‘Woke’ Librarians Take Their Politics to Another Level
Everyone knows the old caricature of the local librarian: a white, middle-aged woman, slightly plump, a bit intimidating, shushing patrons while wearing comfortable clothing—cardigans especially—and unflattering shoes. Sadly, a more damaging and likely more accurate moniker has emerged in the age of Google: anachronistic. Internet search has degraded the perceived value of public libraries as their staffs spend their time teaching the elderly how to use the Internet or scrambling around for eclipse glasses that the local news assured “can be picked up at your local library.”
However, librarians today are doing less shushing and more shouting, as the academic social justice movement has penetrated the library stacks.
The profession has always had a tilt. September 24 marks the 35th anniversary of Banned Books Week, an annual event for liberal hand-wringing. The American Library Association (ALA) has previously admitted that most “banned” books are merely challenges and that in a “majority of cases, the books have remained available.” Most challenges involve parents complaining about books with sexual or violent content, rather than political or subversiveness. This year, the ALA says “there was an alarming 17% increase in book censorship complaints in 2016.” However, they also add that “since most challenges are not reported, the actual number is probably much higher.” A quick look at the this year’s ten most challenged books indicate the vast majority are young adult books (generally for ages 12 to 18) and mostly about LGBT issues, like Two Boys Kissing. One book entitled George is targeted towards the elementary aged children and explores the issue of transgenderism.
The library field’s slant is best demonstrated in the actions (and sometimes, the disgraceful lack of action) of the staid-sounding ALA—the world’s oldest and largest library association, founded in 1876. The association was notoriously missing in action after a 1999 report documented and condemned the Cuban government’s brutal crackdown on independent libraries and librarians, specifically the “campaign of threats, intimidation, harassment, eviction, short-term arrests and the confiscation of incoming book donations or book collections.”
The Cuban regime jailed dozens of independent librarians, confiscating and even burning entire collections of books. Library associations in Canada, Holland, Denmark, and Spain condemned the Cuban dictatorship. The American Library Association, however, did not.
According to Open Secrets, an organization dedicated to tracking political contributions, donors with an occupation of “librarian” overwhelming contributed to Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the 2016 presidential election cycle. The Clinton campaign received $12,566 in donations, while Donald Trump only received $30—a ratio of 419 to 1.
That ratio is even larger than the one documented in 2005 by David Durant, a librarian at East Carolina University. In “The Loneliness of a Conservative Librarian,” published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Durant writes of the stifling orthodoxy in his field: “…in terms of political composition, the library profession makes your typical Ivy League faculty look like the Heritage Foundation.” He cited data showing that librarians donated to John Kerry over George W. Bush in 2004 by a ratio of 223 to 1.
A glance at the speaker lineup of ALA events from the Bush era is just as revealing. The American Library Association’s annual conference in 2003 featured speakers such as Ralph Nader, Bernie Sanders, Naomi Klein, and Gloria Steinem. In 2004, there was a special screening of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Then U.S. Senator Barack Obama was a featured speaker in 2005. Meanwhile, Laura Bush’s appearance in 2006 was met with controversy, with ALA Councilor-At-Large (and director of the Reference Center for Marxist Studies) Mark C. Rosenzweig railing against the first lady’s apolitical speaking role.
But a truly scary threat materialized last November when, against all sense of decency, Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election. Donald Trump’s election, and fears of an ascending Alt-Right, coupled with the long, ongoing march of “intersectionality” in academia and attacks on “offensive” conservative speech on campus—all have served to corrode the idea of ideological neutrality, a hallmark of the discipline that is even embedded in the ALA’s code of ethics.
The shift is particularly pronounced in academic libraries. The April 2015 edition of College & Research Libraries News published an article with the title “Black Lives Matter! Shedding library neutrality rhetoric for social justice.”
What consequences could possibly come from such a stance? Libraries typically “weed” out books with low checkout rates to clear limited shelf space. Although a necessary custom, it could become a convenient opportunity for ideologically motivated librarians. How tempting would it be for a bored librarian seething over her social media feed to take out her frustrations by quietly removing polemical tomes from right-wing legal eagle Ann Coulter, while keeping Bush-era screeds from left-wing documentarian Michael Moore?
The library profession found little to argue with during the Obama administration. He had, after all, spoken to the group when he was a senator. But Trump’s surprise electoral victory has awoken the Hulk, transforming mild-mannered librarians into full-fledged Social Justice Warriors.
Not surprisingly, controversy erupted when the organization initially sought common ground with the incoming administration through an innocuous press release: “We are ready to work with President-elect Trump, his transition team, incoming administration and members of Congress to bring more economic opportunity to all Americans and advance other goals we have in common.” Membership backlash was so intense that ALA President Julie Todaro was compelled to delete it.
But to see the the profession’s leftward bent, one must turn to the July issue of The Library Quarterly, an independent library journal from The University of Chicago Press.
The lead editorial, “Aftermath of the 2016 US Presidential Election for Libraries: Axioms, Foxes, and the Urgencies of Now,” proved as pompous as its title, and the articles themselves were no less radical.
One must bestow credit to the authors of “Remotivating the Black Vote: The Effect of Low-Quality Information on Black Voters in the 2016 Presidential Election and How Librarians Can Intervene,” for coming up with such a novel angle and truly chipping away at library neutrality. They managed to get to the left of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick who is embroiled in an ongoing controversy for refusing to stand for the National Anthem. The authors can’t forgive him for not supporting Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. It may not shock you to learn that Clinton delivered the keynote address to the ALA’s annual convention in June.
The article accuses Kaepernick of having “used rhetoric that basically equated presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.” The horror! They also blamed his rhetoric on the now-loathed crime bill signed in 1994 by Hillary’s husband and “other rhetoric polluting black discussions on social media” for the 11 percent reduction in black votes from 2012.
Showing surprising anger toward a key liberal voting bloc, the authors disputed “the legions of black ‘Bernie bros’ who declared dedicated non-support for Hillary Clinton during and even after the primary just never bothered to learn of Sanders’s support for the Crime Bill.”
But the crème de la crème was “Teaching to Dismantle White Supremacy in Archives,” by Michelle Caswell. She writes:
I am early, and one of my students, a genderqueer student of color, walks in. They sit down next to me and burst into tears, telling me how terrified they are for their own safety under a Trump presidency…Throughout the meeting, students and colleagues openly sob, some worried that they and their families might be deported or forced to register, others accurately painting the Trump election as the logical conclusion of a 500-year history of white supremacy. It is clear we cannot—and should not—conduct business as usual between sobs.
Demonstrating how wisely her students’ graduate school tuition was being spent, Caswell writes about how she junked the library curriculum in favor of spontaneous primal election therapy:
It is clear as class nears that I cannot — should not — continue with my previously scheduled lecture. Instead, I print out 28 copies of the two-page handout based on Peggy McIntosh’s ‘White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,’ grab a handful of markers and some giant Post-it notes, and head to class….I begin class by telling the students that I think we have a deep-seated white supremacy problem in the United States, as shown by the election results. Instead of the regularly scheduled lecture, we are going to discuss white privilege and white supremacy and then do a brainstorming exercise in which we first identify areas of white privilege in archives and then strategize concrete plans of action for dismantling those privileges through our professional practice as archivists. Students get quiet and tense; I have their attention…
The lesson from 2016 for librarians, and the academic left in general, may turn out to be, “Be careful what you wish for.” Recent events have revealed unintended consequences of an unending obsession with identity politics. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” the ubiquitous essay previously referenced, contained this telling sentence: “Many, perhaps most, of our white students in the U.S. think that racism doesn’t affect them because they are not people of color, they do not see ‘whiteness’ as a racial identity.” Now a lot of them have. How is that working out?
Clay Waters has been published in the New York Post, Human Events, The Federalist, and National Review Online. Previously, he headed the TimesWatch project for the Media Research Center.