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The Horrifying War on Libraries
Libraries have become a frequent and disturbing site for ideological combat. How did we get here?
There are few more ostensibly neutral things in life than a library.
Think about a library for one second. Books, shelves, tables, computers, some people milling around. Unobjectionable-to-good, right? In theory, it would seem extremely difficult to turn a free, public space with resources for everyone into a highly politicized pretzel of moral panic and bad-faith claims. But alas, people are often quite capable of outrageous feats. In this case, by “people” I mean Americans, and by Americans, I mean a particular set of Americans on the right who have decided that libraries are a necessary stage for today’s culture wars.
This isn’t news to anyone who’s been following the tidal wave of stories about libraries that have faced increasingly loud calls for censorship during the last few years, from Kansas to Texas to Louisiana to Michigan to Mississippi and beyond. Organized (and effective) conservative groups have made it their mission to ignite book-banning movements in communities across the country under the guise of “protecting” children. And yes, the books in question are almost always ones with LGBTQ+ and Black characters, as well as ones about broader racial and gender issues. The American Library Association’s data confirms what we all know anecdotally to be true: book banning in this country is on the rise by a large margin. It’s a wave we’ve seen before in many forms throughout history, but the 2022 version has a tactical vigor that’s newly frightening.
The problem isn’t just the censorship. The misplaced panic created by these movements is bad enough on its own, but the poisonous effects extend—by design—far beyond the walls of the libraries themselves. They bleed into elections, where libraries are being defunded and shut down. They threaten the autonomy of individual libraries and libraries as an institution. They have spurred violent threats, causing further chaos and torment for library employees who are already under incredible strain after a pandemic and a looming atmosphere of political rancor. One library in Massachusetts is even dealing with fury over simply not erecting a Christmas tree, which was apparently interpreted as proof of the war on Christmas (they are now putting up a freaking Christmas tree).
In McFarland, California, the fate of the city’s only library is currently hanging in the balance because the police chief wants to take it over for his department, which is such a startlingly crushing metaphor for what our society values that you almost can’t even look directly at it. McFarland is in California’s agricultural region, and the library serves an invaluable role for its farming community, many of whom are low-wage immigrants. Phil Corr, a pastor and the leader of Friends of McFarland Library told The New York Times, “I view this as a battle for civilization.”
It’s not just small, conservative communities where libraries are shrinking or disappearing, and it’s not just political battles that are stifling them. Just last week, a new report revealed that New York City's public libraries are up against a possible multi-million-dollar budget cut, which would be a devastating blow. And it’s not simply a case of death by a thousand cuts; these coordinated efforts seem intent on creating a kind of distrust toward libraries as a whole. Sometimes-actor and professional zealot Kirk Cameron made headlines last week claiming that libraries across the country had rejected hosting him and his new religious children’s book— which is either true and heartening or a fabrication/stunt on his part designed to inflame Fox News viewers. (It must be said that it’s absolutely haunting to me that the iconic brother/sister duo of my childhood are now shiny, happy figures of Christian hate. What a journey.)
Anyway, what the hell is going on!! Are you tired? I’m so tired. In theory, libraries should be the last place on earth for this kind of political hell. They offer a glimpse at what an idealized form of government, public services, and a functioning social safety net might look like. They provide community, knowledge, a safe gathering space, internet access, classes, newspapers, COVID-19 testing, career coaching, and so much more, all for free. And all of that, I guess, is why they now have a bounty on their heads. A beacon of egalitarian principles, community connectivity, and an accessible trove of knowledge and resources is a powerful tool for the common good, and the common good stands as a menace to the status quo.
The demonization and disempowerment of libraries is of course also part of the broader reactionary hysteria about “cancel culture,” free speech, who gets to make judgments about those things, who controls the popular narrative threads, and which stories we want to tell about the world. It’s creating a culture of fear and authoritarianism; the very fact that the book-banning phenomenon has traveled outside of schools and spread to other parts of society like libraries and bookstores serves as proof of that.
This all seems pretty dire when you stack it up, but it’s not all bad news. Polls show that the majority of people support libraries and oppose book bans, and Election Night results were a mixed bag, with a solid amount of positive news alongside more discouraging trends. The loudest voices can trick you into a warped perception of the problem at hand, but maybe that’s not the worst thing if it's a means to invigorating the other side, which is even more crucial when you take an even wider view. Just earlier this year, librarians and conservationists in Ukraine became global symbols of cultural preservation in the face of militarism, fascism, and genocide. Libraries are compendiums of identity, keepers of history, and in many ways, a statement of purpose for the human race, and their workers are stewards of that.
I’ve been tracking these stories over the last year with a kind of quiet incredulity, despite the fact that they’ve all been largely in tune with the kind of right-wing rhetoric we’re seeing all over the place, along with the ongoing crisis of small and large scale government budgets and the erosion of equitable infrastructure. My anxiety subsides when I step into my own local library, where seasonal decorations and friendly conversation and kids browsing the extensive manga collection exist temporarily in their own universe. I blogged earlier this year about the decimation of Ukraine’s cultural artifacts and Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, in which she writes that “writing a book, just like building a library, is an act of sheer defiance.” Building a library is also hopeful, intentional, and done with other people in mind—not just a few angry psychos, but everyone, and most importantly, the many more who aren’t here yet. Maybe libraries aren’t actually neutral at all, and maybe they needn’t be, and never were.
It’s a shame that we’re in the midst of an era in which upholding these spaces and their functionality is itself a struggle and an act of resistance, but it’s a war that’s been waged before, and the thing about a 2022 crusade is that it can be met with the tools of a 2022 opposition. Now we just have to pick up the fight and make it our own, because it is.