American libraries are under attack. It is no longer enough for far-right interest groups and politicians to be to come for our collections; they have turned their anger to our staff as well. In recent months, there has been an alarming trend of community members and officials calling for librarians to be fired for books they have purchased for their patrons – typically titles focusing on race, gender and sexuality. Groups like Moms for Liberty are train their members on how to target us on our personal social media pages. Library workers are vilified in the same way as teachers – a troubling phenomenon that contributes nationwide shortage of educators.
The morale of library staff has been suffering for some time now. At Fobazi Ettarh Trial 2018 on professional fear in the profession first drew attention to the high rates of burnout among librarians due to the pressure of working in a noble field with little support. The new stress, fatigue and even danger that the pandemic has brought to frontline workers have made the situation worse.
To really understand where we are, it is important to understand how public libraries work. Although state laws vary in specifics, your local library is supported by taxpayer dollars. Some libraries are fortunate to have their budgets supplemented by charitable donations, usually channeled through a non-profit organization such as a group of friends of the library or a foundation. Like most social services, we constantly live with the real threat of budget cuts and our funding is often insufficient. To put it into perspective, I own a mid-priced home in a county with one of the highest property tax rates in the country. Just over $100 of my annual tax bill goes to my local library — a library funded above our state’s legal minimum. This tax-based income funds every aspect of the library budget, from maintenance of collections and programming to staff and building maintenance.
I live in an average house in a county with one of the highest property tax rates in the country – and about $100 of my annual tax bill goes to the public library.
I have worked in public libraries since my teens and am now in my third direction. One of the first things I learned after starting my first job was how misunderstood our roles are. Our frequent customers generally understand what we do, but not society as a whole. Thanks to pop culture, we are perpetually seen as uptight women who spend their time silencing people. If I had a nickel for every time I introduced myself to someone and was greeted with some version of “Oh, that must be so nice to read all day!” my library would be safe from future budget crises. There is also little understanding that a master’s degree is required to become a librarian, which most of us struggle to afford from our public salaries.
When I decided to go back to graduate school to get my master’s degree in library and information science, I knew I was going to face these inconveniences. Aside from student loans, I saw them like this: trouble. I had already worked in libraries for eight years by then, and was well aware of the pitfalls of working with the public and the unpredictability of library funding. I started my graduate studies in 2011, on the heels of Chris Christie, then Governor of New Jersey. historic and devastating cuts to public library budgets in my state, so I knew I had my work cut out. I will say however that it is exhausting to feel that my work is still not taken seriously after all these years.
Although we may believe otherwise, libraries continually face an existential crisis. Funding is uncertain and, at least in my state, entirely dependent on politics and property values - two things we cannot control. In today’s world, even though the data shows that our collections are still circulating and our programs are still being followed, people like to wonder why we still exist when “it’s all online”. We offer downloadable content like e-books and e-audiobooks, but our buying power for these collections is limited by publishers who like to raise prices and change licensing terms without notice. For every happy customer we serve, we may meet another member of the community who doesn’t like us for our radical inclusiveness or who thinks they should be entitled to whatever they want because, after all, they pay our wages. In the nine years since I got my master’s degree, this constant struggle and the invalidation that comes with it have worn me down. I went into this field because I wanted to do a good job connecting people with the right books and resources. It’s hard to keep doing this when our very existence is constantly in question.
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As the leader of my organization, I do everything I can to protect my staff from the flack that comes with library work. I have no problem being the face of my library; I fully understand that I am paid for this. My fundamental goals are to keep my employees safe, happy and supported. At some point, however, the abuse begins to take its toll.
Two months ago I was publicly called a ‘healer’ – one of the far-right activists homophobic slurs — for daring to wade through the waters of the Pride Month promotion.
Over the past few weeks my name has been trolled on social media and I’ve been publicly accused of lying and breaking state law for asking a client not to photograph an expensive old document from almost 250 years in possession of my library. Another resident said I had to “go” and urged others to “take the forks”. Why? Because I was doing my job.
Prior to this, a client posted incomplete screenshots of emails I sent her after she didn’t like my response on why our group of friends recycled donated moldy books. This turned into personal attacks on my leadership abilities.
The list continues.
As a public servant, my ability to respond to this bullying – and it is – is limited. Unlike an elected politician, however, I did not sign up for it. I took a job for a paycheck and for the purpose of trying to help others, not to feel like my mental health and work-life balance were under constant attack.
I would like to say that my situation is atypical for librarians. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s true. We live in an increasingly divided society in which those with differing opinions are viewed as inherently evil. Without the systemic support of our stakeholders, I don’t see these issues improving much.
Two months ago, I was publicly called a “groomer” for promoting Pride Month. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been trolled on social media for asking a patron not to photograph a rare historical document.
So what happens when you come after librarians? If things keep getting worse, there’s little incentive for us to stay on the pitch. We are categorically underpaid, and especially for those living in deep red states, the fear of losing our jobs over political differences is very real. With a recent high level study highlighting the trauma faced by library workers, how can you blame us? Thanks to budget cuts and staff reductions, many of us are also chronically overworked. It wasn’t until I took my current job about two years ago that I was finally able to afford not to have a second job in addition to full-time work at the library.
If librarians leave the field in droves, as teachers are currently doing, we have too much to lose as a society.
We will lose access to one of the last free, open, air-conditioned community spaces where people from all walks of life can gather freely.
We will lose a wealth of knowledge, experience and passion that helps connect readers to the right books.
We will lose a formidable weapon in the fight against false information and fake news.
We will lose creative thinkers who work tirelessly to plan fun and informative events for you and your family for free.
Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “I have the unshakeable conviction that democracy can never be undermined if we maintain our documentary resources and a national intelligence capable of using them.” In other words, if we lose our librarians, we lose a central element of our democracy. It’s time to stand up for our librarians and their institutions before it’s too late.
about the right wing attack on books and literacy