Stories That Resonate

Let’s continue sharing the successes of our libraries

January 2, 2024

Photo of ALA President Emily Drabinski

On one of the first cold days this past November, I spent an afternoon with Laura Silver, the librarian at P.S. 90, a diverse Title I public school in the Coney Island neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. (There’s a sweet spot in a stairwell where you can see a perfectly framed view of the Wonder Wheel Ferris wheel set against the Atlantic Ocean.)

Silver made us each a cup of tea as we talked through the challenges and joys of her job. She had taught a class that morning using the book Drum Dream Girl—for which illustrator Rafael López won a Pura Belpré Award—that sparked the imaginations of her 3rd graders. When she asked what the main character loved, one student said the moon. “The text never references the moon,” Silver told me. “But if you look through the pictures, you’ll see the moon everywhere.”

I appreciate this reminder to look beyond the parts of the story that are easiest to read. We find ourselves confronting a loud and angry narrative about libraries, library workers, and, yes, our library association, that runs counter to reality.

Everywhere I go, I see library workers pinpointing problems and striving to fix them, identifying gaps in services and filling them.

Many local officials have been pressuring libraries for the right to review collection development decisions, as if collections aren’t developed by skilled professionals. (If you’ve ever tried to cut your own hair or plumb your own house, you know the value of people who know what they’re doing!) Legislators have proposed laws prohibiting sexually explicit materials in school libraries, a solution for a problem that profoundly does not exist. As library staffers work tirelessly to put books in the hands of young people, angry crowds show up at school and public library board meetings to accuse them of abhorrent crimes. These angry and bombastic tales have dominated coverage of our sector for the past few years.

But as all of us know, this is not the whole story of American libraries. At the New Mexico Library Association conference in Albuquerque this fall, I heard so many others. A library in Fort Sumner (population 880) provides food assistance to 50 local older adults. In Hatch (population 1,550), the library helps residents file unemployment claims, and it supports small businesses with services. In Tularosa (population 2,640), the public library partners with University of New Mexico to increase the number of water operators so residents can have potable water.

When book banners came to the public library in the city of Rio Rancho, director Jason Shoup drew on the resources of ALA’s Freedom to Read Foundation and Office for Intellectual Freedom to turn back the attempt. He also engaged in the core library practice of the reference interview: He talked with a concerned patron about what she saw missing from the collection, added materials that met her information needs, and produced another library supporter in the process.

Everywhere I go, I see library workers pinpointing problems and striving to fix them, identifying gaps in services and filling them.

I recently took a video tour of a community library in Delhi, India, with Zoya Chadha, Mridula Koshy, and Purnima Rao of the country’s Free Libraries Network, an online collective of more than a hundred library activists. The library has a rich children’s collection, expansive programming, and is open to everyone, regardless of caste. The group is clear in its mission, articulating the library as a site of organizing for justice well beyond its walls. Rao told me they admire ALA’s robust support for intellectual freedom, equity and inclusion, and firm commitment to libraries as spaces where everyone can flourish. Seven thousand miles from my home in Brooklyn, this is the story that resonates. As ALA president, it’s the one I’m telling as loud as I can.


Photo of ALA President Emily Drabinski

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Photo of ALA President Emily Drabinski

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