Episode 179: From Budget Cuts to Book Bans — The Decades-Long Assault on Public Libraries
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: “Parents fighting schools to protect their kids are heroes, not book-banners,” Fox News tells us. “Are Privatized Public Libraries So Bad?” CityLab asks. “Huntsville Public Library could be privatized in aftermath of pride display dispute,” reports Houston Public Media reports.
Adam: For decades, public libraries have been under attack. Repeatedly, influential right-wing and centrist individuals, corporations, and governments — from Phyllis Schlafly to Ron DeSantis — have coordinated campaigns to weaken one of the most beloved and least means-tested public institutions in the country. They seek to, at best, restrict the materials, functions, and decision-making power of public libraries, and at worst, destroy public libraries completely, tossing aside the people who depend on them for education, employment, and often survival.
Nima: What is it about public libraries that inspires such contempt? What’s responsible for the chasm between the US population’s perceptions of public libraries — which are overwhelmingly positive — and policymaking that seeks to ruin those institutions? And who suffers when one of the few true public goods left in this country is targeted and seized by reactionary forces?
Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll examine the decades-long right-wing assault on US public libraries, discussing the history of book bans and defunding, attendant efforts to privatize public libraries, and how these intersect with the labor struggles of librarians nationwide.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by Emily Drabinski, a Critical Pedagogy Librarian at the City University of New York Graduate Center and president-elect of the American Library Association. She has worked in libraries and worked to build worker power for over two decades.
Emily Drabinski: The library is sort of the last public institution standing. The right has attacked public education for a long time, they’re very far along in the process of dismantling that through vouchers and privatization and charter schools and all that kind of stuff, and higher ed the same, right, you’ve got an institution that’s been gutted by a adjunctification and lack of resources and the library is sort of the last one.
Adam: Yeah, this is one of these episodes, Nima, we had been talking about doing for many years, because it is a media story in the sense that libraries are a public node of media distribution, and they’re one of the rare publicly owned nodes of media distribution, right? It’s not something where you have to go spend money necessarily or generate revenue for Jeff Bezos or Netflix, you can kind of just consume media, digital, physical, what have you, in a public way that is open to, at least theoretically, everybody. It’s a sort of democratic institution, not perfect, as we’ll discuss, but somewhat of a strange vestige of a different social order in this country, and of course, that therefore, opens it up like public schools, people don’t like having any kind of democratic public run institution predicated on education and entertainment, right, everything has to be in the hands of one of our six corporations, and this radical democratization of public libraries is what’s opened it up to right-wing attacks over the past few decades, and I know that we had talked about this as being something we wanted to cover for a long time so I’m really excited to do it, because it is not our usual beat, but I think it definitely, the Venn diagram, there significant overlap with what we normally talk about.
Nima: Yeah, and also, I mean, book ban stories do get a lot of attention, as they kind of signal this sort of inter communal fight, oftentimes, right? Libraries are really local, and also physical institutions. So it’s not really something abstract. There is actual worker power in these places, right? Librarians have unions, and they are serving the public good, which, as you just said, is a real threat. We should also note before really digging into some of the background here is that when libraries are attacked, far from being kind of like a quaint local story, where maybe a local fascist moms group is worried about the books that their kids are reading, the stakes are actually even higher than that and that’s not great, but they are much higher than that, in addition to providing, as I said, union jobs for librarians, public libraries are often the only uncodified public spaces left in the United States providing crucial services to people who need them from toddlers, to teenagers, new parents to old people, students and teachers, to the unhoused. You don’t have to buy anything to use a library bathroom or computer or go there to take a class or listen to a book reading or to search for jobs or type up your resume or to simply be inside a library and take advantage of its air conditioning or heating, depending on the season. Certainly, this is compromised when cops are present in libraries to signal and enforce structural hostility to poor and homeless people, but generally speaking, libraries still do tend to function as a true and one of the only remaining public goods.
Adam: Yeah, and if there’s one theme on the show we talk about a lot is that you cannot have any kind of democratic public good without some psycho wanting to get rid of it for whatever religious or ideological hang up he has because, you know, again, poor people cannot have good things. This is the number one animating principle of many in this country, and so we’re going to begin by discussing some backgrounds of libraries.
Currently 16,500 public libraries in the US — everywhere from big cities and small towns to the suburbs and rural and remote areas. An excellent 2019 CityLab piece by Ariel Aberg-Riger visualizes the history of the US public library system really well. We’re going to sort of paraphrase and quote from that here to kind of give you some background and you can check that out in the show notes or you can just look it up. It’s very good.
Nima: Access to information, namely in the form of books, was not always easy. The first books were brought to North America by European colonists, but only the richest white people owned them. Books were expensive, rare, often religious in nature. So-called “social libraries” were formed by these rich book owners in the 1700s in the form of book clubs and societies that met in homes and pubs. One of the earliest of these was Benjamin Franklin’s “Library Company,” which he formed in 1731 to better inform his own debate society. Women, Black people and the poor and working class still struggled for access to reading material — nevertheless, many of these groups formed their own clubs and societies to acquire and share books and knowledge.
New York’s Phoenix Society, one of the first Black book clubs, began in the early 1800s and soon established the first models for lending libraries. White wealthy women started their own reading clubs that didn’t allow membership for Black women, Jewish women, or poor women. So more clubs were formed by these communities. In 1896, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs was formed — their motto was “lifting as we climb” — and soon voiced their full support for a public library system. Book mobiles, meanwhile, brought books to more remote locations.
At the turn of the 20th century, robber baron Andrew Carnegie funded — to the tune of nearly $2 billion in today’s dollars — the building of public libraries all over the country. This program driven by Carnegie’s philanthropy really started the public library system in this country. The initial funding, yes, came from Carnegie, but then these institutions began to be publicly funded to sustain them through his program over the course of 40 to 50 years, nearly 2,000 libraries were built in the United States. Aberg-Riger writes this, quote:
In the early 20th century public libraries as we know them with open stacks, community programs, childrens corners, began to become an American staple. But they remained highly segregated.
Adam: She would go onto say that,
In 1901 Richmond VA refused Carnegie funding for fear that black citizens would be allowed access.
Black community leaders began advocating for separate Carnegie funding for black public library branches, often governed by black boards and staffed by black librarians.
12 segregated libraries opened between 1908 and 1924. They, of course, were underfunded and had less books but were critical community institutions. Even when libraries were integrated black patrons were forced to use the backdoor or be subject to super limited hours and odd hours.
For example through the 1940s Navesink NJ’s library was open to black patrons, most of them kids, for only 6 hours on Wednesdays.
By the 1990s libraries explicitly embraced their mission as a service for the poor. Clearly this would make it a target for the worst humans on earth, because again, what is the one unbreakable rule? Poor people cannot have nice things because then everybody would want to be poor.
Nima: As mentioned earlier, libraries often make it into our media stories when there are sensational events like book bans being discussed or imposed. Reactionary book banning in the US, of course, is nothing new. It dates back to 17th-century Massachusetts, when the Puritan government banned Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan, deeming it a heretical critique of Puritan customs and power structures, and some years later, William Pynchon’s The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, which the government labeled as blasphemous was also banned. Bans continued through the centuries in fits and starts, typically on the grounds of perceived obscenity or blasphemy.
But the current assault on libraries can be traced to the rise of Reaganite politics, arguably starting with Texas-based Christian reactionaries Mel and Norma Gabler.
Adam: In 1961, after objecting to minor factual errors in their son’s school reading material, the Gablers began to regularly review school textbooks, issuing complaints when they found the books’ content to be too left-wing socially and economically.
In a 2007 obituary, The New York Times paraphrased many of their gripes, writing, quote:
Why did a history textbook give more space to the French Revolution than to the American Revolution? Were not Vietnam and Watergate overemphasized? Was Robin Hood a hero, as the text claimed, or a dangerous advocate of income redistribution?
Soon, the Gablers were making annual trips to Austin to air their grievances to state policymakers. It didn’t take long for the Gablers to achieve a remarkably high level of influence in determining what went into our children’s textbooks. Few parents pored over textbooks to the extent the Gablers did, leaving them with little competition. And, at the time, Texas was the largest purchaser of textbooks in the country, and a publisher’s failure to make the Texas list could spell doom for its catalog. This is why when you hear about textbook wars it’s almost always in Texas. In 1973, the Gablers codified their textbook standards when they founded the deceptively benign-sounding “Educational Research Analysts.” Yeah, that sounds totally harmless.
By the early ’80s, the Gablers had been featured on 60 Minutes, Today, Nightline, Good Morning America, Donahue, Freeman Reports, The David Frost Show, syndicated religious broadcasts, and numerous local radio and television talk shows. In 1981, textbook adoptions in 11 states were influenced by the Gablers, according to one study.
But the Gablers would reject the label of “censors,” arguing that they were merely seeking quote-unquote “balance” and acting in the best interests of these poor influential and put-upon children.
Here are some clips from the Gablers’ January 1982 appearance on Firing Line with William F. Buckley Jr. in which Mel Gabler complains about a lack of “objectivity” in libraries, then laments that libraries are too anti-American. Where we heard this one before, right, it’s always the same shit, different toilet. So let’s listen to those clips right now.
William F. Buckley Jr.: Now, you then after you started in, you went on and you started to look for bias, even though it didn’t involve misrepresentation of facts. Is that correct?
Mel Gabler: Well, I’ll grant you, everybody’s gonna have some bias no matter who writes it, but what we’re concerned about is the fact that the bias is always in one direction. For instance, the American history textbooks, civil government books and so forth, Senator George McGovern, Senator Kennedy, Senator Humphrey, if somebody like that, Senator Javits would be most pleased with the American history textbooks, the civil government books, but not one of them, as far as I know, presents a viewpoint of Ronald Reagan. Now, that is totally unfair to indoctrinate the children in one direction, they should have a balance, and this is what we’ve been fighting for mostly is balance in the textbooks, objectivity, we feel that the kids are entitled to a fair shake, but if they’re only given one side of any subject that is totally unfair to them.
Adam: Would you dare say it’s fair and balanced perhaps?
Nima: Perhaps, Adam, they’re just looking for balance, right? Yeah, right.
Adam: We right-wing stalking horses phrasing their far right, because again, it’s one of the fundamental premises of all fascist or reactionary messaging is that you’re doing it because the far left is forcing you to do it, right? This was Hitler’s line, right? You have no choice, the communists, the socialists, the radicals, they started the war, you’re just responding to it.
Nima: The media is far left. Our schools are far left. Your community boards are far left.
Nima: And you’re just trying to restore some balance. You’re not even trying to take it to the side that you agree with. You just want both sides.
Adam: You just love balance a lot. You’re a balance fetishist.
Nima: Here is a second clip from Mel Gabler talking to William F. Buckley.
Mel Gabler: But when librarians, I’m talking to secondary school librarians, if they can stock the books with about 95 percent liberal and by 5 percent conservative, that’s totally unfair. If they can stock the books with books which are destroying or antagonistic to the traditional American values upon which our nation was founded, we feel that’s totally unfair.
Nima: So yeah, we’ve heard this before, the Gablers had become what Texas Monthly called, quote, “an integral institution of the New Right,” end quote, a Reaganite contingent of free market loving fundamentalists, like Baptist minister Jerry Falwell’s Christian right Moral Majority party and Eagle Forum, a right-wing lobbying group founded in 1972 by Phyllis Schlafly. Schlafly, of course, was the brains behind the movement to stop the Equal Rights Amendment, which would have expanded legal rights for women across the nation.
By 1982, the ERA was officially dead, and Schlafly moved onto book banning as her next crusade. The same year, Eagle Forum in St. David, Arizona, successfully banned required reading lists in their school system, which included classics by Conrad, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Homer, Poe, Steinbeck and Twain. Similar bans were happening in New York state, targeting authors like Kurt Vonnegut and Eldridge Cleaver.
Adam: These right-wing censorship campaigns — which opposed discussions of women’s suffrage and the women’s movement, slavery in America, trade unions, ecology, world hunger, Native people’s history and experiences, and Watergate history — were radiating out to public libraries as well. The American Library Association found that the number of book challenges tripled to nearly 1,000 in 1981. A contemporaneous Washington Post article reported that, quote, “a growing number of them [were] prompted by conservative groups like the Moral Majority and Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum.”
The Post added, quote:
Not surprisingly, teachers and librarians, fearful that parent-vigilantes will raise a ruckus, are beginning to censor themselves. They refuse to consider some worthy books for the classroom or library shelf because of the potential political consequences. Publishers, also fearful of censors, sometimes modify their texts rather than forgo major book markets.
So they do a lot of self censorship or sort of pre emptive censorship, right, which is more common often then direct censorship. In the years that followed, book censorship continued to surge. During the 1984–1985 school year, efforts to ban books cropped up in 46 states, many of which were successful. Books were targeted for material dealing with, as a 1985 LA Times editorial put it, quote, “evolution, sex education or personal values,” as well as “social, political or cultural change,” unquote. Which is a very benign and euphemistic way of saying anything that makes guys who look and sound like Adam Johnson upset, basically, it’s the criteria. Anything involving race, gender.
Nima: Telling the history or information about anyone else.
Adam: Anything that wasn’t something that would be in a John Wayne movie: bad.
Nima: But public libraries weren’t just under siege from book banners. Around the same time as the New Right’s censorship project, libraries began to face major threats to their funding. As Governor of California in 1971, Reagan himself, slashed state aid to public libraries by $1 million. During his presidency, in 1982, Reagan cut federal funds to NYC public libraries by more than 50 percent. In 1985, some California library systems, already whittled down to half-day schedules, feared they’d have to close down branches as a result of Reagan’s proposed 1986 federal aid cuts.
If all that weren’t enough, the wheels of library privatization were already in motion. In 1981, the Pennsylvania-based private company Library Systems & Services, abbreviated as LS&S or LSSI, was founded. The company sold automation technologies to federal libraries such as the Veterans Affairs Department, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian Institution. At that time, Ronald Reagan was in office, and his notorious gutting of federal funding created an opportunity for private companies to fill the libraries’ financial vacuum.
Eventually, LS&S expanded this model, targeting the public library systems of funding-starved cities and counties. In the summer of 1997, without any sort of vote from its community, California’s Riverside County contracted LS&S to run day-to-day operations, including managing staff and buying books, for its public library system, citing — what else Adam? — financial strain.
Adam: Notably, during the New Right’s book-banning spree, most major media raised some objections, publishing editorials lamenting the corrosive effects of such blatant censorship. Privatization, however, didn’t elicit the same level of protest even though the effect, in many ways, was very similar.
In one example, The Washington Post ran a story marking the 1997 LS&S deal as a neutral, if not positive, development; only one sentence in the piece addressed the concerns of the public, and even that was hedged by dismissals from a librarian supportive of the corporate takeover.
The paper raised no questions about this privatization other than, quote, “how [LS&S] can pay the same number of people the same amount of money and increase library services if Riverside County couldn’t do it.” The answer: “streamline administrative functions,” AKA lay people off, fire people. Commentary on the ethics of suddenly putting librarians under the employ of a corporation, or whether privatization would restrict public access to the library, was nowhere to be found.
LS&S gradually expanded to more regions, and by 2010 was no longer limited to those that were economically distressed. In September of that year, the company was hired to run the library system of Santa Clarita, CA. CEO Frank Pezzanite pledged to help the city save $1 million a year, “mainly by cutting overhead and replacing unionized employees,” according to the New York Times. In that same article, Pezzanite invoked classic anti-labor tropes to justify privatization, characterizing unionized librarians as lazy and self-interested, quote:
A lot of libraries are atrocious. Their policies are all about job security. That’s why the profession is nervous about us. You can go to a library for 35 years and never have to do anything and then have your retirement. We’re not running our company that way. You come to us, you’re going to have to work.
Pezzanite would later insist his words were taken out of context, adding, quote, “Anyone who works in a library is an unsung hero in my book.” But just not enough to actually pay them.
Nima: Right. Not like heroes who deserve union jobs or, you know, job security. No, no, no, but, you know.
Adam: Yeah, this was, again, you see the similar parallels to the attacks on teachers unions, which is they’re all lazy, entitled, they sort of collect checks, and they’re living too high on the hog.
Nima: And you can’t fire the bad ones, right?
Adam: Yeah, the working class is not allowed to have a modicum of job security, peace of mind or economic security.
Nima: You got to work, you have to constantly work, prove yourself.
Adam: They have to constantly be paranoid, precarious, and fearful of being terminated at any moment.
Nima: That’s right. It’s how we run our schools and our libraries, anything that has to do with education and information, whoever is working there has to be absolutely terrified.
By October of 2010, LS&S operated 67 branch libraries across 15 communities in the United States — and was majority owned by Islington Capital Partners, a private equity firm in Massachusetts.
A gently skeptical LA Times reported on LS&S’s 2010 takeover of the public library of Camarillo, CA, casually noting that the library’s privatization meant employees, now on LS&S’s payroll, would have their union-negotiated pensions replaced with a matched 401(k).
But the New York Times and LA Times both failed to call this process what it was: privatization. Major media were lightly critical, citing staff and community disapproval of the shift of operations to LS&S. After all, public libraries have been among the most popular public institutions in the country: a 2013 Pew poll found 94 percent approval ratings for public libraries. But media rarely went far enough in condemning private enterprise’s robbery of, or local governments’ financial abandonment of this beloved public good.
Which leads us to this gem from CityLab in 2012, the headline reads, “Are Privatized Public Libraries So Bad?” This was from when CityLab was an offshoot of the Atlantic magazine; it has since been acquired by Bloomberg News.
Adam: LS&S are of course aware of the optics of privatization because libraries are one of the, if not the most popular public goods in the United States. On its own website, it states quote:
LS&S does not privatize libraries. Privatization is the transfer of ownership of assets to a privately held company. LS&S offers outsourcing or managed services for libraries through partnership with communities.
Yeah, the public/private partnerships is the death deal of any thing good, because usually it only goes in one direction. It’s not like we publicly partner with private institutions, the private quote-unquote “public partners.”
Nima: And make the private more public. No. It’s always the other way.
Adam: Yeah, no, no, it’s always the other way around. But this sort of quote-unquote “public private partnership” is really privatization by another name. It’s a slippery slope, a way of kind of pitching it to a skeptical public, and then when they stop paying attention, you just keep eroding the public part and making everything more and more private. LS&S has continued to expand. It now operates over 80 library systems across the country, and despite its claims, as librarian Caleb Nichols wrote for Truthout in November 2021, quote:
Operating unchecked, LS&S stands to make enormous profits by destroying decent-paying, unionized jobs, de-professionalizing an already struggling profession, and reducing library services to anti-human, vertically integrated content silos that do not reflect the values of local communities, all while remaining completely unaccountable to taxpayers.
Nima: The growing threat of library privatization also intersects with the renewed push for book banning across the country, galvanized by recent right-wing panics over protests against police violence, and related, wildly warped conceptions of Critical Race Theory, so-called “wokeness,” — the woke mind virus Adam — and LGBTQ people, especially transgender people merely being allowed to exist.
In fall 2021, the “parental rights” clarion call in public schools was gathering momentum, and red states sought to limit what teachers could introduce about systemic racism in this country. Conservative groups began nationally circulating lists of books they deemed dangerous to the minds of young people. The American Library Association reported quote-unquote “unprecedented” levels of book challenges in 2021.
Adam: Yeah, and if you want to check out Episode 176 we did on the origins of the parents rights slogan, in which we detail its usage with respect to not only challenging child labor laws, and opposing LGBTQ rights and anything that discusses racism, but also, of course, its centrality to the recent surge in book bans and the attacks on public libraries.
Nima: Many who’ve been chronicling the current iteration of right-wing book-ban meltdown point to early January 2022, when a Tennessee school board voted to ban Maus, a graphic novel serialized throughout the 1980s and early ’90s about how the author’s father survived the Holocaust — Art Spiegelman’s book. It didn’t take long thereafter for books on race and sexuality to start getting the ax in record numbers.
The organization PEN America found 2,532 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,648 unique book titles, just between July 2021 and June 2022. Within that time, bans occurred across 32 states. PEN America defines a ban as any action taken against a book based on its content after challenges from parents or lawmakers. Among the 1,648 unique banned book titles are these stats: 41 percent explicitly address LGBTQ+ themes or have protagonists or prominent secondary characters who are LGBTQ; 21 percent directly address issues of race and racism; 10 percent have themes related to rights and activism; and 4 percent include characters and stories that reflect religious minorities.
Adam: The state of Texas has the dubious honor of banning the most books of any state in the country. PEN America found that, as of June 2022, school administrators in Texas had banned 801 books across 22 school districts, and 174 titles were banned at least twice between July 2021 through June 2022. Florida — as you may suspect — came in second.
And while the American Library Association said it counted an unprecedented number of book-ban attempts in 2021, it counted even more in 2022, noting that most of the titles dealt with sexual orientation, gender identity, or racism.
Right-wingers have bristled at the “book banner” label, insisting that they’re — we’ve heard this one before — not interested in censorship, but rather in protecting children and providing balance.
Nima: Of course.
Adam: Conservative crusader Bethany Mandel — who went viral a couple weeks ago because she couldn’t define the word “woke” — who has been published in the New York Times, the Atlantic, and the Washington Post, she chimed in on the issue for Fox News, stating, quote, “Parents fighting schools to protect their kids are heroes, not book-banners.” Mandel captured the current panic over libraries — a warmed-over revival of the Gablers’ hysteria — by blaming librarians for, quote, “pushing a radical racial and gender ideology on our children” and condemning a novel about slavery for being quote-unquote “pornographic.”
Max Eden, a fellow of the American Enterprise Institute — a lobbying arm for corporate America and the far right in general, and also a source of countless op-eds for legacy media — authored an October 2022 opinion piece for Newsweek defending book banning as, quote, “a debate that truly is about age-appropriateness and obscene content.”
In March of 2023, at a press conference, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis called the, quote, “book ban” description a, quote, “hoax.” We’re going to listen to him getting angry about this right here.
Ron DeSantis: Yeah, we need to have truth prevail, and so today we’re going to be exposing, we’ve already exposed what that video I think, this idea of a book ban in Florida, that somehow they don’t want books in the library, that’s a hoax, and that’s really a nasty hoax because it’s a hoax in service of trying to pollute and sexualize our children.
Nima: In the meantime, Kirk Cameron, star of the ’80s television sitcom Growing Pains, and subsequently an evangelical movie superstar appearing in such films as the legendary 2008 Christian movie Fireproof and the Left Behind series, we discuss the Christian movie industry at great length in Episode 96, so if you haven’t checked that out, please do check that out. It’s a good one. Kirk Cameron recently wrote a children’s book and has joined now as an author with stakes in the library system, has joined the chorus on book banning. Cameron made an appearance on Fox News’s Jesse Watters Primetime in December 2022, after Ron DeSantis’s office launched investigations into a drag show, quote, “allegedly attended by children,” end quote — gasp, horror. This was likely a result of increased attention to drag queen story hour events that have taken place at public libraries throughout the country. Here’s a clip of Kirk Cameron on Fox.
Kirk Cameron: Well, I have all the confidence in the world that DeSantis will get to the bottom of this and do the right thing. But Rachel, I don’t know anything about drag, I don’t moonlight as Kirk Dazzle Glamouroni, but what I do know is that the minds of children are precious to God, and it’s our job as parents to protect them, and we’ve got to get off the defense onto the offense, and that’s why I’m writing books like As You Grow. I’m partnering with good and godly patriotic companies like Brave Books, and trying to get families with resources to build up wisdom, and the character that is needed to be able to withstand these kinds of attacks on our children.
Adam: Yeah, so, you know, he clearly looked at a list of libraries with drag shows, and then called them and asked to see if he could do a book event there. I’m sure if I called up, you know, if I scribbled some children’s book with some fourth grade Christian publisher and called them up, they would probably say no to me as well, because they don’t say yes to everybody, and then that becomes a form of censorship, and it’s a hypocrisy gotcha. See, they allow drag shows, but not good Christian literature.
Nima: Right. The good and Godly stuff, Adam.
Adam: Right, because if you don’t return Kirk Cameron’s calls, by definition you’re censoring people.
Nima: Now of course, it’s easy to laugh off the “won’t someone please think of the children” as this ’80s cliche, an emblem of the stranger danger paranoia, but amid its return as a rallying cry for the Right, there have been serious material consequences for libraries and librarians based on just this kind of nonsense that Kirk Cameron and Fox News and others are pushing.
In 2019, Priscilla Donovan, a library director in Leander, Texas, lost her job for reasons that weren’t made clear but that local media connected to, quote, “fallout from a protest in June  at the library against a Drag Queen Story Hour,” end quote. The library, it’s important to note, is under contract with — who else Adam? — LS&S, and its librarians are thus not afforded the protection of a union. A former library manager blamed LS&S, which again handles management of personnel, for firing Donovan, quote, “because the company was afraid of losing their contract with the city,” end quote.
Adam: In another Texas city, Huntsville, — home of the famous Huntsville prison that executes more people than anyplace in the world — the city council voted in late 2022 to turn the library system over to LS&S after the city began a campaign of book and programming censorship, targeting LGBTQ displays and books by authors like Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison. Local news reports and footage from city council meetings have indicated that residents were concerned the move to privatize was motivated by an intention not only to cut costs, but also to control the material available to the public.
This is happening elsewhere. In August 2022, people in Jamestown, Mich., voted to defund — and possibly shutter — their only public library rather than keep books with LGBTQ authors and themes on the shelves.
Making matters worse, some states have introduced legislation to prosecute librarians and teachers for, quote, “distributing harmful material” — that is, books with the themes mentioned above: LGBTQ, anti-racism, et cetera — to quote-unquote “minors.” The 2021–2022 state legislative sessions saw an unprecedented increase in the number of bills that would remove librarians and educators from exemptions from prosecution under state obscenity laws.
Nima: Yeah, so we’re seeing this from public libraries to public schools, the same kind of control via censorship and also privatization, that not only tries to restrict and prescribe the kinds of books, the kinds of information, the kinds of education that children can receive, but also doing so while dismantling vital protections afforded to the employees of these institutions afforded to them by their union. So there is not only a union-busting, but also a history-busting aspect to this.
Adam: They typically go hand-in-hand, don’t they? Which is what makes our guest such a perfect guest because she has experienced in both labor and history, two things that Ron DeSantis is super mad about.
Nima: We will now be joined by Emily Drabinski, a Critical Pedagogy Librarian at the City University of New York, CUNY, Graduate Center and president-elect of the American Library Association. She has worked in libraries and worked to build worker power for over two decades. Emily will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Emily Drabinski. Emily, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Emily Drabinski: I’m thrilled. Happy to be here.
Adam: Yes, we’re excited to have you on. We have been talking about this for a very long time. So I’m happy we finally are doing it. Libraries are a rare place of public education that’s kind of for everyone, not just children, at least sort of in principle, that’s seen, increasingly by the right, it’s kind of gotten tangled up into this book banning, attacks on Critical Race Theory. There have been some examples of intimidation for various kinds of books and the sort of the broader drag show panic it got caught up in, but of course, it’s not new, right? I think, as we argue in this episode, it’s gotten more acute of late, but it’s part of a broader continuum that goes back a very long time since they were originally founded. What do you think are the main reasons why it has gotten more acute of late and why libraries, of all places, whether they be in schools or be public libraries or what have you, have become a target of the forces of reaction? I know, that’s a big question, but if you could just indulge me about what you think the sort of broader trends are of late.
Emily Drabinski: It’s a big question, who doesn’t have it, right? Because you think about the library, and you take your kid there for a storytime and you maybe go and pick up a book and read it, and maybe use the bathroom and who could be against that? So it’s quite befuddling, I think, to a lot of us, certainly to me, to see that the library is now this place. I think I was reading today that someone in Louisiana is saying that the library is where Satan goes to hang out. It’s really just off the charts.
Adam: I’ve seen him there. That’s true.
Emily Drabinski: Yeah, you know, he always has trouble with the printer, right?
Adam: It’s true.
Emily Drabinski: It’s so confusing. But I think in some ways, it’s because the library is sort of the last public institution standing. The right has attacked public education for a long time, they’re very far along in the process of dismantling that through vouchers, and privatization and charter schools and all that kind of stuff, and higher ed the same, right, you’ve got an institution that’s been gutted by adjunctification and lack of resources, and the library is sort of the last one a little bit. It’s also not as if it’s been immune to sort of the forces of decimation, right? Like, you’ve got very, very few school librarians left, public libraries operating on sort of shoe strings, and we don’t have the staff there who could sort of fight against these things. I think we’re in kind of a fragile moment, and we’re also good places that do all kinds of things that people on the right don’t like.
Nima: Yeah, well, I mean, to that point, though, it’s also not just the far right. I mean, I think, you know, we hear the kind of newsworthy headline stories, these full-frontal horrible attacks, right, which then become policy positions, they become core talking points from the right, of course, but austerity, inflicted by both parties, over many, many decades, has long made it more difficult for libraries to serve many of their core functions. Emily, can you talk about some of the ways that libraries have really, for such a long time, maybe since, you know, the public library system was really created in this country, have been a site of social struggle of also workers struggling, worker power, to protect and expand the public sphere against forces of austerity, which to be clear, again, are not just coming from the right.
Emily Drabinski: So it’s interesting, right? So public libraries get their start, they really get going in the United States out of philanthropy. They are, in fact, established by, the Carnegie libraries are funded in order to sort of educate the working classes into sort of the right ways of reading. So from their very inception, they’ve been sort of political projects, and then we see them as sort of, I think of them as about both public services and public goods. They’re about the circulation of public goods to the public, and they’re also public space, they produce public space, and so the bigger the library, the more space that is reserved for people to come in and hang out and do sort of all kinds of things like that. So the Schwartzman or the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library, which is the remodel of the Mid Manhattan Library in Manhattan, remodeled to the tune of $125 million, big space, lots of new seating, just greatly expanded public seating in the middle of New York City, and on the same day that opened or right around the same time that that opened the city signed design and build contracts on new jails to replace Rikers Island to the tune of $8.3 billion. So I think of the fight for the library as a fight for the public. Do we want expanded public space for people to come in and use the library and all of the things that happen there or do we want to fund the expansion of a jail system? And we see what the state has chosen to do, and I think you’re absolutely right that that’s bipartisan, and has been going on for a very long time, and those of us who work in libraries, and especially people who work in public libraries, see the result of decades of disinvestment in the public, you know, in the sort of extraordinary concentration of wealth in the hands of very, very few people, and we see that every day in the library, we’re the last place anyone can go and sit during the day without spending money, and there are many, many, many more people than there ought to be who don’t have anywhere to go and sit during the day. So in that way, I think it’s a site of struggle just because we see what’s happening.
Adam: So in an interview with Jacobin, you wrote, quote, “I believe the way to get people to understand why libraries are important is by engaging people in a struggle for their fair share of the social wage. It isn’t a matter of better advertising, it’s a matter of stronger connections between libraries in our communities and the communities we serve, and the shared struggle that we have, because we are all suffering from the maldistribution of wealth,” unquote. In that interview, you mention your own labor struggles as a librarian worker. So I want to sort of ask you how you think those labor struggles intersect with the broader social purpose of libraries in terms of the theme you touched on of solidarity and building places of community? I know that’s a little wishy washy of a question, but I think we’re a little romantic about libraries so we’re asking romantic questions. So indulge us, sorry.
Emily Drabinski: So in 2016, I was part of the faculty at Long Island University’s Brooklyn campus that was subjected to a lockout, it was the first lockout in the history of higher education in the United States, and it was totally life changing, you know, like one of those things that happens, and you’re like, ‘Oh, everything I thought about how the world worked, but I was wrong,’ because I think I did, I’m a little sentimental myself, and I thought that if I did a good job, and helped students find their articles and pass their classes and write good papers that I could live a good life. But it was one day I was being a librarian and the next day I was locked out, I couldn’t go to work, they wouldn’t let us on campus, they locked us out of our email, replaced us with people they found on monster.com and paid like $15 an hour, we had an Alvin Ailey trained dancer who taught dance class and she was replaced in the classroom by the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, who was like an 84 year old trained biologist, right? Just the most cynical end game possible in higher education, right, that it doesn’t, you don’t even need students and faculty, you just need tuition dollars that you extract. But I was like, you experience brute power, and you’re like, ‘Oh, fuck, like, they could just destroy us at any moment’ and the only way that we could fight back against that was by organizing collectively and taking a stand all of us at once. So, that was a bumper sticker, and I kind of believed it before, but now I like truly believe it because I saw what would, it didn’t matter if we were right, it didn’t matter if it was just one of us, we needed all of us sort of standing together, and so if I want to claw back space for the public, if I want to clot out of the prison system, and instead make it a place where kids can come and sit and read a book, I just don’t get it, who doesn’t want that? Who says more people in cages, fewer children reading books, like nobody wants that, and so if we can understand that fighting for the library is fine for everybody and for all of us, that seems like part of the project for me.
Adam: Well, I want to talk about this austerity issue, if you will, a little follow up to that, because the attacks from austerity have come in a kind of techno language as well, and so they’ll say libraries, as I’m sure you hear often, libraries are not really relevant anymore, you can sort of do it all online, we don’t need physical spaces where people meet. Now there’s a sort of counter movement where people are talking about the death of third spaces being one of the major reasons that social alienation, depression have increased over the last 20–30 years. Without being too sweeping in the generalization, I think it’s, you know, the sort of death of the third place is something now people are talking a lot about, people are trying to recreate. I know a lot of political activists are trying to recreate it. But there is a kind of, you can just do it all online, they’re not necessary, this is used as a pretext from the right, and again, like you said, the austerity liberals, to sort of gut what they don’t want anyway, for the reasons you laid out. Can you talk about that talking point and why you think that’s wrong?
Emily Drabinski: It’s totally wrong. And you see, you know, I just don’t know how anybody believes that, especially coming out with a pandemic that it’s totally fine for us all to just be isolated, alone on our laptops forever. It’s not as if we just exist as shells to consume data, that’s not what the world is about, and I also don’t know how anyone with a kid could think that, are you really gonna I every single picture book? You’re never going to do that? So it’s like did you forget that you used to go to the library a lot? So I just don’t understand it. But when people say that the library isn’t relevant, what they’re saying is that it isn’t relevant to have public space for people, that’s not important anymore.
Adam: And democratic public space. Like you said, there are increasingly few of those.
Emily Drabinski: There’s nowhere. Where else is there? Name another one?
Adam: Park, I guess. But that’s pretty much it.
Emily Drabinski: Yeah, the park.
Adam: Oh, you mean indoors? Oh, indoors.
Nima: No, you were on the right track. A park, right?
Emily Drabinski: Yeah.
Nima: And then —
Adam: Indoors nothing really. Yeah, no.
Emily Drabinski: There’s nothing inside. Outside there’s the park.
Adam: I guess you get your rec centers every now and then. But those aren’t really. Yeah.
Nima: Well, I think this is kind of fundamental to this conversation, right? The idea that libraries, beyond being brick and mortar places where there are shelves with books, and maybe some computers and printers and reading time and rugs, beyond that they are these spaces of community of connection, of organizing and of knowledge, and in the most kind of pat way, those are things that are really scary to fascists, that’s just a confluence of the worst shit, right? People together, learning things about the world or reading poetry together, and possibly realizing that they are in community with one another in this social and public and civic space, and so kind of, as a librarian yourself, you know, how do you see the role of the librarian kind of evolving over time, and also, how are librarians organizing themselves to push back on these attacks to not only their workspace, but kind of the functions that they serve as the workers in these communal learning spaces?
Emily Drabinski: What do we say in the labor movement, right, like management is the best organizer, and we’ve got some of the best organizers I’ve ever seen, when they come for your library, where you know you’re doing a good job, right? Because it’s not like the library could exist just as a building without a person in it. Somebody has to connect you to the resources, make life in that place, the storytime doesn’t, a kid doesn’t sit on a rug by itself, right, a person has to make that happen, has to bring people together and have that magic, that’s a person. I was meeting with some school librarians a few weeks ago, and they were telling me about how different each of their libraries is because the library that they build in their school meets the needs of the people in the school, schools are different, people are different. One of the librarians who was at a school on the Upper West Side was telling me that in her community hundreds of migrant families have been moving in that part of the city, and so she has gotten literally 100 new students who are new to the United States, many of them don’t speak English, they’ve run out of room in their Spanish language immersion program so they have kids who only speak Spanish in monolingual English classes, and who is solving those problems and their wraparound problems, the librarian who sees where this sort of kid fits, and all these services fit in a bigger community situation, and so she’s pulling Spanish language books from her collection and giving them to the monolingual English classroom so that they can get to these kids. Working with the public library to get backpacks and by just meeting the needs of the whole child in her community, which she can see because of her position in the library is sort of managing this third space, right? Figuring out what people need and getting it to them, which is really what libraries are about. I think of myself as sort of a switchboard operator, like I’m looking at what you need, and then we’re looking at what I got, and I’m just trying to plug them together and fit everything together so that people get, that’s what our job is, and so we’re sort of naturally organizers in that way I think. We’re organizing programs, spaces, and when we see these attacks, we’re organizing ourselves in our communities to fight back. So just everywhere you look where there’s a story of some impossibly devastating extremist attack on the library, you will also see some of the most exciting and invigorating organizing that I’ve seen in a really long time, and I look at Louisiana, especially. Jeff Landry announces his tip line, sort of at the library, you can report on your neighbors if they are doing bad things, I can’t even believe that I’m living in a time like that, right? But then you also see in the same very same place that when the Library Board of Control meets the next time the room is packed, packed to the gills with people who know that the library is a good place who are like, ‘are you kidding me?’ There’s so many more of us than there are of them. It’s an extremely minority position that Satan lives at the library distributing pornography to children when they come in.
Emily Drabinski: Nobody believes that.
Adam: Yeah, it’s definitely a vocal minority, to say the least, but again, if you believe that all these people are running underground pedophile rings, then you can pretty much do the most extreme version of all this stuff they’ve been trying to do for decades, it makes it more acute, more highly motivated, also creates a bunch of franchises of vigilantes who take matters into their own hands.
Emily Drabinski: Yeah, but I think you’re absolutely right, that if we pay too much attention to the extremists, and we don’t make sure that we tie that, and the problems that we’re having, to exactly what you’ve been talking about, sort of the nonpartisan decimation of public institutions, it’s been happening for decades, who’s going to fight back against those people, it’s like the people who work at the library.
Adam: It’s a similar thing with a lot of the anti-CRT, anti-trans panic around schools is literally many of the same funders as the charter school movement quite frankly, I mean, not the sort of more liberal ones, I guess, but it’s the same ends, which is just gut secular public institutions. But I want to sort of talk about, if you would indulge me, one thing that’s come up a lot in our research, and I know that librarians we’ve talked to offline, is that very often libraries are kind of tasked with doing lots of things outside of their sort of nominal criteria of why they exist, they provide support for those who kind of oftentimes slip through the cracks of poverty and austerity and inequality for some of what you’ve brought up — substance use issues, those who are unhoused — libraries are often a refuge, they’re a place where people look for work, look for housing, “connected services,” quote-unquote, and they’re sort of, again, like you said, they’re a secular institution that can’t turn anyone away as such, right, or that doesn’t have a financial reason to be there. Obviously, this has put a lot of stress on librarians and the libraries themselves. Can you talk about that dynamic, especially in certain urban areas where those problems have grown more acute since the pandemic, how y’all handle that, how that kind of fits into the broader civic mission? I know that there are limits to that, and I don’t want to be too, you know, like you said, too romantic about it, but can you talk about that dimension and how that fits into the broader mission?
Emily Drabinski: Yeah, I mean, when I think about how we respond to some of those things, which is better circulation of goods, and what public institutions circulate materials, it is the library, and it’s the post office. Those are the two things we have, the two structures that move things around in a community, and so the library makes sense as a place where you would circulate broadband, you would circulate internet connectors or you would circulate tax forms, you know, used to go to the library and get your tax forms, if you were going to public library you were like, ‘Ah, it’s tax season,’ and it’s just it’s a whole thing that we used to joke about, because it’s chaotic, but that’s where you go to circulate things, and so I do think that the library has a role in doing that. You have libraries that circulate, everybody’s circulating books, but many circulate tools and cake pans and Wi Fi hotspots and circulating all kinds of things and responding to community needs is, I think, within the purview of libraries, it’s just when you see the need is so great we can’t do it. It can’t be done.
Nima: Yeah, I mean, what you bring up is actually really so striking to me, like what are those institutions that circulate public goods? And really, I mean, even the post office is moving a personal possession from one place to another, but the library is a sharing place, right? It’s a place of you take this for a little bit, but then you give it back, right, or we all use it together in a place which, I mean, in a institution or a kind of system that we’ve talked about earlier on the show, as you mentioned earlier in this conversation, largely born out of capitalist philanthropy, the Carnegie system, and yet it is fundamentally the most socialist place we may have.
Emily Drabinski: I mean, it’s public goods shared in common and distributed to everyone. It’s just, it’s extraordinary that it even exists.
Nima: Yeah, on like this kind of extraordinary honor system, really, I mean, then you’re going to bring the thing back, and then someone else is going to take it, and you know, meanwhile, it’s a place where I mean, as you’ve been saying, there are current services provided, whether that is internet access, whether it is lending libraries, whether it is reading time, and so much more, of course, public facilities like that. But also, it’s this place of archiving, I mean, again, I’m going to get romantic here, but archiving human knowledge, and it’s kind of no wonder that these are flashpoints of threat, that these are under attack, because they kind of serve to show a society that we could have, but only have maybe this one tiny example of.
Emily Drabinski: Yeah, I mean, when I say, look at the library, who could be against it, it’s pretty clear who would be against it. It’s people who don’t want actual circulation of public goods, and they don’t want preservation of memory and history, right? They don’t want people to come together and have conversations with one another, all your libraries have a meeting room you can book, have a conversation, who could be against that? And it’s pretty clear who could be against that. One of the striking visuals for me from the pandemic was these, you would see these photos of libraries that were closed, but they kept their WiFi signal on 24 hours a day, and you’d see people just come and sit up against the outside wall of the library with their laptops trying to connect to the outside world, trying to go to school, trying to connect with their families online. We’re so central to our communities and provide such crucial infrastructure, and when people say, ‘How is the library relevant?’ Just look around you. But of course, they don’t want that.
Nima: Right, exactly.
Adam: So sometimes we ask this type of normative question or kind of blue sky question, which is to say, if you were the dictator tomorrow of the United States or wherever —
Emily Drabinski: I love it, yes.
Adam: Yeah, yeah. Don’t execute me please. What do you think the sort of ideal version of a library is in a perfect world in terms of, you’ve laid out many of the criteria seen as being valuable, the things that are under attack, what would it look like to you dictator Emily regime?
Nima: Generalisimo Drabinski.
Emily Drabinski: Yeah, I love it, though. The right really thinks that. They’ve really accused me in Louisiana of marshaling a Marxist army.
Adam: Oh, that’s true. I forgot that. We’re talking theoretically. But we want to be careful here.
Emily Drabinski: Yeah, I’m actually not doing that.
Adam: We’re not actually, we have no power.
Emily Drabinski: No, I have no power at all. Don’t worry. Can’t even get my kid to go to bed. The library would be huge, right? It would just be giant, it would be vast, it would take up a huge amount of space, there would be space for everything that people want to do in the library, places to sit and read quietly, places to get really loud with your friends, places to sit and order pizza together, maybe some card games, there’d be room for kids to do all kinds of amazing things. Everything that’s good about the world that you would like to sometimes visit indoors would be inside the library. Every inch of the city that’s the public library is an inch of the city that’s not a jail, that’s not a parking lot. So I would want to just have as much space as possible, and all the books, because I know that people are like the library is not just about books, but for me, it really is about books, and as someone who really loves to read a lot, and really loves to have a librarian to talk to about what I ought to read next, which is one of my favorite things that you can do at the library is get some reading recommendations, it would also have every book in the world.
Nima: Well, that sounds absolutely glorious, and I think this is a perfect place to leave this. We have been speaking with Emily Drabinski, a Critical Pedagogy Librarian at the CUNY, City University of New York, Graduate Center and president-elect of the American Library Association. She has worked in libraries and worked to build worker power for over two decades. Emily, thank you so much again for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Emily Drabinski: Thanks so much, guys.
Adam: I think as we’ve seen a decimation not just of the public sector in general or public institutions, but like she talks about, the decimation of third places also in places of public secular democratic non consumerist places you’ve come together that I do think there’s something a little bit like, okay, not to be too melodramatic, but as the Texan libraries escalate, I do think it is urgent that there is this, this is kind of the Alamo, for want of a better metaphor, this is the one thing —
Nima: You say that as the San Antonian.
Adam: Well, no, obviously Alamo sucks. It’s also super small by the way, if you ever go there, it’s like the tiny little room, you’re expecting this big thing, it’s not. But it’s the final stand, right? The line must be drawn here this far, no further, they just have to come after every last vestige of secular democratic society, because again, that which is privatized is more likely to be owned by petty bourgeois reactionaries rather than democratic processes, which they, again, by definition don’t like because democratic processes invite in the voices of the poor, Black people, LGBTQ, who don’t necessarily have the means to own an LS&S. It’s been part of the strategy for a long time, and I think oftentimes, when people say, it’s a classic line about how people say, ‘Well, you know, the powerful don’t care what I think,’ it’s like, they do care what you think a lot, I mean, I know that’s the basic premise of this entire podcast, but the fact that so much money, time and energy goes into figuring out what books are in libraries, you know, taking out the racism element in Rosa Parks, as Florida recently did in one public textbook, where they just say she refused to move when she was asked to be on a bus but didn’t say why, they care deeply about what 12, 13 year olds read, they care deeply about what you read, they need to control that narrative, because they know that in 10, 20, 30 years, those narratives begin to manifest as exercises in power and political power, which is why they’re so obsessed with gutting these things.
Nima: Yeah, as hokey as it may be, Adam, an informed public is a gigantic threat to not only the forces of privatization, but also the authoritarian fascist forces that are rampant and that are even gaining more power. I mean, I think we, you know, talk on the show a lot about the history and how, you know, we say that this is nothing new or no surprise to you maybe or this has a through line that stretches back decades, if not centuries, yes. But there is also the consistent gaining power and reclaiming of that power as backlash, and we’re seeing that again, with these book bans, with the constant talk about Critical Race Theory, et cetera, and we see this through our education and our library systems, these public institutions that are so crucial to an engaged public and do provide these spaces that are not as corporatized or exploited as so many others and kind of bringing those into the privatized spaces is not only dismantling of the kind of, you know, spaces created for the public good, but also to diminish the power and the knowledge of history and the solidarity of people who can use the knowledge gained in those institutions to really push back against the forces that are working against them and their interests, and so can’t state enough how the parental rights, the book bans, the attacks on unions are all interrelated, and so I am thrilled that we were able to discuss this almost as kind of a corollary to our recent public schools episode.
Adam: Yeah, it’s all the same assholes doing the same shit, and the thing is the amount of money they pour in this, amount of money they pour into these, you know, Phyllis Schlafly type organizations, the American Enterprise Institute, the Claremont Institute, all these media personalities, Ron DeSantis, political campaign contributions, this is a drop in the bucket. This is a rounding error to them. You know what I mean? It doesn’t even cost that much money to stoke these forces and to pay off these mercenary, ideological grievance havers who either believe it or don’t really believe it, doesn’t really matter, to maintain this constant assault on the last vestiges of public secular institutions, it is .001 percent of their wealth, it is nothing, it has nothing to them, and the payoff is huge in the long term, right? The payoff for the ruling class to have you not think about any of these things, and to buy Kirk Cameron’s God-fearing book or whatever, is tremendous, and that’s what makes this so depressing is all these people dedicate their lives to fighting back these reactionary forces and they’re just an afterthought to these funders. It’s not even something that they spend a lot of money on. It’s so easy to get it so cheap.
Nima: Well, yes, in true Citations Needed good and godly fashion we’re ending on the most optimistic note possible Adam. But that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you all for listening. Of course you can find the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and please do consider becoming a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support is so appreciated as we are 100 percent listener funded. And as always a very special shout out goes to our critic level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, March 29, 2023.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.