As the results for the Virginia governor’s race began to filter in this past Tuesday, it seemed clear that Republican Glenn Youngkin was going to pull off a narrow victory, defeating Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe. There are plenty of hot-button discourse topics about this race that will no doubt be rehashed endlessly, but as a librarian, I believed that I knew what had really gotten people clutching their pearls and pouring into polling places: books.
Youngkin’s campaign got a lot of traction from one of the oldest of techniques: scaring white suburban parents about the books their children might be reading. But no educators or librarians I know were surprised. For months now, there has been building pressure from right-wing groups like No Left Turn in Education who have been setting up adults to go after books and even displays in public and school libraries. In Utah, Utah State Board of Education member Natalie Cline received a reprimand from the board for her continued incitement of what they classified as “hate speech,” which only encouraged supporters to increase threats and Cline to continue posting, including going so far as to say that a local library was engaging in “grooming” for having a Pride display up. In Wyoming, a complaint to the sheriff’s department from a local church about books with queer content prompted local prosecutors to review the case. And these are just a few examples. There are many more.
These efforts aren’t just limited to red states; this is a nationwide movement, and it’s only growing. Giant conservative think tanks like the Manhattan Institute and PragerU have toolkits and video libraries all ready to go with information about how parents can “stand up” to their school boards and libraries.
Nationwide, public and school librarians, along with teachers, have been under constant siege from this tide of complaints and objections, often from people who have never read the books they are upset about or who are deliberately picking out-of-context passages. Librarians and educators who have not received formal challenges are aware they could come at any time and face other kinds of indirect harassment, from angry emails to books that “go missing” from shelves. The fact is, it’s an incredibly draining and hostile time to be working in an education field and in public libraries. Teachers and librarians, exhausted from often working public-facing positions during the pandemic, have watched as backlash against sensible public health measures like masks and vaccines have mutated into full-on attacks on their professionalism and their collections, which have been curated for all children.
Which is why now is the time that you can do something to help your local public library and schools. If they are not currently under attack and pressure from the forces I have outlined here, you can be assured that they are aware of them and might even be anxious about them. You can do something to counter this rising tide of uninformed efforts to remove materials and displays.
First, if you are not already a user of your local public library, now is the time to get yourself a card. Your public library definitely has more to offer than you remember, and staff can’t wait to tell you all about it. If you already use your public library, even infrequently, your next steps should be to reach out and ask your library staff what they need, especially when it comes to pushing back on challenges. Staff might tell you that what they need most is someone to volunteer in the Friends of the Library bookstore or that, perhaps, there’s a spot on the library board they need someone to run for. They might tell you that they haven’t had any challenges yet, but they appreciate your support and attention. You can also ask to see your library’s collection development policy. This is the document, created by library staff, that should guide their purchasing selections and tell you more about how the collection is maintained and defended from threats. This is public information, and you can become familiar with and use it to defend your library’s collection.
Once you’ve done this, the next thing you can do is put into writing how you support and appreciate the library’s commitments to intellectual freedom, diverse collections, and everyone’s right to read. Not sure who to send this letter to? You can start with the library director—their contact information should be easy to locate on your library’s homepage—but you can go further than that. Send it to your city council, your mayor, the manager of the department that oversees the library. Let as many people in charge in your community know that you appreciate and value a library full of material and programming that support the diversity of your community and the world. Send that letter to your local news source.
You can do something else too. Make use of our resources: Check out the books on display; use our e-books and databases and newspaper subscriptions; come to our programs. Then, you really will be able to talk to your fellow community members and the stakeholders and funders who make your library’s operations possible about the great community benefit their work is. This use also signals that these are resources wanted, needed, and valued by the community, from queer books to inclusive programming.
The value of libraries can often feel like an intangible thing, the sort of thing people wax rhapsodic about. But what we, as librarians, need you, as community members, to name and show up for are the tangible benefits of having a library that supports queer teens and Black kids and people without enough money to have good broadband at home, and everyone else who wants and needs to use our services. We need you to say, on record, over and over, that you support libraries as vital spaces in your community worth funding and protecting from forces that would attempt to stifle our work and progress, gradual as it may sometimes be.
It’s important for you to know that libraries are not perfect, beyond critique bastions of freedom for all. School and public libraries are plagued by all the same issues of white supremacy, homophobia, and other prejudices that impact any institution or system. All too often, libraries enforce and uphold systems of oppression, including against their own marginalized staff members.
I am sharing this with you so that you do not come away from this with an idealized idea of what libraries are or how simple it will be to push back against this. There is work to be done internally at libraries, and there is work to be done by you, the public, who wants to support us and ensure that we are doing the most we can for the most members of our community. Know what your library is offering in collections and programs. Show up not just for library staff but for your whole community by voicing your support. It will not always be easy work and you will not always succeed, but more than ever, it is work that needs to be done. Librarians and educators ask you now to join us.
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