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.