Why these librarians are protesting Trump’s executive orders

“Libraries Are For Everyone.” That’s the message of a series of images created by Rebecca McCorkindale in the days after President Donald Trump announced the temporary travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries. She never expected her signs of inclusion to go further than a handful of libraries.

But by the time she’d woken up the following day, she had received messages from librarians across the world wanting their languages represented. And libraries across the country — in Illinois, Minnesota, California, Virginia — had begun putting up the images as posters, along with displays about books on Islam, empathy and being a good neighbor.

McCorkindale, who is assistant library director and creative director at the Gretna, Nebraska, public library, said she created the images because she believes librarians can and should be activists.

“Libraries are the heart of a community, for anyone and everyone that lives there, regardless of their background,” she said. “And so we strongly believe that libraries are not neutral. We stand up for human rights.”

She is not the only one. Since Mr. Trump took office a little more than three weeks ago, a vocal and growing number of librarians across the country have begun to take a more politically active stance.

Credit: Rebecca McCorkindale

Credit: Rebecca McCorkindale

But it began before that, after the revelation of the role so-called “fake news” had played in the election. Librarians, sometimes considered an antiquated breed, were swiftly deemed essential in the fight against disinformation. And libraries across the country responded, promoting researcher-vetted content, hosting community discussions on fake news and sharing libguides to help people think critically about what they were reading.

Post-inauguration, reports that the new administration was quick to clamp down on the flow of information from some federal agencies prompted additional anxiety among librarians. The American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom, for one, immediately condemned what it saw as government censorship. “ALA opposes any use of governmental power to suppress the free and open exchange of knowledge and information,” wrote the association, which typically fights for privacy and against banned books in schools, such as “Brave New World” or “Twilight.” (Librarians and scientists had also preemptively begun preserving what they saw as vulnerable government information online, including climate data.)

But protests against the new administration by librarians only began popping up in large numbers around the country after Mr. Trump signed two executive orders on immigration, one which could lead to the stripping of federal funds of so-called “sanctuary cities” for illegal immigrants, and the other which temporarily banned all refugees as well as travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. — an order that’s been halted by the courts, but is still at the center of a legal battle.

Librarians who spoke to the NewsHour said these orders touched a nerve, especially for those who work at public libraries, which often serve a diverse population that includes new immigrants. According to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, 55 percent of new Americans use a library at least once a week.

We are huge resources for newcomers to this country, whether it’s for connection to this country, legal resources, testing preparation, citizen tests, services like storytimes or homework help,” said Elizabeth McKinstry, a public librarian based in Dedham, Massachusetts, who has been vocal in rallying librarians online post-election. “We are there for the most vulnerable folks in our communities, people on the other side of the digital or language divide.”

And so, after the two executive orders, librarians across the country began responding with individual acts of resistance at their branches. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, which has been a sanctuary city since 1985, the public library announced that it would be a sanctuary space. At the Hennepin County Library in Minnesota, which serves a large population from Somalia, one of the seven countries affected by the travel ban, a campaign was launched called “All are welcome here.” The library serving Multnomah County, Oregon, began promoting books about immigrant and refugee experiences for kids; elsewhere in Oregon, librarians put “all are welcome” buttons on sale. At the William Jeanes Memorial Library in Pennsylvania, a Yemeni-American, Muslim-American girl doll named Sameerah became available for checkout. “We are glad to welcome her to our library,” librarian Rachel Fecho wrote online, and said, with evident sarcasm: “She is able to travel freely to the homes of our library patrons.”

Major professional library organizations have begun mobilizing, too. The Association of College & Research Libraries, which represents more than 11,000 academic and research librarians, slammed Mr. Trump’s executive orders, condemning what it sees as “the use of intimidation, harassment, bans… and violence as means with which to squelch free intellectual inquiry and expression.” The Society of American Archivists, which has 6,200 members in government, at universities and elsewhere, similarly critiqued the travel ban, saying it undermined their efforts to “preserve diverse archives and support the study of our nation’s cultural heritage.”

And the ALA, the country’s oldest and largest library organization with some 57,000 members, denounced the new administration’s actions, saying they “stand in stark contrast to the core values” of librarianship, which according to the ALA include access to information, confidentiality and privacy, diversity and social responsibility.

Librarian dissent is also spreading on social media. On Twitter, a new @LibrariesResist account is sharing resources “for libraries and library workers in the resistance… because if Park Rangers can do it, so can we” — a reference to the National Park Service rogue tweeting after the Trump administration told the agency not to. The @LibrariesResist resources include pages on privacy and surveillance, fake news and propaganda, a “Stop Trump” reading list and a “Trump syllabus” as well as an explanation of libraries as sanctuary spaces.

Matthew Haugen, the librarian at Columbia University who started the account, said, “I started thinking a lot about how I and other librarians can use our strengths to do something effective… and I thought: ‘We can organize resources, do what librarians do.’” Under the hashtags #librariesresist, as well as #librariesrespond, there are now hundreds of posts from librarians sharing their local acts of opposition.

Jessamyn West, an influential blogger, technologist and librarian, said this should come as no surprise, as libraries have long been on the forefront of activism. “We’re the ones who stick up for intellectual freedom, or your right to read, or to look at whatever you want to in the library,” she said. “There’s been an activist contingent for a long time.”

Credit: Multnomah County Library Twitter

Libraries have begun promoting books about immigrant and refugee experiences in the wake of the immigration ban. Credit: Multnomah County Library Twitter

Rewind, then, back to the 1950s in America, when fear of communism ran rampant in the U.S., and literature, films and music became targets of government censorship. At the time, librarians got together with professors, publishers and others in the academic and intellectual community to figure out how to respond. The result was a document called “The Freedom To Read,” which began with the sentence: “The freedom to read is essential to our democracy,” and ended with: “Freedom itself is a dangerous way of life, but it is ours.” A Freedom to Read Foundation was also established by the ALA, to challenge censorship and other threats to the First Amendment in court.

In the late ‘60s, when a confluence of social movements supporting civil rights, women’s equality and war opposition swept the country, the ALA also founded a Social Responsibilities Round Table to respond to the issues of the day. They were particularly focused on ensuring service at libraries to black Americans, and including black librarians in their ranks. This activism, a historical note on the roundtable says, was the result of “aggressive volunteers.” By the ‘80s, the roundtable had become even more aggressive, adding task forces for feminists, gay liberation and “alternative” reading.

Perhaps the moment when librarians are best remembered as activists, though, came in 2001, when the ALA fought back forcefully against the Patriot Act, which expanded the powers of government surveillance in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Librarians were particularly vexed over Section 215 of the act, colloquially called the “library records provision,” which required librarians to hand over patron data when law enforcement asked for it. The act also included a gag order that said librarians could not tell patrons they had forked over their data.

In response, librarians began hanging signs for library patrons telling them that the FBI could be watching them. They also lobbied electronic vendors to add privacy measures, and in 2005, took the fight over the gag order to court. By 2006, the government had given up its fight to protect that order.

And in 2015, Section 215 expired, along with other provisions of the Patriot Act. “Long before [Edward] Snowden, librarians were anti-surveillance heroes,” Slate declared that year.

Under the Obama administration, though, librarian activism seemed to quiet. President Obama was an avid reader, and many librarians told the NewsHour that it felt like the administration was on their side. Librarians fought smaller battles, such as when a group of Dartmouth University students — with the support of Dartmouth librarians — petitioned the Library of Congress to change subject headings in libraries from “illegal aliens to “noncitizens,” to be more sensitive to the patrons who visited.

And though government surveillance continued under the Obama presidency, librarians were heartened by his pick to head the Library of Congress: Carla Hayden, a former public librarian, who was also said to be anti-surveillance. Some conservatives criticized her as an “activist,” saying her appointment “politicize[d]” the position. Which begs the question: Should libraries and librarians be politically neutral?

Librarian.net / Jessamyn West

After the Patriot Act was passed, librarians began hanging signs to let patrons know the FBI could be watching them. Credit: Librarian.net / Jessamyn West

Especially after the election, an increasing number of librarian voices online say libraries are not neutral spaces, and never have been. See Jessamyn West (Libraries are not neutral spaces, nor should they be”), Storytime Underground’s Cory Eckert (“Libraries are not neutral”), or librarian/technologist Jason Griffey: “Stand, Fight, Resist.”

April Hathcock, a librarian at New York University who has advocated for the ALA to take a less neutral, more activist stance against the president, argues that the idea of providing information to everyone freely is in itself a “radical notion.”  

“It’s a political notion, a political stance, by entering into this profession,” she said. “In order for people to have access to freedom regardless of who they are, they have to be able to participate in societies freely.”

But that ideal is complicated by the fact that libraries are funded, in part, by the government. Though funding often happens at the local level, America’s libraries do get money from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency whose budget in 2016 was some $237 million. Among other efforts, IMLS has supported the expansion of high-speed broadband service in libraries, which many librarians say is an essential service for patrons. In 2015, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan proposed eliminating the IMLS altogether, and, after the Hill reported in January that the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities could be eliminated under the Trump administration, some fear library funding could be next.

These fears played out days after the election, when the ALA sent out a friendly and encouraging press release saying it looked forward to working with the new administration. Among the ALA’s many roles are lobbying for funds for libraries from Congress.

The response was fierce and immediate. Hundreds of librarians began angrily commenting on a ALA website, saying they felt “betrayed.” They said it was obvious ALA was just making nice to the administration so as not to lose funding, and that it had lost sight of its core values.  F@ck you, ALA,” Hathcock, the NYU librarian, wrote online. “ALA does not care about diversity and inclusion and justice. Not really. ALA cares only about its bottom line.” Emily Drabinski, a librarian at Long Island University in Brooklyn, wrote a post called: “ALA does not speak for me,” and argued that it was “shameful sell out of a profession that stood against the Patriot Act.” McKinstry, the Dedham, Massachusetts-based librarian, started a hashtag #NotMyAla, and a blog to keep track of all the librarians registering their frustration. Weeks later, ALA rescinded the release.

“It’s very hard,” ALA president Julie Todaro said of balancing the need for funding with fighting against politicians who threaten librarian core values. “We are going to fight for our values,” she said. “But we are also a nonpartisan organization, and it’s important to realize that our 57,000 members don’t all feel the same way.”

On an ALA website, a few conservative librarians pushed back against all the calls for library activism. In their comments, they complained that the hysteria around Trump was outsized, and said they only hoped there was enough money available to keep funding libraries. In 2010, a piece called “The Conservatives Among Us” in American Libraries Magazine argued that librarians needed to be more tolerant of conservative views — rare as they may be in librarianship. “That is why conservative librarians are afraid to speak out,” wrote Will Manley, the piece’s author, “they fear professional ostracism.” On the ALA site, the few conservative librarians who commented were quickly drowned out by the larger number who said it was time to fight back.

Credit: ALA's 'Libraries Transform' campaign

The American Library Association is fighting back against “fake news” as part of its Libraries Transform campaign. Credit: the American Library Association

Where librarian activism goes from here — and whether dissent will reach the kind of tipping point that happened under the Patriot Act — is an open question. There is no scheduled librarian march on Washington, for example, like scientists have planned for Earth Day (though librarians with library science degrees say they will joining in).

On Feb. 17, librarians, museums and other institutions have planned a “Day of Facts” to combat misinformation in its communities. The website for the campaign reminds visitors that facts are not “an overt political stand.”

And press releases by professional organizations are likely to only go so far. But Haugen, who started @librariesresist, said he believes librarians will coalesce against President Trump in large, physical numbers if the administration threatens funding to any major library institutions, such as the Library of Congress or National Archives. There has been no indication that this will happen. A “Rogue Library of Congress” Twitter account has been started, but no one has tweeted from it yet.

Short of an organized national movement, it seems clear that librarians will continue to register their dissent vocally and locally, in individual acts of protest. “All of this is going to be local,” said McKinstry. “It’s what you can do to make information accessible and available, and what you can do to link to resources to help protect people.”

Meanwhile, McCorkindale’s “Libraries Are For Everyone” images continue to spread around the world. By Thursday, the posters had been published in a dozen languages, including Spanish and Arabic, with plans to translate 13 more. In Brantford, Ontario, a library printed out “Libraries Are For Everyone” images with their 3D printer; in Leicester, England, the poster was hung from a library fence; and in the Bronx, a school librarian began planning a project around it for his diverse group of students.

“People think that libraries are obsolete,” said McCorkindale. “But we’ve stood up against censorship for decades…. And with all that’s going on with these executive orders, we will do what we can to help.”

Credit: Rebecca McCorkindale

A “Libraries Are For Everyone” poster in Arabic. Credit: Rebecca McCorkindale

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to correct the name of the Institute of Museum and Library Services.