How Libraries Can Trump the Trend to Make America Hate Again

I delivered this talk on a panel at the 2017 meeting of the British Columbia Library Association, which took place on April 20, 2017, in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Tara Robertson and Michael Wynne delivered talks on the panel as well. Theirs were better than mine.

Canada, I’m sorry. And, you’re welcome. I’m sorry because for the next fifteen minutes or so you’re going to endure yet another American who’s abroad but still discussing American problems, which is quite possibly the most American thing anyone could ever do. But, you’re welcome because in discussing our problems, I hope to offer both a cautionary tale and a sequence of steps to follow should your nation soon find itself in the nightmare that’s engulfed mine.

And that nightmare revolves around our current president’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” As an archivist, I’m most intrigued by the last word of the slogan, “again,” because it signals to the past in subtle ways other words cannot. Concluding an already loaded slogan with “again” invites a careful observer to interrogate the then, the now, and the future implied by this signaling.

In that careful observation, I randomly began to take inventory of my favorite American television shows that feature black families. Queen Sugar. black-ish. Empire. Everybody Hates Chris. The Bernie Mac Show. My Wife and Kids. Martin. Fresh Prince. Good Times. Sanford & Son. The Jeffersons. I lamented to my lady that TV shows today lack the creative and classic theme songs that they used to have. Theme songs used to mean something, and they carried a cultural currency that transcended the show itself.

So naturally, my nostalgia led me to try and rank the most iconic theme songs in American television history, and soon enough, I settled on the theme song to the Jeffersons, if for no other reason than it makes references to pie, fish, and baseball, all of which are American pleasantries I indulge more than I should. But in my reverence of that show and its iconic theme song, I couldn’t help but pay homage to the TV show from which it was spun off: All in the Family. As a kid growing up, I watched hours and hours worth of this show, but my favorite part was the opening, which I’ll play right now with the lyrics:

Despite the fact that I watched so many episodes of All in the Family as a child, it wasn’t until the president’s “Make America Great Again” slogan that the song made much more sense to me. Phrases such as “guys like us we had it made,” “girls were girls and men were men,” “didn’t need no welfare state,” and “those were the days” served as signals to a romantic if not inaccurate past in which white men dominated American society, people conformed to gender norms, and welfare assisted primarily black communities in the country’s inner cities.

All three of those romantic and ahistorical notions about the past rear their ugly heads in the rhetoric used by our president during his campaign and now during his administration. That rhetoric came from the mouth of All in the Family star Archie Bunker — an unrepentant bigot living in Queens, NY — as jokes and jabs aimed at immigrants, LGBTQIA people, as well as black and other non-white people. The point of the jokes was always to let these communities and others know that things were better in America when openly hating and discriminating against them was more socially acceptable. This rhetoric comes from the mouth of Queens, NY, native son Donald Trump in the form of policies and proposals. Suddenly, it became evident to me that the subtext to Archie Bunker’s disposition matched the subtext to Trump’s, if we make a slight change to the latter’s campaign slogan: Make America Hate Again.

Image source:

Archie Bunker and Trump both trade in mongering hate, fear, and ignorance. Neither denies their desire to fan the flames of all three; rather, each embraces those elements in an effort to return to a time when “guys like them” openly oppressed the most marginalized and vulnerable communities in society. But what separates our current president from previous ones is his hope to invoke fascism to further his agenda hinged on hate. And so, it is amidst America’s descent towards fascism that I address this crowd here today with my response to the question of: why should libraries be on the frontlines to fight fascism and how can they do it? It’s my argument that libraries should be on the frontlines to fight fascism because the control of information and ideas is central to the spread of fascism, and thus libraries will be forced either to endorse that spread or encumber it. As such, libraries can play their part to squash the spread of fascism if they decide to assert authority, center communities, and never normalize.

Information is a fulcrum to fascism. In a fascist regime, the state mediates the entire apparatus of information — its creation, collection, distribution, and access — to serve its own ends, a reality that puts unique pressure on the professions whose job it is to facilitate access to information, the most prominent and public-facing of whom include journalists and librarians. And while mainstream America — well, white people — flail amidst our country’s current flirtation with fascism, black people in the US are fully familiar with fascism given that many of our ancestors endured an American version of it in the Deep South from 1877 to 1964. That familiar foe to black people manifested itself through the lens of journalism and libraries.

The anti-lynching advocate and journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett exemplifies the centrality of journalism to supporting or subverting a fascist enterprise. Wells-Barnett was particularly keen on two things. First, she recognized that Southern law enforcement agencies began the justification process of extrajudicial killings of black bodies at the moment they created reports of the event. She wrote in 1893 that:

“Those who commit the murders write the reports, and hence these lasting blots upon the honor of a nation cause but a faint ripple on the outside world…the victims were black, and the reports are so written as to make it appear that the helpless creatures deserved the fate which overtook them.”
Ida B. Wells-Barnett, wearing “Martyred Negro Soldiers” button, ca. 1917–1919. Online via the University of Chicago Library.

This poignant observation leads us to the second point on which Wells-Barnett was especially keen, which is that if the country were to face the fascist reality of the Deep South, then it would be incumbent for a journalist to lay bare the facts and figures of lynching. To that end, in 1895 Wells-Barnett published The Red Record in which she sought to:

“…give the record which has been made, not by colored men, but that which is the result of compilations made by white men, of reports sent over the civilized world by white men in the South. Out of their own mouths shall the murderers be condemned.”

Her crusading work to simply tell the facts about lynching ushered in a near constant stream of death threats, forcing her to flee the South to the northern city of Chicago. The gravity of that exile can’t be overestimated: a black woman journalist in America was forced to flee her home because her journalism so pierced the façade of freedom that violent white supremacists were all but deputized by the state to kill her.

State authorities in the Deep South knew that if they controlled the press then they could further entrench their version of anti-black racism and fascism. The same was true of libraries. As gateways to information, libraries possessed the potential to provide access to books, periodicals, and archives that if accessed by the wrong hands might disrupt the social and political order of routinized fascism in the South, where the wrong hands were always black ones.

Thus, a disruption to the information apparatus of libraries in the South constituted a direct threat to the legitimacy of the political order. We can find an example of that disruption by drawing upon Erin Lawrimore’s fantastic 2013 article about Charles Adams, head librarian at the Women’s College of the University of North Carolina who in the 1950’s secretly provided library access and services to students from nearby black colleges. I don’t have enough time here today to recount all of Lawrimore’s points — please do read the article in full — but she chronicles how Adams’s actions of enabling access to library materials, which was his job, drew the ire of his superiors and resulted in the enforcement of a much more stringent policy that served to all but eliminate usage of the Women’s College library by black patrons.

By Adams standing for justice and challenging the prevailing order of libraries in the region, he further represents, as does Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the critical role that information institutions play in resisting or reifying political regimes driven by oppression, of which fascism is one sort. Thus, librarians cannot afford to stand by idly as the system and others like it take root in so-called free societies. Chris Bourg’s closing comments at NDLC and Ben Himmelfarb’s rephrasing at ALA Midwinter (reported on Twitter via Anna-Sophia Zingarelli-Sweet) make the problem plain: “If you are trying to drive up a hill, neutral is basically the same as reverse.”

This reality further calls into question the leadership of the American Library Association, which shortly after the presidential election in November stated that the organization: “offers its expertise and resources to the incoming administration and the new and returning members of Congress from all parties elected on Nov. 8.” That same press release quoted ALA President Julie Todaro saying,

“We are ready to work with President-elect Trump, his transition team, incoming administration and members of Congress to bring more economic opportunity to all Americans and advance other goals we have in common.”

The Association retracted this statement amidst membership protest — after all, how should a library cooperate with elected officials who have declared publicly their intent to ban all Muslims? — and even went so far as to scrub it from its website; lucky for me, thought, the eye in the sky don’t lie and I read a full version of the release in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. The naiveté or cowardice required to pen such a statement is amplified by the US president’s proposed budget in March that would defund the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a granting agency of the Department of Education that is the foremost federal funder of programs for libraries, archives, and museums across the country.

If it isn’t yet obvious to you why libraries must fight fascism head on, let me invoke the librarian and poet Audre Lorde, who in her essay “There Is No Hierarchy of Oppression,” states that:

“I cannot afford to choose between the fronts upon which I must battle these forces of discrimination, wherever they appear to destroy me. And when they appear to destroy me, it will not be long before they appear to destroy you.”

If libraries don’t use their institutional might to subvert the forces of fascism, then in due time it’s quite possible we will no longer have any social institutions left to defend.

So far I’ve endeavored to elucidate the essential role of journalism and libraries in either the upholding or undoing of fascist fervor. Few things in this world come in binaries. Fascism is one of those few things. I will conclude by offering three concrete propositions for libraries and librarians in their pursuit of a more perfect union. Those propositions are to: 1) assert authority, 2) center communities, and 3) never normalize.

1) Assert Authority

‘Authority’ occupies a special place within the world of libraries. Typically when librarians hear the word, we think of a record and its corresponding source. But when it comes to fighting fascism, the authority librarians must assert is their own. The seeds of fascism are sown when people in a society yield their power to an authoritarian regime, bypassing best practices and ethical standards in the name of following orders. What’s more, as a society cascades into authoritarianism, it’s even more incumbent that librarians return to the ethos of our craft and take proactive steps that speak to the spirit of what it means to be stewards of informational and educational resources. Librarians who assert their authority don’t seek permission; they seek forgiveness.

2) Center Communities

In asserting that authority, however, librarians must ensure that any response or service they offer centers the immediate and long-term needs of the communities most directly impacted. Hell’s path is paved with good intentions. Good intentions won’t suffice when facing the power of an autocratic state. Libraries who center the needs of these communities anticipate consequences that stem from an oppressed person or community vocalizing their displeasure with the oppression or the oppressors. So rather than amass a public archive of videos that capture the faces and body markings of protestors of police violence, libraries might instead address a different need by partnering with activists and communities to provide trainings around digital security or safe ways to destroy digital devices or traces. It follows, then, that in a fascist environment a key role for librarians’ resistance is the direct support of citizen anonymity and obfuscation.

3) Never Normalize

And that need for citizen anonymity and obfuscation brings us to a third way for librarians to fight fascism: never normalize. Like the word authority, normalize carries a coded message for librarians. We specialize in transforming, migrating, or massaging data from one system so that it fits neatly into others. From that process, we are able to achieve the interoperability of our systems and provide users with enhanced access to our collections. However, the rising tide of fascism should offer pause regarding the benefits of normalized data that can easily be piped from system to another. Local languages, taxonomies, and other forms of knowledge that only people within specific communities can decipher might well be a form of resistance in a country where a president not only advocates for a Muslim database but also for “a lot of systems… beyond databases.” In other words, a world of normalized data is a best friend to the surveillance state that deploys the technologies used to further fascist aspirations.

It should go without saying that libraries and librarians alone cannot ward off a growing fascist fervor. The task will be teachers’, journalists’, and many other professionals who deal and dabble in information. But I argue strongly that if libraries don’t rise to meet the task, then our notion of a society stands little chance at survival. Fascism can start much like a brush fire in the woods, and if left ignored, it can spark into a wildfire and spread and cause carnage. But also like a wildfire, it can be contained and eventually extinguished. So I implore you today to stop fascism while it’s an ember and before it blossoms into a blaze. Librarians of British Columbia, Canada: I plead with you not to allow your indifference, ignorance, or arrogance to trump your opportunity to make good on where we’re failing. America has a chance and we’re blowing it.