Last month, I went to a library located roughly in the middle of the United States, and everyone – children, seniors, students of all ethnicities and levels of knowledge – was quietly going about their business, together. A librarian interviewed me in an elegant amphitheater in front of the people of Kansas City. We talked about immigration, politics and the climate crisis, and we also managed to laugh a lot.
Some attendees questioned my views and we discussed them right there. We had a sincere and fun conversation in a public space, free for all, and that was broadcast live for people who couldn’t go to the library that day. Only later did I think how unusual, and also profound, this is.
“Libraries are that silent and powerful space that is always there, right?” Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada told me. She is a librarian and was elected president from the American Library Association (ALA) at the beginning of this year. “We are that constant, for everyone. We are here and we are not going anywhere.”
Protect the ‘status quo’
Pelayo-Lozada has taken office at a time when the American right has stepped up an orchestrated assault on books, intellectual freedom and, of course, libraries. According to the librarian, it is “a political, concerted and organized attack that makes our work difficult.”
The association, which has been monitoring boycotts of certain books for two decades, reports that 2021 was the worst year in terms of censorship attempts, with 1,597 books reported.
As long as there have been books, there has been censorship. Censorship is often justified by an ambiguous concern for “public decency,” but in truth it is nothing more than a veil over a darker motive: to silence unwanted viewpoints and protect the status quo.
This fact is evident in the current movement to ban certain books, many of them about LGBTQ+ rights or racism, often written by black people. I asked Pelayo-Lozado why he thinks this situation occurs. “Our goal as libraries is to empower our users, train them for critical thinking, train them to make their dreams come true. And that can scare people who maybe don’t want everyone to be empowered, who want to have power over others.”
as reported Guardian, censorship pushed by conservative groups is often linked to wealthy right-wing donors, even when masquerading as grassroots initiatives, with names like “Moms for Liberty” and “Parents Defending Education” ( Parents in defense of education).
EveryLibrary, a political action group for libraries, reports that many states across the country have passed laws to change the way libraries handle complaints about certain books, making it easier to remove them. Republican lawmakers, who claim to support free speech, are working to change how library board members are appointed and challenging laws that protect librarians and teachers to be prosecuted if they are accused of sharing a point of view that someone might find offensive.
fear of information
The battle against intellectual freedom has moved from the legal to the physical realm. Recently, 20 masked neo-Nazis protested outside a Boston library where a drag queen storytelling. Last November, members of the Proud Boys, a far-right group, showed up at a school board meeting in Downers Grove, Illinois. There they booed the students who defended their right to read gender-queeran autobiography about non-binary author Maia Kobabe’s gender identity journey as a teenager and one of the books being targeted by conservatives across the country.
Are you so scared that young people read the life experience of another person? I think the right is very afraid of libraries, not because libraries promote certain types of information, but because libraries promote information itself.
“Our main objective is to find a way to provide information and facilitate access to information, whatever form it takes: whether it is on paper, in audiobooks or in digital literacy, we are here for that,” says Pelayo-Lozado. He believes that this work and the core values of libraries – democracy and diversity – are what are so difficult for some people to accept. “We are trained to make knowledge and ideas available so that everyone has the freedom to choose what to read.”
German philosopher Hannah Arendt took an in-depth look at the mentality of fascists and their fear of a well-informed, independent-minded population. As she said: “There are no dangerous thoughts, for the simple reason that thinking about oneself is a very dangerous activity.” Libraries help us think. For this reason they are powerful, and for this reason they are being attacked. And that is why we must protect them.
Translation by Emma Reverter.