The Fight for Libraries

Libraries and higher education face a shared battle.
By Emily Drabinski

When I was elected president of the American Library Association in spring 2022, I tweeted excitedly that I could not believe a Marxist lesbian—who believes that power can be built and wielded collectively on behalf of the public good—won the election. These are, after all, much-vilified identities in contemporary US life. Despite decades of struggle and the gradual incorporation of LGBTQ+ people into American institutions like marriage, attacks on queer life abound. Red-baiting is on the rise, bringing echoes of the McCarthy era along with it. My excited utterance, meant to be shared with the comrades who worked alongside me in my campaign, was immediately picked up by the right-wing press. A photo of my face and screenshot of my tweet showed up in Breitbart’s extremist media networks and in the pages of the New York Post. A day later I was called into a meeting with senior leadership at my university and advised that these attacks reflected poorly on my institution. The administration asked me to stop tweeting “for days, weeks, even months,” until the fervor died down. It was my first direct encounter with higher education leaders whose commitments to intellectual freedom, to free speech, and to their faculty hold strong only until extremists attack.

My acute encounter was short-lived. There are plenty of targets for hate, and the Right’s news cycle is as short as any other in the current media landscape. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t remained a bludgeon in the Right’s ongoing attack on library workers. A screenshot of my tweet showed up in a petition to the Virginia court demanding that Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer and Sarah J. Maas’s A Court of Mist and Fury be declared obscene. (My tweet was not at all germane to the case.) In Campbell County, Wyoming, the library board voted to “no longer have any association” with the American Library Association or the Wyoming state chapter in part because of my election to a leadership position. And in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, extremists attacked a library director, claiming she conspired with me to peddle pornography to children in the community. (That director and I do not know each other, have never met, and, indeed, have never even corresponded.) In the hands of extremists, I am a weapon. The project for me now is to find out how I can be a tool.

There is, of course, a material difference between being mobilized rhetorically on behalf of extremists and being subject to their attacks. Louisiana attorney general and presumptive gubernatorial candidate Jeff Landry went to St. Tammany to announce a new tip line for reporting on librarians, teachers, and other public-sector workers who have been targeted by the highest echelons of state government. In Florida, school librarians are subject to new state-mandated training aimed at removing books that include age-appropriate discussions of gender and sexuality. Library workers in Jamestown Township, Michigan, will lose their jobs when the community’s library closes altogether following a defunding campaign. Library workers from Staten Island, New York, to Eugene, Oregon, and San Lorenzo, California, face attacks for hosting Drag Queen Story Hour. In Boundary County, Idaho, the library director resigned after armed extremists began showing up at the library, at library board meetings, and even at her home. These attacks constitute violent threats to the lives and livelihoods of library workers. It can be a frightening time to work at the library.

The project for those of us committed to the freedom of expression, the right to read, and to the persistence of public institutions is to intervene when we see those institutions under attack. The endgame is not simply the removal of a particular book from a particular library. Anti-LGBTQ+ attacks led queer staff at the Vinton, Iowa, public library to quit, for a time shuttering the library. The current spate of censorship attempts comes at the end of decades of neoliberal disinvestment in public institutions that have left us ill-equipped to fight back. Library workers on the front lines also contend with short-staffing, reduced salaries, crumbling buildings, and declining materials budgets. Diminished state capacity has left libraries among only a handful of institutions that continue to steward shared public resources on behalf of their communities. Widening inequality makes our jobs harder than ever. Standing firm against violent attempts to censor materials while also maintaining the only public bathroom in town is a tall order. Attacks on freedom of speech, expression, and the right to read generate a lot of smoke, but the fire has been smoldering since the 1970s.

Those of us in higher education know this too well. Ongoing adjunctification leaves many in our field without sustainable wages and working conditions. Rapidly increasing tuition costs put higher education out of reach. Public support has cratered, leaving ostensibly public institutions like the University of Michigan and the University of California more dependent on private monies than ever before. When they ask us to quiet our speech, our administrations are defending institutions that have moved farther and farther away from the project of inquiry and ideas that drew most of us to this profession. Like the metric-obsessed testing regimes that crept from K–12 to higher education over the past decades, these extremist attacks will come to our doors, too. The connection between the decimation of public institutions and the horn-blowing, armed-to-the-teeth extremists shutting down a library in northern Idaho means the solution is bigger than defending the individual book on the individual library shelf. A robust defense of free expression requires an equally vociferous defense of the institutions where that speech is most widely celebrated. The fight for higher education must be a fight for the library as well.  

Emily Drabinski is critical pedagogy librarian at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and 2023–24 president of the American Library Association.