Barack Obama addressed the closing session of the American Library Association’s (ALA) 2021 Annual Conference and Exhibition Virtual, an online gathering of more than 9,100 librarians, library workers, information professionals, school media specialists, authors, publishers, and vendors, held June 23–29. The talk marked a return to Annual for the former president, who was the conference’s opening speaker in 2005.
Interviewed by Lonnie Bunch III, the first African American secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and introduced by ALA President Julius C. Jefferson Jr., Obama talked about A Promised Land (Crown, November 2020)—the first of two memoirs spanning his paradigm-breaking presidency—and the role of libraries in shaping the story of American democracy.
“A Promised Land chronicles the story of a young man’s search for identity, leading him to try to weave his story with the broader American story, which leads him to get into politics,” said Obama. “Throughout that process, what I’ve always believed is that we’re all works in progress, right? We come into the world with certain possibilities for good and for ills, a potential to maybe make a contribution. If we’re lucky and we work hard we fulfill part of that potential but it’s always imperfect. Certainly that was true for me, but what I also think is it’s true for America.”
Obama talked about grappling with the painful facts of American history: the decimation of Indigenous peoples, slavery, Jim Crow laws, urban redlining, and ongoing race-based violence. “All that stuff adds up,” he said. “We don’t have to presume that racism has the same sharp edge as it did 50 years ago to acknowledge and recognize that all that accumulated discrimination is reflected in our social and institutional arrangements today.” ALA’s 2021 State of America’s Libraries Report acknowledges these disparities in areas like broadband access and educational outcomes, and highlights opportunities for libraries to bridge the gap through advocacy and outreach.
These days, Obama said it’s young people’s activism on progressive issues—namely climate change and race- and gender-based inclusion—that fuels his optimism, in particular conversations with his two daughters and their peers. “They’re not cynical at all about the need for change and their ability to act in the world,” he said, “but they are cynical about our existing institutions—not just government but political parties, big business, traditional mediating institutions—and how effectively they serve their generation.” Since leaving office in 2017, Obama has worked to foster civic dialogue among young people through the Obama Foundation and forthcoming Obama Presidential Center on Chicago’s South Side. (Read more about young people organizing social justice movements through public libraries in American Libraries and on the Call Number podcast.)
“Part of the task of restoring America is not only to reaffirm some core values like rule of law and counting votes in elections, some basic stuff like that, but it’s also empowering these young people or reimagining with them what do these new institutions look like,” Obama said. “For all of us, part of growing up individually and part of growing up as a nation is being able to look squarely at things; to hold two contradictory things in your head at the same time. And that is something that democracy requires.”
Obama highlighted the role of libraries, museums, and other cultural institutions in giving “all of us some common baseline, some cultural context by which we then sort out our differences,” he said. “We’re going to have work to do in rebuilding that unifying story of America. But if I learned one thing during my presidency, it’s the power of stories.”