ABA Article: Human Rights Hero: The Librarian

Kudos to the ABA this week for publishing this (30 May 24)


Though not spelled out in the job description, to be a librarian today is to be an activist committed to the principles of free speech, free expression, a free press, and how increasing the public’s reading and technological literacy serves to protect those civic liberties. With the right to read under unprecedented attack across the country, schools and public libraries where most censorship efforts are taking place have been literally caught in the crosshairs of a small but organized faction that wants to suppress constitutionally protected access to information. In 2022, the American Library Association reported that there had been 1,269 efforts to censor books and resources nationwide, doubling the number reported the previous year, with many of these challenges coming from just a handful of small but organized groups.

Though numerous recent polls have shown that the majority of the American public, regardless of political party, believes that censorship is a violation of the First Amendment, librarians (as well as library support staff and library trustees) have become targets of legislation to criminalize the dissemination of books and other reading material. In 2023, five states—Arkansas, Indiana, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee—passed laws that threaten library staff with fines or prison time for providing children and youth with reading material considered “harmful” or “pornographic” despite the loose and increasingly ambiguous definitions of those terms. Indeed, by the close of last year, all but four states in the country had seen legislation introduced to ban or restrict specific titles or themes, overwhelmingly those written by authors who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color or LGBTQIA or about the lived experiences of those communities.

Despite the Orwellian climate, librarians are risking their livelihoods to safeguard information access. Over the past three years, librarians have been fired, placed on involuntary leave, or harassed to the point of resigning. Those who have stayed admit to ongoing feelings of stress and low morale. Threats of violence against library personnel have also escalated. Both 2022 and 2023 saw waves of bomb and active shooter threats aimed at public libraries across the country. In January 2024, several public libraries in Minnesota faced similar bomb scares. In almost every one of these cases, librarians’ refusal to condone censorship was identified as the provocation.

Despite being beleaguered by a calculated censorship campaign that threatens to reach further and loom longer than even the McCarthy era, and regardless of the cuts to library budgets that have too often followed the maligning of libraries, librarians are courageously fighting back to protect intellectual freedom. The Freadom Fighters, a collective of Texas librarians, has pushed back against that state’s draconian book-banning legislation and sought to educate fellow residents about the educational and social harm caused by policing reading. Three other librarians refusing to capitulate to censorship have fought their firing by taking their claims to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The American Library Association recently drafted a new set of guidelines for library services in jails and prisons to combat the pervasive book banning in carceral settings and became the first organization to create a national platform to empower the public to fight against censorship, uniteagainstbookbans.org, which has attracted thousands of institutional partners and stakeholders to date. That website provides a gateway to the Banned Book Club, which provides, among other things, free access to books that have been banned in various communities. The website also provides digital tool kits for those who want to stand up against book bans.

But most importantly, despite facing the greatest existential threat in the history of libraries at the toughest time to be a practitioner, librarians keep showing up to ensure that the public has the support they need to access and navigate the print and digital materials that can inform and enrich their lives. That is truly the definition of “hero.”

Tracie D. Hall

Former Executive Director, American Library Association; Visiting Fellow, University of London

Tracie D. Hall is the former executive director of the American Library Association and currently a visiting fellow at the University of London. In 2023, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Institute honored her with its Medal for Freedom of Speech and Expression. This fall, she will move to the University of Washington’s Information School as a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence.