They Want to Kill Libraries

The Last Place in America Where You Are a Person, Not a Customer

A member of the SA throws confiscated books into the bonfire during the public burning of “un-German” books on the Opernplatz in Berlin.

In August, a small group of vocal, angry Idahoans targeted the Boundary County Library, demanding that the library purge 300 books on a list of “inappropriate” materials that circulates widely among right-wing conspiracy groups.

Boundary County Library didn’t have the books that the conspiracy theorists were angry about. Nevertheless, the group harassed and threatened the library staff, demanded the removal of the library board, and continued to target library staff even after they quit their jobs.

These conspiracists are part of a small but vocal minority of people who’ve been hoaxed by deep-pocketed right-wing media barons, who have propagated a lie that libraries are full of “groomers” who expose children to “inappropriate” materials as part of a program of sexual abuse.

Every accusation is a confession. The upper ranks of evangelicals and the Catholic Church are filled with pedophile abusers; as is the slate of MAGA election candidates.

The “groomer” panic is all astroturf. It’s a cynical ploy to whip up scared and easily confused people and point them at libraries, and not just libraries that have Genderqueer on the shelf or host Drag Queen Story Hours. They’re targeting all the libraries.

They’re targeting the very idea of libraries.

Yesterday’s installment of the excellent On The Media NPR show featured a fantastic interview with incoming American Library Association president Emily Drabinski and it’s a must-listen masterclass in understanding what libraries mean, and why wealthy right-wing media barons would want to destroy them.

Libraries are the last place in America where you are valued for your personhood, rather than the contents of your wallet. At the library, you are a patron, not a customer.

As the public sphere has shrunk, libraries have expanded to pick up the slack. Librarians liaise with social workers for their patrons, help them apply for emergency rental assistance, give them broadband onsite and to take home with them (the New York Public Library calls its wifi hospot program “lending out the entire internet”). Your library will loan you a suit for a job interview, tools to fix your home, or toys for your kid.

The Defund the Police movement asks us to reexamine the decision to load all kinds of non-law-enforcement duties on cops: social worker, mental health case-worker, domestic violence mediator. Both cops and their critics agree that it’s a mistake to ask cops to take on all these extra duties, and we’re meant to feel some sympathy for overburdened law enforcement officers whose jobs have expanded to fill the gaps in the austerity-frayed social safety net.

Librarians do all that too — and somehow, they manage to do it without killing anyone in a mental health crisis or struggling with addiction.

Librarians are kind of upside-down cops: public employees who are stepping in wherever the rest of our services have failed. Cops are some of our highest-paid public servants and their salaries are going up. Librarians get by on a shoestring and their wages are being slashed. Progressives openly call for the police to be defunded — billionaire plutocrats hide their campaign to defund libraries behind groomer hoaxes.

The foot-soldiers of the library abolition movement claim they just want to give parents the final say over their kids’ reading. But of course, that’s what libraries already do. As Drabinski told On the Media’s Brooke Gladstone:

One of the things I loved about libraries when I first started is that they are are non-coercive learning spaces. You don’t have to read anything. You can choose from anything on the shelf, and if your kid checks out something you want them to read, that’s between you and your child and the way that you’re parenting. It isn’t something that the state needs to be involved in.

Behind the anti-library movement is a demand for extraordinarily invasive government control over parenting. Rather than leaving it up to parents whether they want their kids to read books about racism and queer sexuality, anti-library militias want the government to to make sure that parents don’t even know these books exist, and, should they discover their existence, they want to make it as expensive and inconvenient as possible for parents to share them with their kids.

The right is a fusion of billionaire ideologues (who want a huge state that spends trillions on wars, prisons and cops) and terrified religious extremists who go along with their plutocrat allies (because they’re promised that victory will let them torment Black and brown people, indigenous people, women, queers, and immigrants).

They hate libraries, sure, but not because of the books on their shelves. As Drabinski says, they want to exterminate the last American spaces where anyone can:

  • Get a covid vaccination
  • Use the internet
  • Use the bathroom
  • Sit down with a friend
  • Get a drink of water

The groomer hoax is about abolishing libraries. It’s not about giving parents control over their kids’ reading.