As far as my childhood self was concerned, the Carnegie Library in my tiny South Dakota hometown was the best place on earth. Once every week, I climbed its stairs and entered a space that smelled of mildew and oak.
Two large rooms stretched off to either side of the librarian’s desk, each subdivided into smaller spaces by old, wooden shelves. A small table bore videotapes and books from the state library in Pierre, titles that our perpetually underfunded library could not afford to add to its collection but wanted to make available anyway.
I grew up in a very white, very rural world, and the library let me know other lives were possible. There, I encountered books by authors like Ralph Ellison and Maya Angelou, which spoke of a world I had yet to encounter. Just reading the back cover of something like Oscar Hijuelos’s “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love” served as a reminder that there were other ways to live than my own.
I was also a queer girl who lacked the language to explain the feelings I had deep inside of me. Yet at the library, I encountered some of the first people who seemed at all like me, people written about as political activists in magazines like Time and Newsweek, as supporting characters in the occasional sci-fi novel the friendly librarian pressed on me, as curiosities in certain books containing anecdotes about, say, Christine Jorgensen, a World War II veteran and trans woman whose transition in the early 1950s caused a media sensation.
Maybe you had a similar space in your own youth, one that still looms large in the memory. Increasingly, however, libraries, mostly in exurban and rural communities like the one where I grew up, are encountering some of the harshest resistance they’ve ever faced, usually centered on books about queer identities or America’s long history of racism. Books targeted for censorship in America’s libraries in 2022 were up nearly 40 percent over 2021, with 41 percent of challenged books involving L.G.B.T.Q. identities, according to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.
The library in Vinton, Iowa, found itself without any staff after librarians were reportedly harassed because some of its books were about queer identities and prominent Democrats and because some of the librarians were queer. The Patmos Library in Ottawa County, Mich., stands to lose funding in 2024 after a campaign driven by the presence of a handful of books on queer identities in the collection.
The situation in Vinton may prove instructive. There, a handful of residents of the town were angry about the presence of books by Jill Biden and Kamala Harris, which fueled anger over other books in the collection. Janette McMahon, who was the library director at the time (she has since left), told me last summer that one book that drew consternation in particular was “Sometimes People March,” a children’s book that refers to Black Lives Matter and Pride.
What she was struck by in Vinton — and has continued to be struck by as this movement to remove materials from libraries spreads — was how people who objected to these books did not follow the normal process. Rather than requesting librarian review, patrons would issue those challenges to library boards or even political leaders in charge of library funding.
“That seems to be the winning side right now, if you have to pick who’s coming out ahead,” she told me. “You see books being pulled or staff losing their positions over standing up for the materials that are in their facilities. I unfortunately don’t see that stopping right now.”
The people raising objections may not even have read the books in question. Instead, they can rely on lists of potential targets that have been posted online. The story will play out slightly differently in every community, but it often starts in the same place.
“A small group of really strong-voiced people can make a lot of people very miserable,” Ms. McMahon said.
Even more libraries, especially school libraries, are facing what journalist Kelly Jensen has called “quiet censorship,” in which books are not entirely banished, but removed from display, available only to those who know to ask (and, in the case of minors, those who have parental permission).
The library’s predominant role in our culture is to provide a place to find the information or art you are seeking. But it has another role that’s equally important: a place where everyone is welcome.
When you step inside a library, you are confronted with a wealth of information some other people have curated for you, just by being there.
In theory, that space is curated for everyone in your community. Your local librarians use the physical space of the library to create a wide-ranging series of recommendations and possible reads, and in the best-case scenario, the books they choose to highlight encompass the widest possible definition of who belongs in your community. The library offers a quiet place to explore a new hobby, research a new interest, get invested in a new novel series, or finally find the words that help you explain yourself to yourself.
The internet age should have made finding those words easier, but in practice, it has proved surprisingly limiting as a tool to discover new ideas and possible selves. The initial promise of the internet was that it would bring the entire world to your home, but in the algorithm era, a number of corporations have taken that endless possibility and narrowed it down considerably. There is no attempt to get you to think about others, not really. There is, instead, an attempt to just keep you consuming, usually by serving up things the algorithm is pretty sure you already like.
In an age dominated by algorithms, going to a good library feels a little like replenishing your brain with the variety of all that is available to you in the world. That might serve as a saving grace in a time when so many of us long for that decompression, at least a little bit.
That very quality of libraries is what’s under attack. What might undo libraries is an insistence that they should reflect only one view of reality, one that has little room for queer people in particular. Thus, when right-wing complainants issue grievances about books featuring queer characters or programs like drag queen story hour, it’s not hard to see these pushes as part of a larger movement to limit or turn back the gains queer people have made in visibility over the last two decades. If the library is one of the last remaining pieces of our public square, then pushing queer people out of it (or into a quiet, unmentioned closet only the librarian can access) is, in effect, an attempt to push us out of public life.
In an era when you can tell an algorithm not to show you something, it’s tempting to imagine continuing to cordon off the public square into 335 million carefully curated walled gardens of the self, an individualized America for every single person. But without public spaces where you can encounter new ideas, even by simply seeing the titles of books you might never read, you can never realize if the garden you’re in is the one you want to be in. The library is worth defending not just because it’s important to our society as a whole. It’s important because it helps us understand lives we believe to be unlike ours, understanding that can help us unlock our most empathetic and authentic selves.
Emily St. James is the author of the upcoming novel “Woodworking.”
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