Our History Is Our Protection

Notes for the struggle ahead

November 1, 2023

Photo of ALA Executive Director Tracie D. Hall. Text says "From the Executive Director by Tracie D. Hall"

In February 1968, just two months before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. uttered these words: “We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope.” The not quite (and never to be) 40-year-old knew something about disappointment. Thrust into an activism he did not choose, King had been ridiculed, jailed, and stabbed. He was the victim of bomb threats and an actual bombing.

King knew the difference between being dejected and being disillusioned, drawing the distinction often in his writings and speeches. While being dejected is a natural reaction to opposition, the latter represents the capitulation of hope. King knew well that hope is needed for struggle.

That connection is important for those of us who work in or advocate for libraries. Over the last year, as efforts to silence historically marginalized voices and histories have intensified, we have seen increasingly alarming threats of violence against libraries: at least 10 verified bomb threats against urban, suburban, and rural public and school libraries; attacks against ALA for protecting the right to read; and the vilification of ALA’s elected president, all for exercising the First Amendment right of freedom of expression.

Attempts at suppression have often been followed by legislative efforts to displace library leadership and defund library services. As a result, we have seen state libraries compelled to withdraw their ALA memberships despite the often exponential return on investment these institutional memberships offer.

We are in the midst of a civil rights movement

Though I have seen many things in my tenure that I could not have previously imagined, I could not have predicted that there would be threats to close and defund libraries because they defend the right to information at a time when libraries are widely acknowledged as essential.

In the midst of these attempts to delegitimize libraries, librarianship, and the work of the Association, my father had a major stroke.

Rushing to Los Angeles to be at his bedside, I found myself living for the moments when he opened his eyes.

One morning, between bouts of fitful sleep, he awakened to say, “I have something to tell you.” No sooner than he’d said those words, sleep returned to take him under. I stayed near, my laptop propped next to his feet, using his bed as my desk. I was deep at work when he woke again.

“Protection,” he said woozily.

“What protection, Dad?” I asked, surprised.

“For you,” he answered. “I have given you protection.” His eyes locked on mine. “Our history … our history is your protection.”

Those are the last words my dad ever said to me. He fell asleep again and I left the hospital shortly after to return to my duties. The news of his death reached me at work in the middle of a meeting about increasing library funding.

He would have approved.

Before his own death, another civil rights crusader, US Rep. John Lewis, presciently asserted that in his estimation, access to the internet (and information more broadly) would be the civil rights issue of the 21st century.

Lewis’s words demonstrate uncanny foresight. In this moment where disinformation and information disparity have become normalized, many libraries are forced to fight defunding when they should rightfully be advocating for increased funding to provide the growing educational and social services they are being asked to take on.

We are indeed in the midst of a civil rights movement. Libraries are called to face this moment just as we have in times before, with an indefatigable commitment to information access and the unequivocal belief that right of access applies to everyone.

That legacy, that history, is our protection.


Photo of ALA Executive Director Tracie D. Hall. Text says "From the Executive Director by Tracie D. Hall"

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