Libraries Under Attack
DOCTOR WHO The library. Every book ever written. Whole continents of Jeffrey Archer and Bridget Jones. Monty Python's Big Red Book.
BROOKE GLADSTONE On this week's On The Media: Libraries. What they’re after and who's after them.
EMILY DRABINSKI It's not about the book. It is about wanting the library itself to disappear.
NITISH PAHWA It's about how we view books and how we view writing and how we treasure and arrange knowledge.
GYULA LAKATOS People can lose a lot of stuff. Humanity in general can lose a lot of knowledge out of nowhere for no reason.
BREWSTER KAHLE We can actually achieve the great vision of everything ever published, everything that was ever meant for distribution, available to anybody in the world.
EMILY DRABINSKI So I've never worked in a library that didn't have a bucket under a leak or a tarp over the archives.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The dream of accessing the knowledge of the whole world. And the risk of losing it all on the next On The Media from WNYC.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York. This is On The Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. On the ballot in this week's midterm elections, where candidates and legislation that will define this nation's values, not just in Washington, but in every community. And this year, of course, we've seen some of the toughest battles fought in what once may have been seen as havens safe from it all.
NEWS REPORT Libraries across the country say efforts to ban books have reached unprecedented levels.
NEWS REPORT A recent study found hundreds of books, mostly focused on LGBTQ themes or racial issues, have now been forbidden across the country.
NEWS REPORT Five years ago, this was anointed the best small library in America. Today, the trustees are facing a recall.
COMMUNITY-MINDED CITIZEN What I hate to see is my community torn apart like this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Citizens eager to join our fractious national fight find in their local libraries, their city councils, and school boards convenient fields of battle. As when last spring, when this school board meeting near Rockford, Illinois, proposed the removal of eight books from their school library shelves.
PUNITIVE PARENT This does not belong in a school. If my neighbor down the road were to give this to my child, guess what? He would be in jail.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In the end, only one book Gender Queer about a nonbinary child reckoning with their identity was banned. Other books at issue simply described what it was like being a black person growing up in America. Here's Ta-Nehisi Coates on his autobiographical book Between the World and Me being banned at schools in another Rockford, this one in Ohio.
TA-NEHISI COATES When you start saying to a kid or your kids, ‘I only want you to read things that validate my point of view.’ That's no longer education. That's indoctrination.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In the Tennessee State Assembly last April, Representative Jerry Sexton took on this question.
JERRY SEXTON Let's say you take these books out of the library. What are you going to do with them? You can put them on the street, let them on fire.
JERRY SEXTON I don't have a clue, but I would burn them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The result of that debate was the state's Age Appropriate Materials Act of 2022, passed in August, which requires public oversight of all the books in Tennessee's school libraries. In Patmos, Michigan voters seem lukewarm on the mission of libraries altogether.
NEWS REPORT Voters in Jamestown Township rejected renewing a millage that would support the community's public library.
NEWS REPORT They wanted the funding cut off because of LGBTQ books that were part of the Pride display.
NEWS REPORT The LGBTQ stuff bothers me with my kids in particular.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The library director in Michigan resigned under the pressure of a pattern of book banning we've covered before but seems to be getting ever so worse. Prompting emotional responses like this from Jessie Graham, a Tennessee resident who spoke up at a recent board meeting for her public library, specifically calling out the Maury County commissioner, Aaron Miller, who's been critical of the library's books.
JESSIE GRAHAM Our town has never seen so much homophobic crap as we have since Miller came along, and I’m sick of it! I've never been sexually assaulted at a drag show, but I have been in church – twice!
BROOKE GLADSTONE Emily Drabinski is a librarian at the City University of New York's Graduate Center and is incoming president of the American Library Association. She's looking how to navigate in the year ahead a time of unprecedented challenges for a service-oriented profession.
EMILY DRABINSKI Well, the field's about 88% white, mostly women. Most of us really want to help you. If there is something you need, we're going to do our best to get it. I think every time you email a librarian or call a librarian or ask a librarian a question in person, they'll either give you the answer or they'll say, ‘I don't know, but let me find out.’
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's a one year term, right?
EMILY DRABINSKI That's right. And I take office at the end of June.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You tweeted excitedly, “I'm a Marxist lesbian, and I won!” And for some reason, this elicited a bit of a backlash.
EMILY DRABINSKI It really did. And I was very surprised because the end of that tweet, which no one ever mentions, is that I also said, “my mom is so proud of me.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE It did show you had a loving mom. It doesn't really quite address the Marxist lesbian part.
EMILY DRABINSKI No. And it's very much who I am and shapes a lot of how I think about social change and making a difference in the world. But of course, I tweeted it into the middle of an extremely fractured society. One where we have the rise of an extremist right that has come for everything that I care about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And accordingly, conservative media took on your tweet. The Breitbart piece had the catchy title, “Dewey Decimal Disaster.” I can't believe I'm saying this, but didn't Breitbart have a point when it said you brought an explicit political agenda? I mean, you wrote that the consequences of decades of unchecked climate change, class war, white supremacy, and imperialism have led us to the mess we're in.
You also noted if we want a world that includes public goods like the library, we must organize our collective power and wield it. The American Library Association offers us a set of tools that can harness our energies and build those capacities. You must have known that in espousing values other than the freedom of information, the err library value, that you are walking directly into a buzzsaw.
EMILY DRABINSKI Huh? You know, I didn't start the buzzsaw. The problem is not Breitbart publishing an article about me. The problem we're facing is disinvestment in public institutions and public goods. And I guess you could say I bring a political viewpoint to that, but I don't see how a person couldn't. All of us are working from a set of assumptions about the world and things that we see as normal. Those of us who are on the outside of the status quo, I would say we are forced to sort of articulate those ideologies to ourselves, but everyone is shaped by one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The Federalist’s take on your appointment was headlined “Amid Public Concern about Grooming Kids, American Library Association Picks President Who Pushes Queering Libraries.”
EMILY DRABINSKI First, I would say that there are no public concerns about libraries grooming children. That is an extremist view of libraries. Almost no one in the public shares that view. I just would want to push back against any idea that this is a public concern. So these right wing attacks attempt to force us into talking about their agenda, and I'd like to talk a lot less about it to be honest.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You did speak to the Toledo Blade, and you said its coverage was a real surprise.
EMILY DRABINSKI If they had wanted to speak with me about how my understanding of the relationship between capital and labor shapes my understanding of political institutions and public institutions like the library, that would have been great. And to be honest, that's what I was expecting from the reporter. It hadn't occurred to me that people who really have an interest in telling the stories of people and communities and the libraries served them — it didn't occur to me that they would take the right wing talking points as the start of the story. The least interesting thing about the work that I'm going to be doing in the next couple of years and service to the community is the fact that I'm a Marxist lesbian. So when I tweeted that I was a Marxist lesbian, I certainly wasn't doing it for Breitbart. I was doing it for all of the people who agree with me that public institutions matter. Public resources need to attend to the things we need most, which is connection, public space, storytime, books to read. I mean, how many people do you know during the pandemic found out — in quotes — about electronic books from their library and suddenly were able to have whole worlds open to them during a time of crisis and isolation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Less than a year ago on our show, we covered some of the ways that librarians have been caught in the crosshairs of the culture war, especially around pretty successful attempts to ban books, books by Black people, and also, of course, those dealing with the lives of LGBT+ people. One of those books, the book Gender Queer, I think that's where the “grooming” thing comes from. Now, you started your career at New York Public Library, the Jefferson Market Street branch. It's a predominantly gay area. You said that sometimes the context of the library suggests which books you need and which you don't.
EMILY DRABINSKI Well, librarians are professionals. We go through a library master's degree program, and we're trained on the job to make book selections for our communities. We build collections that are responsive to the needs of the people we serve. So right now, I'm talking to you from the Graduate Center in midtown Manhattan. My liaison responsibilities here to the School of Labor and Urban Studies and to our urban education program. I'm not going to choose Gender Queer to purchase for our library, not because I'm a censor, but because that's not a book that we need in our collection right now. But I think you can tell that it's not really about the books if you look to some of the particular cases. So, for example, attacks on the Boundary County Library in Northern Idaho. This was the same set of 300 books that they want banned. The extremist right in that part of the state came after the public library there. That library didn't own any of the books that were on the list.
BROOKE GLADSTONE They didn't have the books, but the library and the librarian were attacked nevertheless?
EMILY DRABINSKI Nevertheless. Because the books could be in the library, I guess.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Or the fact that it is a library?
EMILY DRABINSKI That's what I think. So when you look at what happened in Boundary County, they were unable to get insurance for the building.
BROOKE GLADSTONE I think that that librarian resigned.
EMILY DRABINSKI Yeah. You know, she had people parked outside of her house with guns, threatening her life, threatening the life of the people who worked in the library. And so it's not about the book. It is about wanting the library itself to disappear. We see that happening in Vinton Public Library in Iowa. The attacks were so severe that the people in the library refused to work there anymore and the library was effectively closed. Librarians out in Utah were telling me that a bill would require books added to school library collections be reviewed by a set of parents, boxes of books just sitting in school buildings, unable to get on the shelves because of these kinds of restrictive policies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's always framed as parents rights, but according to Summer Lopez, who's the chief program officer of free expression at PEN America, most of these book bans are on books that families and children can elect to read. They're not required to read them. They just exist.
EMILY DRABINSKI One of the things I loved about libraries when I first started is that they are non-coercive learning spaces. You don't have to read anything. You can choose from anything on the shelf. And if your kid checks out something you don't want them to read, that's between you and your child and the way that you're parenting. And it just isn't something that the state needs to be involved in.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You've said that part of your brief for your reign is to find and promote an affirmative narrative about what libraries do and what makes them vital to various communities. You've noted that rural libraries, for example, are sometimes the only anchor institution. Could you tell me what that means?
EMILY DRABINSKI Yeah. I just learned this idea of anchor institution at the Association of Rural and Small Libraries Conference. There are institutions that anchor communities. Right. So that the hospital is one. Lots of people work there. Everyone goes there at some point, has a role to play in the community and the library is similar. You'll often get people who will say that the library's are irrelevant, but that just means that they can afford not to use a public service. And I don't know why they are the people we ask to share their expertise on the use of public services. But most of us use the public library. Our kids get their picture books there. We maybe do passport services. Maybe the library has tech training. One of my first jobs at the public library was teaching senior citizens how to do mouse and keyboarding skills. So where else are you going to learn those things? You learn them at the library.
BROOKE GLADSTONE A librarian from Illinois told you that they have collaborations with the Diaper Bank and blood drives as well as schools. Libraries have also adapted to the fact that their communities may need them less for information, but may need them more desperately for other things like gardening equipment or getting a suit for a job interview.
EMILY DRABINSKI Yeah. All of those are services that libraries provide, the libraries fitting in and solving these problems. Because I do think one thing the librarians have in common is that were problem solvers. You definitely saw that in the pandemic. Libraries were one of the institutions that worked hardest and fastest to meet the needs of their communities.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Tell me about how?
EMILY DRABINSKI COVID testing. There's a program through the federal government and the Association of Rural and Small Libraries that would help public libraries set themselves up as COVID vaccine sites. Access to broadband Internet is a crucial public service that libraries do. During the pandemic, you saw all kinds of photos of people with their laptops leaning up against the door of the library. Maybe it was closed because of infection risk, but the broadband was turned on, you know, people taking their classes, sitting outside up against the wall of the Richland public library in South Carolina. I was talking to a librarian in South Carolina in the mountains where the only real way to get your own Internet signal, he said, was to go up to the top of a hill and hold your phone out. But where you did have that access was at the public library. Another librarian was telling me about his community's efforts to help people navigate the ERA, the Emergency Rental Assistance Program. You've got this program from the federal government, but if I don't have broadband Internet or access to Internet at all or a device, I can't apply for rental assistance. If I don't have an email address, I can't apply. If I don't know how to fill out an online form, which honestly can be pretty complicated, where do I go to get that assistance? That's a program where the librarians were working one on one with high-need residents to connect them to the emergency rental assistance program. Those services, increasingly, you can only access them on the Internet. So we're doing the essential work of bridging the person and the services. The role that libraries played in keeping people in their homes. It's not a thing that would come to mind immediately, but it is also a core function of the library.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Can you describe some of the challenges that libraries face that most people never even thought of?
EMILY DRABINSKI One of the things that the pandemic really brought home for me was how crucial the library as a space is. Somewhere to go to use the bathroom or get a drink of water or meet a friend. I have a 14 year old, and he is meeting his tutor today at 4:00 at the library so he can pass his math test. There's no other space where he could meet with her without having to pay money. And I was head of my library during the course of the pandemic and worked really hard to get us open as soon as it was safe so that people had somewhere to go. Students in New York City, they have crowded housing, very difficult time finding space where they can get quiet and do their work. My mother is out in Boise, Idaho, and she doesn't leave the house a whole lot anymore. But when she leaves, it's to go to the library and checks out seven books on a Wednesday, and then she goes back the next Wednesday and returns those checks out another seven books. So for her, it's a crucial link to the outside world. So the thing I guess I would say about what people don't know about that space is how much investment we need in infrastructure to maintain those spaces. So I've never worked in a library that didn't have a bucket under a leak or a tarp over the archives. There's a bill in Congress that would give $20 million of public funding towards maintaining the physical infrastructure of libraries.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's a drop in the bucket.
EMILY DRABINSKI I tell you. We could eat that right here at the Graduate Center. The need is so high. We need resources to be able to make it the kind of public space that the public is worthy of.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When people lack a community, you've observed, libraries bring them back into the public square. There's events, there's storytimes. It's a noncommercial cross-class space — something we don't have elsewhere.
EMILY DRABINSKI But I'll tell you another story. So I was talking to a librarian at Donnelly County, Idaho, which is a city of, I don't know, 400 people, and they run an LGBTQ+ book club for teens. Gets about three people, and the librarian there was telling me that, for those three kids, that reading group at the library is the only place that they can be open and public and honest with themselves and each other about who they are. And I don't know who thinks that doesn't matter.
BROOKE GLADSTONE So what's your strategy for the next year? Will you be lobbying Congress?
EMILY DRABINSKI ALA has a Washington office that does advocacy work on behalf of the association. We're advocating for a federal Right to Read Act that would provide support for school libraries that make sure that every child and every zip code has a school librarian. Funding for broadband internet. Thinking about ways that we can provide digital corridors so that people can use the Internet wherever the library can manage to set up access points using bookmobiles and using hotspots. The commitment is to access to information for everyone. So while we're having to negotiate on the terrain that the right has set for us right now, that if we can tell more stories of what we are doing, that we'll have to pay a little less attention to these extremists. And then hopefully a library that is facing attacks for LGBTQ+ materials in Idaho, Michigan, Iowa, Wyoming, Florida, Texas, even New York, South Carolina, North Carolina — that all of those library workers know that they're not alone, that we have each other's backs, and that if we stand together, we're going to win. And I know that sounds like a bumper sticker, but I actually really believe it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Emily, thank you very much.
EMILY DRABINSKI Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Emily Dubinsky is a critical pedagogy librarian at the Mina Rees Library at the Graduate Center City University of New York. Coming up, a lawsuit threatens e-book lending. This is On The Media.
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