In Trump’s America, Activist Librarians Who Won’t Be Shushed
Our next president has not spent much time in libraries. Reading is unnecessary, Donald Trump told The Washington Post, because he always makes good decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had.” These wise choices include spreading conspiracy theories borrowed from respected sources such as “many people are saying.” And his favorite book, The Art of the Deal, is less a window than a slab of stained glass commemorating himself, through which the outside world is only dimly visible.
As someone who believes that truth goes to the victors — and specifically those unashamed to chip away at facts with a million @s — Trump won’t be speaking much about the power of libraries over the next four years. That won’t eliminate their power, however; in a world where faith in American institutions is crumbling, people still trust libraries. And just as they have with every other monumental development in American history — whether technological, cultural, or existential — librarians are already preparing for how to evolve to serve us best.
Encouraging Americans to teleport outside their own lives has always been libraries’ most impressive superpower. To that end, Michigan librarian Jessica Bratt puts out books that help fight Islamophobia, a focus given the city’s refugee population. “I have stories,” she adds, “where kids had never met anyone from the LGBT community until they read a particular book. And that shaped and opened up their whole world.” Of course, libraries have also found themselves at the center of battles over censorship or privacy, as when parents complained about the pernicious influence of Harry Potter, or when the Patriot Act threatened to make the government privy to our reading lists. And there are plenty of smaller, constant fights over what knowledge children should be steered toward while they’re learning about the world for the first time.
Every year, the Grand Rapids Public Library in Michigan sends out one book to every fifth grader in the city as part of the “One City, One Book” program. In 2015, it chose One Crazy Summer, which follows young sisters who move to Oakland in 1968 and learn about the Black Panther Party. There was some pushback about how the book portrayed the police, Bratt says, but her colleagues defended the choice, saying that kids needed to read it. There were several meetings in which the choice was discussed, and attendees got quite emotional. It had not been long since Trayvon Martin was murdered. But, Bratt says, “the schools took a chance. It was all worth it,” and the students loved it.
Bratt’s also one of the founders of Libraries 4 Black Lives, a group trying to get librarians across the country to take a stand on racial justice, and knew she wanted to be a librarian ever since she was a kid growing up on the South Side of Chicago. “Libraries have a long history of social action,” she says. “We can take a stand — don’t need to be on the tail end of history anymore.” Now living in Grand Rapids, she’s trying to make her career into a case study of how librarians can advocate for social justice at the local level.
But when states or school districts need to slash budgets, libraries are often targeted. This means the school librarians often have fewer qualifications, and students end up learning less about how to find good information — a major problem in a world requiring everyone to sift through reams of questionable facts and figures every day. “The public schools needed support,” Bratt says. “Some schools still [have] Windows 98.” So she worked to create a virtual library card that let all students at Grand Rapids public schools access the public library’s resources.
Oregon librarian Diedre Conkling agrees that her colleagues have an important role to play in nearly every big fight happening in politics right now. “Everything is related to libraries,” says Conkling, who sits on the American Library Association’s Social Responsibilities Round Table. “You could name almost any topic, and I could tell you how it’s related to libraries.” Take fossil fuels, for example: SRRT is trying to convince ALA to divest, while individual libraries try to become more sustainable. Or gun violence: The SRRT wants the organization to take a stand on guns in libraries, especially as open carry laws proliferate.
Convincing librarians nationwide “takes a while, but we’re persistent.” Sometimes it takes a very long time, Conkling says, alluding to libraries’ slow progress on civil rights. Shortly before Obama was inaugurated, Representative John Lewis told Terry Gross that he “was so inspired by Dr. King that in 1956, with some of my brothers and sisters and first cousins — I was only 16 years old — we went down to the public library, trying to check out some books. And we were told by the librarian that the library was for whites only and not for colors. ... I never went back to that public library until July 5, 1998 ... for a book signing of my book, Walking with the Wind. And they gave me a library card after the program was over.”
Of course, libraries can still be sites of intolerance and hate today. Julie Todaro, president of the American Library Association, says “it’s startling” how many hate crimes branches around the country have endured lately. A woman studying at the University of New Mexico library was shocked when a man came up behind her and tried to remove her hijab. Someone drew swastikas inside a copy of the Koran at the Evanston Public Library in Illinois, and another person wrote “The White Man Is Back in Power” on the wall of the Reed College library in Oregon. Todaro says a similar spike in hate crimes happened after 9/11, but that staffers everywhere have had to consider security in a way they never had to before. Many librarians are even taking part in active-shooter training now, Todaro says, and seminars on security are commonplace. “We want people to feel like libraries are safe havens,” she says. It just takes some extra effort sometimes.
We want people to feel like libraries are safe havens.
And although our new president may not argue that the effort is worth it, many a powerful person has cited libraries as the secret ingredient that made their rise possible. Thomas Jefferson said he couldn’t live without them; Ben Carson, Sonia Sotomayor, and countless others had formative experiences in these public spaces — including Barack Obama, who told a roomful of librarians in 2005 that “the library represents a window to a larger world.” At the time Obama gave his speech, the only thing America knew about him was that he loved words and understood their power.
He also knew that those who disagreed with him were equally conscious of the power of books: “Since ancient antiquity, whenever those who seek power would want to control the human spirit, they have gone after libraries and books.” He mentioned the texts cremated at the Library of Alexandria and in communist block countries, and the copies of Huckleberry Finn kept from the shelves. They were moments “worth pondering,” Obama said, “at a time when truth and science are constantly being challenged by political agendas and ideologies, at a time when language is used not to illuminate but, rather, to obfuscate.” Twelve years later, the speech still feel fresh, even if the past year has left many of us questioning Obama’s belief that “libraries remind us that truth isn’t about who yells the loudest, but who has the right information.”
Libraries know that it’s getting harder to find the right information in the sinkhole that is the modern media environment, so they’re doing what they always do — evolving to find new ways to give users what they need. Plenty of libraries have already found a way to be relevant in 2017 — Bratt and Todaro both said that their libraries were planning on hosting fake-news panels in January. The latest cover of the School Library Journal includes a headline asking if librarians are the best hope against fake news. The unemployed go to libraries to apply for jobs or food stamps. The Pima County Public Library in Arizona hired a nurse who gives flu shots and other care to visitors who might be homeless, or just need extra help.
And despite the fact that we have an exponentially growing list of ways to access information just sitting there in our pocket — and a president who seems to be a personified Glade PlugIn for ignorance — librarians aren’t worried about disappearing from the American ethos. “Public libraries are in a good place,” says Wayne Wiegand, a library historian and a fellow at the Library of Congress Kluge Center. “There are more libraries than McDonald’s.” Conkling remembers when a journalist sat down next to her on a bus during the 1976 ALA conference in New York. He asked if she thought that CD-ROMs meant that libraries would soon be obsolete. “I don’t see that happening,” she said.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t individual branches — rural and urban — worried about their future, or places where books aren’t an endangered resource, especially when profit comes into play. In 2016, the nearly 1.5 million people who live in the Bronx lost their last bookstore. On the Sunday before inauguration this year, writers gathered on the steps of the New York Public Library to protest Trump. Those assembled carried signs with quotes from James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, but the biggest sign of all hung from the building itself, announcing perhaps the most effective way to fight back against those who use words to confuse and hide. In unavoidable red and yellow, it read, “GET A LIBRARY CARD.”
Beneath the sign, an army of winter coat–clad clipboard-holders were gathering signatures for Citizens Defending Libraries, a group that fights closures and sales of libraries across the city. The petitions noted that Stephen Schwarzman, the businessman whose name graced the library branch everyone had gathered in front of, was a Trump adviser. “Libraries are a bulwark of democracy,” co-founder Michael D.D. White said while handing the petition to another protester. “If we protect libraries, they’ll protect us.” And since Americans trust so few institutions to explain the world or make it better in 2017, librarians will have a lot of protecting to do if the right information is ever going to beat out the loudest again.