Transcending Politics Through Libraries

Public libraries are a part of the American political conversation in ways that we have not seen in generations and with an intensity we may have never experienced before.

Public libraries are a part of the American political conversation in ways that we have not seen in generations and with an intensity we may have never experienced before.

Attempts to censor books and limit access to libraries have reached unprecedented levels in 2024. Thousands of titles are being challenged or removed from library shelves. Dozens of states have considered or passed laws to limit access or impose restrictions on the type of books libraries can stock. We tend to think of these actions as threats to the First Amendment and the right to read. But the problem isn’t only one of free speech. It is also a civil rights issue because book bans are often about the identity of authors and readers. 

When book bans are used as a form of discrimination, we need to understand the political interests that are driving these attacks on racial, gender, and sexual minorities. We know from the expansive book ban data that the EveryLibrary Institute helps collect that many of the books being targeted for removal are books by or about minority populations. We know from our advocacy work that state legislatures targeting libraries are also advancing bills that are anti-gay, anti-trans, and anti-CRT. As protectors of free speech and enactors of public accommodation laws, libraries need to elevate these issues so that citizens and voters who are not personally under attack can look beyond the politics of division to see book bans as a threat to our democracy and ideals. 

June is the month of Pride and Juneteenth. During this time, we are especially reminded of the importance of emphasizing that democracy and Constitutional rights are meant for all people regardless of identity, political affiliation, belief, or background. Public libraries hold a distinctive position in civil society, standing at the intersection of access to information and the imperative to welcome everyone. Libraries are public forums where every individual can exercise their First Amendment rights to access information and resources, regardless of viewpoint. As places of public accommodation, libraries must beanti-discriminatory and serve everyone regardless of race, gender, religion, economic status, or disability. This is especially true when we consider libraries as places for civic engagement. This month also reminds us of the year-long work that civic institutions, including libraries, must do in order to promote democracy and accessibility for all. 

There are political actors who say that a diverse library collection and inclusive programs or displays are somehow political statements by libraries. They say that if a library has books that work to build inclusion or remember our history of division, libraries are being political. We disagree. Libraries are fundamentally nonpartisan and truly operate in the civic spirit of our democratic republic. These constitutional principles require that libraries neither endorse, promote, or oppose political parties, candidates for public office, or any particular public policy views or ideologies but that they instead support every eligible citizen to register to vote and provide accurate elected-related information. 

In order to elevate libraries above politics, we must first recognize the inherently civic nature of libraries within communities. Libraries are uniquely positioned within the American civic and social landscape to create pathways for citizens to deepen their participation in democracy due to the foundational trust that these institutions hold. Every day, librarians support and empower all eligible citizens to access the ballot. We hope that library patrons, many of whom are from underrepresented, marginalized, and disempowered communities, can access the benefits of democracy because of their trust and familiarity with their local libraries.

Libraries transcend politics through their non-partisan nature and by helping to bridge political divides that hurt communities. They serve as a third space in communities where residents can access accurate and timely civic information and as places for safety and refuge from political hate. Book bans and censorship are not just attacks on public libraries and community members, they are attacks on democracy. Within this context, book banners work to further political division and extremism. This creates a climate that may lead to violence in civic spaces and a deterioration of trust in elections and democratic ideals. Libraries encourage the opposite; by serving as a safe space for open dialogue among community members, they help us humanize political issues and come together for collective progress. 

As we move through June and toward the November 2024 election, it is crucial to place our democratic values and community needs above partisan interests. Libraries, with their commitment to free access to information and inclusive spaces, play a vital role in preserving these values. By participating in our democracy through our libraries, we safeguard the principles of democracy and ensure that every citizen has the opportunity to participate fully in our society. Take action to support your local library and strengthen our rights.