow terms. We must advance an affirmative vision of libraries as one among many public institutions that require investment, not just in terms of books on shelves, but also in the infrastructure — buildings, people, systems — that connects people to each other and to the resources and services that enable us to live more than bare lives.
Libraries and library workers are subject to violent attacks. All of us need to address this problem and resist them, but the state must do more. More than one librarian at the ARSL conference said matter-of-factly that patrons had thrown books at them — just an ordinary part of working life. We also need to focus our energy on ending the structural attacks that have left libraries unable or unwilling to serve their communities for over 40 years. Those acts are violent too, attacks against the public that undermine our ability to read — and to get diapers, to give blood, to talk with our neighbors, and to value each other and the places where we live.