Invisible to the untrained eye, our work is like the hidden rings beneath a tree’s outer bark.
If you want to try to destroy a civilization, start with the library. Xiang Yu did in 206 B.C., as did the Ottoman Turks in 1453 after the fall of Constantinople. And during the War of 1812, British troops set fire to the Library of Congress. From the Nazis to the Taliban, attempts to subjugate or oppress a people or group of people most often begin with limiting their ability to freely and widely read.
This basic principle of liberty and democracy—the freedom to read—may seem like an obvious American ideal. But the coordinated rise in book banning attempts since 2021 belies this notion.
The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom reported a four-fold increase in challenges to library, school, and university materials during 2021. As we approach the end of 2022, the number of attempts to ban or restrict resources is on track to exceed counts from 2021, making it the highest number of attempted book bans since they began compiling such lists more than twenty years ago.
Predictably, the books on the chopping block often feature LGBTQ+ characters, protagonists of color, or some form of sexual content in their narratives. Censorship, puritanical or otherwise, is no uncommon foe for the librarian. In fact, the very first U.S. book ban targeted a critique of Puritan customs in 1644.
Today, most book bans are not spurred by concerned parents and citizens, but rather, by politically motivated advocacy groups, not unlike those Puritan book banners who wished to stamp out beliefs that challenged their own ideology. PEN America has identified at least fifty such groups working at local, state, and national levels advocating for books to be removed from classrooms and library shelves. The majority of these groups were formed only recently.
But the librarians of the world have a message for would-be book banners: beware. We’re expecting you and we’re not afraid. Though we may or may not actually be sweater-wearing cat people, one thing is for certain—you are underestimating us and our collective power.
Invisible to the untrained eye, our work is like the hidden rings beneath a tree’s outer bark. We leave a legacy through what we curate, collect, and preserve in our vast, interconnected archives. We quietly weigh and estimate what future generations will need to know about the present. We listen to our users, make informed choices, collaborate in our collection and preservation efforts, and, of course, we organize information so that it’s easily found or hiding in plain sight, whichever best serves our historical moment.
Invisible to the untrained eye, our work is like the hidden rings beneath a tree’s outer bark. We leave a legacy through what we curate, collect, and preserve in our vast, interconnected archives.
Religious and political pressures have meant that books were hidden throughout history. If you come for our public and school libraries, know this: We will push back and, if necessary, move content not only into secret caches and private collections but also into the dark corners of the Internet, far from your censor’s influence. As you read this, a team of 1,300 librarians continues to back up Ukraine’s digital archives on private servers away from the reach of Russian missiles and hackers.
With coordinated, global mechanisms for sharing our collections, research skills, and boundless creativity, we can and will find routes around geographical, financial, logistical, or political obstacles. But more than that, we do so in the name of the common good. In a fractured society, we maintain our core commitment to access diverse and underrepresented viewpoints—that is, the freedom to read widely. Unlike Google, we don’t trap you in your filter bubble; instead, we offer the tools to burst it wide open.
If you still think of us as dorks, we’re too busy to be bothered. Frankly, we’re used to the array of dated stereotypes that plainly miss how we are as varied as the billions of books we’re digitizing in our collections.
And, deep down, we suspect that even you yourself know there’s a reason why so many superhero stories feature a librarian working behind the scenes. The secret to fighting ideological fundamentalism and fascism in the present and future is often found in those vast treasure troves from the past, so thoughtfully and carefully stored to be ready when history comes calling. And the person doing that daring, courageous work almost never wears a cape.