When they came for the librarians: My profession is under attack — what happens now?

People in my profession are used to mockery and low salaries. We didn't expect constant insults and real danger

Published August 14, 2022 12:00PM (EDT)

Library In Reading Pennsylvania (Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)
Library In Reading Pennsylvania (Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images)

America's libraries are under attack. It's no longer enough that far-right interest groups and politicians are coming for our collections; they've turned their ire towards our staff too. In recent months, there has been an alarming trend of community members and officials calling for the dismissal of librarians over books they've purchased for their patrons — usually titles focusing on race, gender and sexuality. Groups like Moms for Liberty are training their members on how to target us on our personal social media pages. Library workers are being vilified in the same way as teachers — a troubling phenomenon that's contributing to the nationwide educator shortage

Morale among library workers has been suffering for a while now. Fobazi Ettarh's 2018 essay on vocational awe in the profession first called attention to the high rates of burnout among librarians based on the pressure of working in a noble-presenting field with little support. The new stress, fatigue and even danger that the pandemic brought to frontline workers has made it worse. 

To fully grasp where we stand, it's important to understand how public libraries work. Although state laws vary in the specifics, your local library is funded through tax dollars. Some libraries are fortunate enough to have their budgets supplemented through charitable giving, usually channeled through a nonprofit like a Friends of the Library group or a foundation. Like most social services, we are constantly living with the real threat of budget cuts, and our funding is often inadequate. To put things in perspective, I own an average-priced home in a county with one of the highest property tax rates in the country. A bit more than $100 of my annual tax bill goes to my local library — a library that is funded above our state's legal minimum. That tax-based income funds every aspect of the library's budget, from maintaining collections and programming to personnel to caring for the building. 

I live in an average home in a county with one of the highest property-tax rates in the country — and about $100 of my annual tax bill goes to the public library.

I've worked in public libraries since I was a teenager and am now on my third directorship. One of the first things I learned after starting my first job was how grossly misunderstood our roles are. Our frequent patrons generally understand what we do, but society as a whole does not. Thanks to pop culture, we are perpetually seen as uptight women who spend our time shushing people. If I had a nickel for each time I've introduced myself to someone and been greeted with some version of, "Oh, it must be so nice to read all day!" my library would be safeguarded against future budget crises. There is also little understanding that a master's degree is required to become a librarian, something most of us struggle to pay off on our public salaries. 

When I decided to go back to graduate school to obtain my master's in library and information science, I knew I would be facing these annoyances. Student loans aside, I viewed them as just that: annoyances. I had already worked in libraries for eight years at that point, and was well aware of the pitfalls of working with the public and the unpredictability of library funding. I started grad school in 2011, on the heels of then-New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's historic and devastating cuts to public library budgets in my state, so I knew I had my work cut out for me. I will say, however, that it's exhausting to feel that my job is still not taken seriously after all these years. 

Although we may wish to believe otherwise, libraries continually face an existential crisis. Funding is uncertain and, at least in my state, is wholly dependent on politics and property values — two things we cannot control. In today's world, even though data shows that our collections are still circulating and our programs are still being attended, people love to ask why we still exist as "everything goes online." We offer downloadable content like e-books and e-audiobooks, but our purchasing power for these collections is limited by publishers who love to price-gouge and change license terms without notice. For every happy patron we serve, we may encounter another community member who dislikes us for our radical inclusivity or who feels they should be entitled to whatever they want because, after all, they pay our salaries. Over the nine years since I earned my master's degree, this constant struggle and the invalidation that comes with it has worn me down. I went into this field because I wanted to do the good work of connecting people with the right books and resources. It's difficult to keep doing that when our very existence is constantly being called into question. 

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As the leader of my organization, I do everything I can to shield my staff from the flack that comes with library work. I have no problem being the face of my library; I fully understand that's what I'm paid to do. My fundamental goals are to keep my employees safe, happy and supported. At a certain point, however, the abuse starts to take its toll. 

Two months ago, I was publicly called a "groomer" — one of the far right's homophobic insults — for daring to wade into the waters of promoting Pride Month. 

For the last several weeks, my name has been dragged on social media and I've been publicly accused of lying and violating state law for asking a patron not to photograph a nearly 250-year-old expensive document in my library's possession. Another resident stated I needed "to go" and urged others to "get the pitchforks." Why? Because I was doing my job.

Prior to that, a patron posted incomplete screenshots of emails I had sent her after she didn't like my answer about why our Friends group had recycled some moldy donated books. This spiraled into personal attacks about my leadership abilities. 

The list goes on.

As a public official, my ability to respond to this bullying — and that's what it is — is limited. Unlike an elected politician, however, I did not sign up for this. I took a job for a paycheck and with the aim of trying to help others, not to feel that my mental health and work-life balance are under constant attack.

I want to say that my situation is atypical for librarians. Unfortunately, I don't think that's true. We are living in an increasingly divided society in which those with differing opinions are seen as inherently bad. Without systemic support from our stakeholders, I don't see these issues getting much better. 

Two months ago I was publicly called a "groomer" for promoting Pride Month. For the last several weeks, I've been dragged on social media for asking a patron not to photograph a rare historical document.

So what happens when you come after librarians? If things keep getting worse, there is little incentive for us to remain in the field. We are categorically underpaid, and especially for those living in deep red states, the fear of losing our jobs over political differences is very real. With a recent high-profile study highlighting the trauma that library workers face, how can you blame us? Thanks to budget and staffing cuts, many of us are also chronically overworked. It wasn't until I took my current job about two years ago that I could finally afford not to work a second job on top of full-time library work. 

If librarians leave the field in droves, as teachers are doing right now, we have too much to lose as a society.

We will lose access to one of the last free, open and climate-controlled community spaces where people from all walks of life can gather freely. 

We will lose a wealth of knowledge, experience and passion that helps connect readers with the right books.

We will lose a tremendous weapon in the fight against false information and fake news.

We will lose creative thinkers who work tirelessly to plan fun and informative events for you and your family, free of charge. 

Franklin D. Roosevelt said, "I have an unshaken conviction that democracy can never be undermined if we maintain our library resources and a national intelligence capable of utilizing them." In other words, if we lose our librarians, we lose a core element of our democracy. It's time to stand up for our librarians and their institutions before it's too late.

By Gretchen Corsillo

Gretchen Corsillo is director of the Rutherford Public Library in New Jersey, a columnist for Public Libraries magazine and a blogger for the American Library Association's Intellectual Freedom Blog.

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Book Bans Censorship Commentary Far-right Public Libraries Republicans