Making Trouble That Matters

We must mobilize on behalf of libraries and library workers

July 19, 2023

Photo of ALA President Emily Drabinski

Growing up in Boise, Idaho, my dream was always to be a writer in New York City. Instead, in 2000, I found myself fact-checking at Lucky, a magazine about shopping. I wasn’t penning trenchant essays on the state of the world for an audience of adoring readers. I was confirming the prices of handbags and counting the total number of bargains for the cover line. (If we said there were 158 bargains, there had to be 158 bargains.)

A few months into the gig, I made a mistake. I printed the number of bargains for one luxury department store on a two-page photo spread featuring a different luxury department store. I was in so much trouble. The magazine sent the store a huge bouquet of flowers as an apology, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how much those flowers cost. Sleepless nights for a week. Shortly after that, I decided that if I was going to get in trouble, I was going to get in trouble for something that mattered to me. I applied for a job at New York Public Library and started an MLS program at Syracuse (N.Y.) University at the same time. I was going to get in trouble for working at a library.

Maybe this is your story too. You wanted work that matters and chose libraries like I did. Library workers like us teach people to read, give queer kids a safe place, and help people apply for jobs, connect to government services, and access broadband internet from our buildings and our hotspots. We facilitate scientific breakthroughs, shape research in the humanities and social sciences, and create information access tools. We structure systematic reviews, unjam staplers, read stories to children, drive bookmobiles, show people to the bathroom, program author talks, and build open access institutional repositories.

Our work matters. This is why we do it.

We [must] organize and mobilize together on behalf of our libraries, our patrons, our communities, and, importantly, ourselves.

But it can be hard to do that good work. Some of us face hurricanes, floods, and fires that devastate our buildings and collections as the climate rapidly changes.

Others are subject to organized pro-censorship attacks that force us to fight for the basic right to read. In Boise, for example, this meant all hands on deck in the most recent legislative session, organizing work that led to the governor’s April veto of House Bill 314, a library bounty bill.

Many of us are asked to do more with less, working harder with fewer resources to meet growing community needs. In New York City, libraries fill social service gaps even as they face millions of dollars of budget cuts.

While none of this is exactly new—libraries have always been sites of social and political struggle—I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling like things are as hard and as scary as they’ve ever been.

This is why we need one another, and why we need the American Library Association (ALA). We need to make trouble—good trouble, the kind of trouble that matters, the kind of trouble I became a librarian to get into—and we need to make it together.

Since its founding in 1876, ALA has convened library workers from all kinds of libraries, from all over the country and world, to tackle the knottiest problems of the profession, creating tools for effective information retrieval and defending the core values that shape our field.

These coming months will ask even more of us as we organize and mobilize together on behalf of our libraries, our patrons, our communities, and, importantly, ourselves. We must build the collective power necessary to preserve and expand the public good. As your new ALA president, I can’t wait to do that work with all of you.


Emily Drabinski

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