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When Illiberal Forces are on the Rise, Libraries and Librarians Become Targets
Institutions that prize pluralism and open access to knowledge threaten authoritarian dogma
This essay is dedicated to librarians and library staff across America, and to a family member who worked as a library clerk in an elementary school for many years.
"It felt like a knife in my heart," said Audrey Wilson-Youngblood, a Texas library services coordinator, of the flood of accusations from parents that she and other library staff in the Keller Independent School District harmed students by having books on LGBTQ themes in their collections.
Across the country, librarians in school and municipal libraries feel that knife being turned. Activist parents, sometimes working in conjunction with GOP politicians or right-wing groups such as Moms for Liberty, are waging an authoritarian-style assault on libraries and librarians.
When illiberal forces are on the march, the education system and any public institution that encourages independent thinking and pluralism become targets. In Texas and elsewhere, the spread of censorship, and harassment meant to silence library workers --including by labeling them as pedophiles -- models the authoritarian culture the right is trying to install in America school by school and town by town.
It's not surprising that libraries and librarians trigger the enemies of our democracy. Public libraries are places where community members of all backgrounds, political beliefs, and economic situations gather, and where elderly and lonely people can find a sense of companionship. This is why social scientists single out libraries as antidotes to the conditions that harm civic life and ultimately degrade democracy: political polarization, disinformation, economic inequality, and isolation.
School and public libraries also have long provided refuge to people of all ages with difficult home situations, and librarians can become trusted mentors and guides.
My weekly visits as a child to my own town library set me on a path of learning. The library also became a personal anchor for me when I went through a difficult period as a teenager, to the point where I took a job there as a messenger clerk, as did a close friend (who is now a member of the Lucid community).
Shelving and straightening the books, and seeing how they were treated with such care, instilled a lifelong respect for the craft of writing and a commitment to intellectual freedom that sustain me today. As my friend notes, the library was "a safe space to think and dream."
Of course, thinking and dreaming are activities that run counter to authoritarianism: “Believe, Obey, and Fight” was the Fascist slogan. Books become threatening objects, as centuries of book burnings by repressive political and religious entities attest.
In the US, myriad state laws and book bans seek to remove the history of White racism, slavery, and Fascist genocides from view, along with writings about LGBTQ identities and experiences. In the Keller, Texas, school system alone, as of March almost three dozen books had been sent for review by a district-formed book committee on the grounds that they are "pornographic" or will create “emotional distress.”
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, an expert in authoritarian double-speak, calls his version of such censorship "curriculum transparency." Yet there is nothing transparent about the process by which books are removed. As Carolyn Foote, a retired Texas librarian and co-founder of the advocacy group FReadom Fighters notes, these aggressions are about "breaking that contract of trust" between librarians and the public and degrading professional ethics.
The goal is not just to create a hostile work environment for library staff, but also to pressure administrators to submit to corrupt tactics such as banning books on spurious grounds and accepting slanderous speech used against their colleagues.
For right-wing parents and politicians aren't just going after books. They are also personally attacking library employees as "groomers" who encourage inappropriate behaviors and relationships with children.
Associating LGBTQ individuals and their allies with pedophilia is an established strategy among the global right, including in Viktor Orban's Hungary. And Vladimir Putin uses fake sex-crime charges to imprison researchers who are writing about things he wants buried.
Ideological fanaticism spurs attempts to dig into librarians’ private lives and harass them so they will resign. In Virginia Beach, GOP state representative Tim Anderson filed a FOIA Act request in May 2022 to learn the identities of librarians at schools that had materials some parents saw as sexually explicit.
It also lies behind attempts to criminalize librarians. In Clinton Township, NJ, the police department received a request for criminal charges to be made against librarians whose institutions had books with "obscene" content. And some states are challenging laws that shield teachers, researchers and librarians from prosecution. An Oklahoma law removed exemptions for teachers and librarians "from prosecution for willful violations of state law prohibiting indecent exposure to obscene material or child pornography."
Unsurprisingly, many librarians have left their jobs. Some have resigned, others have been fired for refusing to remove books from their collections. Wilson-Youngblood, a 19-year veteran of the Keller school district, resigned due to the stress of working in a hostile environment. In small towns such as Vinton, Iowa, the library itself has had to close for lack of staffing.
Vinton's fate may portend the future, since the number of groups targeted for censorship is bound to expand. In Vinton, right-wing activists not only objected to the presence of LGBTQ staff and LGBTQ-themed books, but displays of books by Vice President Kamala Harris and First Lady Jill Biden. For radicalized Republicans, Democrats are not just people with different opinions, but political enemies whose ideas should be banned.
Luckily, the digitization of books makes it hard for total bans on content for children to stick. The Brooklyn Public Library's Books UnBanned program offers a free library card to people aged 13 to 21 across the U.S. so they can check out books digitally.
Yet libraries and librarians urgently need our support. Contacting your town or school administration to express solidarity and approval with current policies is one way you can push back. Another is to step up as a volunteer or even run for office on a town or school board that has oversight on library issues.
What Amanda Litman, executive director and co-founder of Run For Something, said about school boards in our interview is also true of libraries. They play “a foundational role in determining the kinds of citizens that kids ultimately become." Libraries, and librarians, are essential to a healthy democratic society.