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The Library Politics Problem

Kind Readers sent in two articles last week that seem like they must be connected somehow. One is by a reactionary busybody who wants everyone like him to move with him into monasteries to escape the frightening prospects of what the rest of us just call the world, or something like that.

Oh, and he hates it that a library in a city he doesn’t even live in makes any effort to make LGBT folks feel welcome.

The other is about the ALA’s alleged “Republican problem,” which in this situation means that Republican members of Congress aren’t signing various documents of support for library funding, and that what the ALA presents as success in getting support is really just success in getting support from Democrats.

Someone already did a pretty good job responding to the first article, pointing out that the writer “is full of complaints about what the public library offers to others, but mentions nothing about what it offers to people like him,” listing the many things libraries offer reactionaries like him, and stating a point fairly obvious to everyone but the reactionary busybody that he “does not want a library that welcomes LGBTQ communities; for him to feel ‘welcome,’ he demands their absence and their silence.”

That, surprisingly enough, was at the OIF intellectual freedom blog, but they brought in someone who doesn’t work for the OIF to write it, which was a smart move.

Possibly since that response, the reactionary busybody has added an update that’s pretty amusing: “‘Why are you social conservatives so obsessed about sex and homosexuality?’ ask the people who stage drag queen children’s story hour at the public library.”

It’s funny because libraries put on all sorts of programs and the vast majority of them aren’t about sex or homosexuality, but the conservative reactionary apparently thinks about homosexuality a LOT.

Of all the thousand or so possible events at the Philadelphia Free Library, does he mention “Working with Watercolor!,” “Wooden Block Party,” “Bartram’s Garden,” or “Mindful Meditation”? The answer is of course no. He chooses to focus on the drag show, and then is his rhetorical question either deliberately or unconsciously turns the drag show from a performance by teens into a “children’s story hour.”

If you had eyes to see, reactionary busybody, you would realize that’s the sign of obsession. It’s not the thousand things the library does that have nothing to do with your obsession and thus you ignore, it’s the one thing you choose to see and complain about in a city you don’t even live in.

The good thing is stuff like this isn’t necessarily part of a “Republican problem.” There are probably lots of reactionary busybodies, just like progressive busybodies, who would love to live in a world where everybody believed and behaved just like them.

Wanting to move all the like-minded lemmings into a monastery might be a little extreme, but almost nobody ever does it. The closest thing is usually a politically homogenous social media feed, and perhaps a neighborhood.

After all, if you completely removed yourself from all the people you despised, who would you have to complain about, and to whom? Half the pleasure of the busybody’s life would disappear right there.

So the reactionary busybody might be too extreme for a “Republican problem.” The concerned librarian points out some obvious if uncomfortable facts, though.

First, Republicans in Congress don’t actively support library funding. Second, most of the counties in America are “red” counties, which are home to a lot of libraries if not necessarily to a lot of people. And third, “ALA conferences have had nearly all liberal speakers.”

The “remedy” to the third is to invite Republicans and conservatives who support libraries to speak at ALA. I doubt any of them would get the enthusiastic reception last year’s losing Presidential candidate did at ALA Annual this year, but it’s possible they wouldn’t be protested like the last conservative speaker I remember ALA inviting, Colin Powell many years ago. And if ever there was a safe conservative, it was Powell.

Possible, but hardly likely. The ALA and its most dedicated members are ideologically homogenous, and that ideological homogeneity is only partially related to support for libraries.

For them, supporting libraries isn’t enough if one doesn’t also support that libraries are “inclusive” and “diverse,” the definitions of which vary slightly over the years, but almost always broaden to include more marginalized groups. And that basically means being somewhere on the left of the political spectrum.

Our earnest reactionary busybody might otherwise be a big supporter of public libraries, but a speech at ALA saying libraries would be even better if they didn’t pay so much attention to the gays probably wouldn’t go over very well, because only supporting public libraries for people exactly like you doesn’t really fit with the library mission.

The speaker problem might be linked somewhat to the problem of Congressional Republicans not supporting libraries, although even the concerned librarian acknowledges there are lots of reasons they don’t, including those who hate publicly funding anything.

However, I’m less convinced that either issue is related to local politics and support for local libraries. Both the “Republican problem” in Congress and the leftist ALA agenda are macro issues, big and flashy because they occupy the national stage and everyone who chooses can see them.

But local politics and local libraries are different. Based on what I’ve read over the years, usually commenters correcting me somehow, there’s a big gap between ALA ideology and local library practice.

While local librarians might fight off book challenges and support purchasing materials for all users, from troubled homosexual teenagers to reactionary busybodies, their practice blends in to their communities.

The drag show for teens was promoted by the Philadelphia Free Library and supported by grants from three different local groups. Philadelphia is a large, diverse, liberal city in the northeast.

Would a county public library system in Mississippi or Alabama do the same thing? Maybe, and feel free to correct me in the comments, but probably not. Support for marginalized groups or troubled teens might very well still be available at the library, but probably not in such a flashy way.

As for all the red counties, there are two things to consider. First, no county red or blue is politically homogenous. The reddest of counties might have voted 80% for President Trump, but that’s still 20% against him, with only half of voters usually voting anyway, and most counties aren’t nearly that red, just as most blue counties aren’t nearly that blue.

Second, what Congressional Republicans support doesn’t necessarily correlate with what local Republicans support, whether it’s public schools or public libraries.

While there is evidence that Congressional Republicans don’t publicly support library funding the way Democrats do, and there’s some evidence that at the moment some national institutions like higher education or labor unions face differing partisan support, there’s no evidence I can find that public libraries at a local level are subject to this sort of partisan division.

One thing we do know is that the public likes public libraries about as much as it dislikes Congress. Instead of worrying about ALA, the solution to this “Republican problem” might be for libraries to keep doing what they’ve been doing: reflecting their communities while trying to offer something for everyone, not just the majority.

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Comments

  1. anonymous coward says:

    While the NRO article is stupid, it’s extremely silly to expect someone who is complaining about a program to qualify it by listing all the other things they AREN’T complaining about. That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.

    As to the republican problem, I’ve spoken about this before- it’s not just a republican problem. It’s a lack of intellectual diversity problem that plagues the profession as a whole. It’s the inability to even entertain an opposing viewpoint, professionally, that’s the problem. However, you are right. Typically local libraries don’t have nearly the same lack of intellectual diversity you see on the “national leadership” level. However, if leadership isn’t representing the profession accurately, what does that say about leadership?

  2. AL writes: “Someone already did a pretty good job responding to the first article, pointing out that the writer “is full of complaints about what the public library offers to others, but mentions nothing about what it offers to people like him,” listing the many things libraries offer reactionaries like him, and stating a point fairly obvious to everyone but the reactionary busybody that he “does not want a library that welcomes LGBTQ communities; for him to feel ‘welcome,’ he demands their absence and their silence.”

    Add me to the list of those who either ‘don’t get AL ‘ or find AL to be ‘bigoted’.

    It seems odd (to me, at least) the notion that a library that takes no position on the subject of individual sexuality offers that individual and/or others of his/her ilk… nothing.

  3. Finally a Librarian says:

    IMHO, it’s a small percentage of library employees who are ALA members and those are usually the lefter leaning. The majority either cannot afford membership or (like myself) are unwilling to support the ALA in any manner. I do not belong to the state or local LA’s either for the same reason. So, the ALA only represents the leftist faction of our profession rather than the profession as a whole.

  4. Joneser says:

    Maybe ALA could have someone from the “Club for Growth” or “Americans for Prosperity” talk about how ALL taxes are bad and they aren’t against libraries per se, it’s just that they are publicly funded. That could be interesting. You could also have some panelists who are “Republican” or “Conservative” – whatever those terms mean anymore – to talk about how they support their LOCAL libraries and feel that it’s a good use of tax $$. National vs. local, abstract vs. concrete. Maybe that would be too reasonable?

    But given that “Republicans” find colleges to be a bad thing, according to a recent poll, it’s hard to find a lot to like in anyone/thing against education and learning, period.

    • anonymous coward says:

      They would be run out on a rail. Even if they approached it from a “libraries should be funded through membership donations, but open for all, a la local PBS stations minus fed money” they wouldn’t even get the chance to speak before the metaphorical rotten veggies were thrown at them on stage.

      Especially if those “conservative” panelists mentioned anything about a certain funding level that was acceptable. It would be heresy to admit we should understand a dollar figure where library funding doesn’t need more.

  5. I agree with much of this article, except I am concerned about the consequences that the leftist agenda of the ALA will have for libraries because it is “big and flashy.” Librarians are according to a recent study the second most trusted professionals among the American public, and libraries remain one of the few institutions in these polarized times which have a broad base of public support. This article looks at such evidence and says things are fine, but I think we might look at it and say we have a lot to lose. I’m glad we want to everyone to feel as welcome as we can (so long as we aren’t compromising timeless values such as the 1st Amendment or intellectual freedom etc.), but I would welcome a retreat by the ALA from engagement with political issues which are not immediately and significantly impacting our abilities to do our jobs.

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