Voters filing out of a library in west Michigan last year were proud to show off their “I voted” stickers. Ironically, most of them had just voted to defund the library itself.
The fight against Ottawa County’s Patmos Library began when a conservative group attempted to get an award-winning LGBTQ+ memoir taken off its shelves. When the library refused, the group claimed that, by making this book available, the staff was “grooming” the community’s children. In the end, they were successful: 62 percent of residents voted to slash their funding—and in the aftermath of the vote, the library’s board president said Patmos could be shut down as early as fall of this year.
This is the result of just one battle in the broader Republican war on knowledge, insidiously disguised as a campaign to advocate for parents and protect children.
Right-wing activists have taken over school boards across the country, banning books on topics from slavery to the Holocaust, rejecting courses like AP African American Studies, and prohibiting teachers from discussing gender identity in the classroom. Now, in a comically transparent escalation of this anti-intellectual crusade, they are targeting libraries. Worse, they’ve embraced a characteristically cruel approach to doing so: bullying librarians.
During the campaign to defund Patmos Library, its director—who is gay—resigned after a woman came there, filming with her phone, and called her “that pedophile librarian.” In the last couple of years, multiple states have introduced bills that would criminally charge librarians who let kids check out so-called inappropriate material (that is to say, LGBTQ material.) Last summer, librarians in Montana found five bullet-ridden books in their book drop, and several of them subsequently resigned. These menacing tactics have reached a fever pitch—to the point that in September, PEN America released a tragically necessary tip sheet for librarians facing harassment.
Meanwhile, with Republicans on the offensive, Democrats are failing to mount an effective defense. On the contrary, New York City Mayor Eric Adams recently announced a major cut to the city’s beloved public libraries: over $30 million over the next three years.
Libraries are often misunderstood as a relic of the past in an increasingly digitizing world. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. More than just a place to check out books, libraries represent one of very few public spaces in the United States that offer essential resources to anyone who needs them. Attacks on them are nothing less than an attack on the nation’s most vulnerable.
In cities, libraries provide English language classes; accessible ID cards for undocumented, homeless, and formerly incarcerated residents; and free after-school programming for students. In rural areas, residents rely on libraries for steady Internet service, access to job applications, and digital literacy programming.
As sociologist Eric Klinenberg writes, libraries are vital “social infrastructure”—physical spaces that allow for interaction and build community. Such spaces are crucial for young people in at-risk situations, the homeless, and the elderly. When fires struck communities in California over the summer, libraries were a place of refuge, allowing parents to get vital information while children could safely play. Libraries serve communities when other social services are lacking.
In other words, libraries exist in service to us—and in America, you’d be forgiven for being perplexed by the concept. They are, as journalist Cory Doctorow writes, “the last place in America where you are a person, not a customer.” This idea is incompatible with neoliberal market-based economics. A place that promotes learning and actual diversity of thought—and doesn’t even turn a profit? Ripe for cancellation, shut it down.
There are signs, though, that people have the power to combat this campaign. After all, it wasn’t the new Republican majority in Washington who defunded Patmos Library in Michigan. It was the residents of that western Michigan township. And if libraries are being attacked at the community level, that means they can be defended at the community level, too.
In the case of Patmos Library, grassroots campaigns raised $270,000 to keep it running. That’s enough to keep the branch open with zero taxpayer support until early 2025.
Of course, we shouldn’t need GoFundMe to protect our libraries. (That’s what taxes are for—the original crowdfunding!) If we believe that libraries derive their value, in part, from their ability to cultivate community, perhaps the best way to save them is by spending more time there. Go down to your local branch. Sit, read, and strike up a conversation. Tell your librarians what their work means to you—it could be a welcome reprieve from the other messages they’re getting.
And if you don’t already have one, sign up for a library card. Join the legions of card-carrying literati with a radical agenda: allowing children to learn about the world around them.