Should Public Libraries Be Political?

Every so often, you may read or hear about a library that received criticism for “being too political.” This might occur during Banned Book Week, when a patron complains about the library promoting “bad” materials. Or during Pride Month, when a community member insists the library “should not take sides” by marketing certain materials or holding certain events. You may have even seen it during the recent protests, when some people objected to libraries sharing anti-racism resources. These critiques often come from individuals who see the library as apolitical–the library is supposed to provide access to objective, reliable information, and so should not be allied with any specific political party or ideology.

And, this is true. The library should not be promoting specific political candidates. They should not be engaging in behavior that erodes the public trust in their ability to provide accurate and unbiased information. However, the library, by its very existence is necessarily already political. And this is something the public sometimes may forget.

The mission of the public library is to provide access to information and materials to everyone in the community, regardless of where they live, what they look like, or how much money they earn. The library is one of the last truly communal spaces in American society. Anyone can enter the doors without paying a fee and stay there all day, if they so desire (at least pre-covid). They can check out movies, books, games, toys, and music all free. They can surf the Internet free. No one cares who they are or where they came from or whether they have a right to be there or “deserve” to be there. The library is truly open to all–and that is a political statement.

The library’s existence as a political statement perhaps can be most clearly seen in the regular calls by (wealthy) politicians to defund libraries. Politicians often describe the library as an antiquated relic of the pre-Internet days, now doomed to obscurity by the availability of “everything” online. Such statements ignore the critical role of the library in providing information and materials, along with Internet access, to the not-insignificant portion of the population who cannot afford to buy all their books, films, music, and scholarly journals, and who may not be able to afford Internet, a laptop, or a printer at home. They assume that everyone is as privileged as the politician who has not stepped foot into the library since they were a child. They assume that, if someone cannot pay for access to books or Internet, that person does not deserve to have these things at all. The library is a direct threat to the idea that only the wealthy are worthy of access to information and ideas.

The public library is political because its existence says that the entire community deserves access to information and materials, and that the entire community benefits when we work to lift up those who are less privileged than others. The library is political because it welcomes everyone–even demographics some people find objectionable. (Perhaps the homeless population endures some of the worst criticism for their simple existence within the library building.) Some people would prefer that the library cease to exist, or that it continue to exist only in a way that makes them comfortable and aligns with their views of who should and should not be welcomed. But the library works precisely because it is so radically inclusive.

The public library remains perhaps one of the most trusted institutions in the United States. And that is in part because the library is so very good at welcoming everyone and providing them with access without asking questions. You don’t need to be part of the elite or an in-group or a socially sanctioned group in order to use the library. You just need to be. And that is a political statement I hope the library continues to make.

20 thoughts on “Should Public Libraries Be Political?

  1. Briana | Pages Unbound says:

    This is definitely a tricky topic because you could argue that both everything and nothing is political, in a sense. (Like, I would never have said, “Should you wear a face mask during a pandemic?” is political, but apparently it is.) So it’s a great point that something that doesn’t look political on its surface–invite everyone into this space and give them access and resources–actually is political, as well.

    Like

  2. Florence @ Miscellany Pages says:

    This is such a brilliant discussion post on an issue that I haven’t seen raised very often! 🥰 I work as a public library assistant in the UK (in my opinion it’s the best job in the world) and you’ve put into words what I’ve sometimes struggled to express so thank you 📚❤️ X x x

    Like

  3. Never Not Reading says:

    That really grates my cheese, that people objected to the library sharing anti-racist material as being political. That’s basically coming right out and saying “I can be racist if it supports my political agenda.” What is this, 1960? Argh.

    I agree with what you said, that libraries shouldn’t openly support a certain political candidate, but that they are by nature political. In general I think the criticism of not posting displays of divisive political issues (i.e. abortion) may be a reasonable one (unless the are providing resources from both sides of an argument), however having an LGBTQ display during pride makes as much sense as Black books during Black History Month or women’s books during Women’s History Month or Dr. Seuss books on Dr. Seuss’s birthday. If that’s a political statement to you it may be time to re-evaluate WHY you’re protesting those materials and what your goal is.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, it was truly bizarre. Libraries were obviously doing it because there was a demand and they wanted to share relevant resources. No one was being required to read the books just because they announced they had some available. Sigh.

      Yes, I think the end goal of libraries is to be inclusive and to remind people that they are open to EVERYONE. But I guess some people have a problem with that. :/

      Liked by 1 person

  4. vikiedwards says:

    This is a really interesting topic. Libraries are one of the most important institutions we have in the UK, but unfortunately, they are being eroded. They are a political stand of those who believe in free access to information, of those who believe education is for all, and of those who believe in equality. I think libraries should share information and leave the public to make up their own minds, on all topics. As long as no one is being told what to think, then it doesn’t matter. If you don’t want to engage with certain topics, then don’t. But don’t ask for information to be suppressed.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      It’s so sad that public libraries are consistently being underfunded and sometimes even attacked. They are truly lifelines for many members of the community. And I agree! The information is available. That doesn’t mean anyone has to read it if they don’t want to! But why take it away from others?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Sammie @ The Bookwyrm's Den says:

    I love this post, and you raise such important topics! I think it’s so weird that people see LGBTQ rights and anti-racism as political, though. I consider it more of a humanitarian thing. Or, if you will, a societal issue. And the library’s where you go to learn things, after all, whether they’re things you support or not.

    This is something we run into a lot at the library I work in, especially since we’re in a very Conservative, very Christian county. There are definitely patrons who come in that think anything they don’t agree with or that offends them shouldn’t have a place on the shelves. I’ve heard some horror stories from before I started, including one woman that insisted we get rid of the Qu’ran, because it was inappropriate to have it where her son (who was, like, three, btw) might pick it up. xD

    This is why I think it’s so important that libraries don’t censure what they provide, because it’s especially important that people don’t live in an echo chamber and are exposed to new and different ideas and perspectives.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      It is odd how human rights issues tend to be politicized, isn’t it? But I agree! The library is supposed to provide resources for all! You don’t have to agree with them for them to be there. Just don’t check them out, right?

      My library seems to be on the other extreme a bit. They get a lot of criticism, but they also tend to listen to it. So they don’t celebrate holidays anymore or do certain displays because they’re so worried about offending people.

      Like

  6. DoingDewey says:

    Great post! I like your distinction between being political and actively supporting political candidates. I think the only people who can think of libraries as apolitical are those who assume a specific, default type of person – cis, straight, white, not poor, etc – and so see decisions that support those identities over others as neutral, instead of realizing that to not display LGBT+ material during pride month, for example, would also be a political decision (leaving aside whether we should be politicizing human rights issues). I also particularly appreciate that the library supports the values of open knowledge for all.

    Like

    • Krysta says:

      That’s a very interesting idea. I think we DO tend to see certain things as “neutral” because they are familiar or traditional or just in line with our own viewpoints. But just because something appears to be the default from one perspective, doesn’t mean it is, or should be.

      Like

Leave a Reply! We'd love to read your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.