From the President: Defending Academic Libraries

By Irene Mulvey

I am grateful that Academe is devoting an entire issue to academic libraries and academic librarians. The AAUP has counted academic librarians among its members since extending membership rights to them in 1956, and it played a central role in formulating the Joint Statement on Faculty Status of College and University Librarians, which has been Association policy since 1973. Today, academic librarians work alongside other AAUP members in chapters around the country to promote academic freedom and advance higher education for the common good. I welcome the opportunity to highlight these academic librarian colleagues and the important work done in our academic libraries, which in my experience are the heart and soul of any campus community.

Let’s begin with the fact that libraries—both public and academic—are under attack. Higher education is under attack. Many of our democratic norms are under fierce attack, and it seems that each new day brings a fresh assault on another core freedom on which democracy depends.

In the United States, the Constitution guarantees us certain freedoms. These guaranteed rights are important for people in a free society to exercise and enjoy, of course, but they are also an absolute requirement for a free and democratic society to endure and thrive. Any attempt to undermine or abridge First Amendment rights of freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom to petition the government is an assault on democracy itself. And yet we are seeing blatant attacks on key freedoms with alarming frequency.

A healthy democracy requires an informed and engaged populace. The freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment are fully realized only when people have unfettered access to uncensored information as well as high-quality and affordable public education. In the Venn diagram of democratic engagement, academic libraries sit at the intersection of information and education.

Our rights are maintained by the people who look after our public institutions, including librarians, educators, journalists, publishers, and others who serve the community. Most of the time, our democratic institutions hum along under the careful stewardship of these public employees and public servants who understand their role, the law, and the unwritten assumption that elected leaders and other people in charge of public institutions do not want to destroy those institutions. Today, however, that assumption no longer holds true. Educational gag orders issued from capitol buildings or governors’ mansions—which amount to state-mandated censorship of ideas and topics related to race, gender, and sexuality—are limiting and distorting the full and honest teaching of history, threatening to erase or obscure the connection between our country’s racial history and what we see happening all around us. A parallel rise in censorship is targeting books dealing with race, gender, and sexuality. Public servants, including librarians, are on the front lines of the battle to keep information accessible. All must join them in this battle and recognize that our very democracy hangs in the balance.

In addition to fighting back, it is essential that we make very clear our vision for higher education. When Ivy League–educated Florida governor Ron DeSantis and his ilk use outrageous rhetoric to force us to react to false or misleading claims about degrees in “zombie studies” and “indoctrination” on campus, we must find ways to promote our vision for higher education in a free and democratic society in language that will appeal to the broad public.

Higher education in a democracy is essential to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to become knowledgeable about the issues of the day as careful readers, informed writers, and critical thinkers. Education helps people evaluate the reliability of sources of information, assess arguments, and come to informed decisions. When education is hampered or outright controlled by partisan political interests, or when information is censored, manipulated, or entirely banned by people in power, democracy is doomed. Anyone who values academic freedom and believes in our constitutional freedoms must demand that our institutions of public education, including academic libraries, remain free from inappropriate partisan interference. We know that this fight is never-ending and that it ebbs and flows, but make no mistake, the battle is fierce right now. Educators and academic workers of all types must join together to fight back. Democracy itself is at stake.