By CARLOS SAPIR
At its annual convention in July, the American Library Association (ALA) inaugurated its new president, Emily Drabinski, who had won her election in spring 2022 with about 5410 votes to her opponent’s 4622. Drabinski made no secret of her politics on the campaign trail: She is a Marxist and openly queer as well. Her political approach provides a future for winning working-class and anti-oppression politics in the library, while also drawing the attacks of right-wing groups.
What is the American Library Association?
The American Library Association is the main professional association for librarians. It is not a union: in addition to library workers, the organization includes library administrators, membership is technically open to any member of the general public who pays dues on an annual basis, and its leadership is elected by the membership at annual conferences. It is not a government organization, but it receives government funding and is intertwined with the administration of public libraries and the establishment of national standards for librarianship.
Politically, the ALA has been transformed, alongside many other public institutions of the United States. Founded in the late 19th century to foster communication within the library profession and to help establish professional standards, its original outlook was fiercely racist, sexist, and bourgeois. Early leaders of the ALA, such as Melvil Dewey, had a vision of libraries staffed by underpaid women (while higher-level work was reserved for men), and workers were expected to have a self-sacrificial, devout attitude toward their profession that precluded the need for fair pay or a union. Public libraries, in particular, were supposed to play an uplifting mission for society’s enterprising poor, who would use the library to self-educate and bootstrap their way into capitalist success. Despite their chauvinist limitations, libraries were well-funded enough to become significant educational and cultural resources to working-class communities, with the New York Public library’s collection drawing praise from Vladimir Lenin in 1911.
In the 20th century, the ALA’s political dynamics were facing new pressures. On one side, unionizing workers wanted to see the organization support union efforts, and both workers and activists pressured the organization to take stands on segregation, war, and democracy. On the other, the U.S. state was shifting gears ideologically, as support for open-throated white supremacy waned and was replaced with “colorblind” liberalism. While quietly ignoring the library’s prior mission of directed and censored “uplifting” of the self-motivated, libraries were encouraged to adopt a new mythology of intellectual freedom and anti-censorship.
Consequently, the ALA adopted a “Library Bill of Rights,” officially promoting the creation of library collections based purely on the interests of the library’s public, without prejudice or censorship based on the nature or background of the patrons or the requested materials. In the 1950s, the ALA issued statements “discouraging” the labeling or censorship of “subversive” texts. Predicting the trajectory of American liberalism, the ALA adopted an amendment opposing segregation in 1961, three years before the Civil Rights Act was passed. The ALA has also been a site of queer activism, playing a significant role in the promotion of queer literature in libraries beginning in the 1970s.
Throughout this history, the ALA has served as the primary accrediting institution for U.S. library schools, and has played further roles in standardizing and researching librarianship practices that in most other capitalist countries would be overseen by the state.
Who is Emily Drabinski?
While the ALA may have a complicated political legacy, Emily Drabinski is very clear about which side she is on. Drabinski has been an ardent rank-and-file unionist and a fighter for union democracy. Her campaign for ALA presidency was framed as an explicit challenge to austerity politics, as well as a fighting defense of working-class and anti-oppression causes in the library.
In the face of austerity, libraries in the U.S. are one of the few remaining indoor spaces that are primarily intended to serve the public for free, without expectation of revenue. Thus, libraries and their services are existentially threatened by austerity budgets. The default responses to this threat by past liberal leadership was to advocate for public-private partnerships—which only further undermine the future of library funding. Cynically, some librarians have advocated having libraries take over the responsibilities of other community services, such as recreation centers and public health clinics, in order to secure additional funding for the library at the expense of other services.
At the same time, libraries in the U.S. are facing a wave of attacks by the far right, which have taken the form of violent threats, physical disruptions of LGBTQ+ events, and campaigns to have libraries remove books critical of U.S. history or featuring queer topics. The censorship campaigns are coordinated by activist networks that often demand that libraries withdraw books not even held in their collections.
Drabinski, rather than accommodate the liberal status quo, has promised a strategy for libraries that is based on ties to unions and social justice organizations, and demanding that public services be well-funded outside of the library as well as on the library premises. Her commitment to a combative approach has already been tested since the election: In response to her election, the Montana State Library Commission disaffiliated from the ALA, and her employer, the City University of New York, was flooded by homophobic hate mail. Her response reaffirms her commitment to fighting against bigotry and for public services.
The American Library Association is not a working-class organization, and it is not a vehicle for socialism. Winning a revolution to defeat capitalism will take the formation of a party that can mobilize the working class as a whole through unions and anti-oppression movements. But having the professional association of U.S. librarians be led for a year by someone who will promote unionization and rally libraries to the fight against oppression and austerity is a good thing for working people.
You can sign a letter of support being circulated in response to the right-wing attacks against Drabinski here.