In 2018, the New York Times published an op-ed that illustrated the traditional conception of the public library. Under the headline, To Restore Civil Society, Start with the Library, sociologist Eric Klinenberg wrote:
For children and teenagers, libraries help instill an ethic of responsibility, to themselves and to their neighbors, by teaching them what it means to borrow and take care of something public, and to return it so others can have it too … Libraries stand for and exemplify something that needs defending: the public institutions that—even in an age of atomization, polarization and inequality—serve as the bedrock of civil society. If we have any chance of rebuilding a better society, social infrastructure like the library is precisely what we need.
Perhaps Mr. Klinenberg is still able to visit public libraries where these qualities remain dominant. But there are signs that this traditional conception of the public library is changing, as librarians are caught up by the same wave of “woke” progressivism that is affecting other sectors of society.
I began working in public libraries in the late 1990s, around the same time that Internet terminals began to appear in our branches. Like many librarians, this was not what I’d set out to do when I’d attended university. In fact, I used to call library school the “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” because so many of us had ended up there only once our other goals hadn’t worked out. In my case, I’d left a PhD program and then an apprenticeship in the trades.
Attending library school with me, alongside the usual dominant group of humanities BAs, were former teachers and lawyers, as well as several people with advanced degrees. The ages spanned a wide range, from the mid-20s up to the 50s. This made for an interesting mix of people and interests, and this eclecticism was one of the chief joys of my professional life.
The place that I settled at, Burnaby Public Library in British Columbia, was known for its varied and deep collection, and for exceptional public service. Several of our staff were ex-Americans who’d fled the Vietnam War draft decades earlier. And they, along with others, contributed to a heterodox atmosphere that was intellectually open. It was a fun and interesting place to work. Meetings were often lively, and discussions could at times get heated as staff expressed their opinions. Casual lunch-room discussions were wide-ranging and often funny.
This was a long way from the Burnaby Public Library that I left 24 years later, in March 2021. By then, we had moved from an intellectually pluralistic environment, with an effectively flat hierarchy and a climate in which discussions were largely free, to a top-down organization in which workers often seemed afraid to express their opinions, and meetings felt more like indoctrination sessions. This change in the institution’s culture was a significant reason for my early retirement.
How and why did this transformation happen? Partly, of course, it simply mirrored changes that have been observed in society at large, and in other institutions. But I also believe that some of the seeds of change go back to the response of many public libraries to a challenge that arrived with the Internet: the easy availability of pornography.
We had few sacral values that couldn’t be challenged. One of them was a commitment to intellectual freedom. Library staff could be seen wearing t-shirts that proudly proclaimed slogans such as “There is something in my library to offend everyone” (though I haven’t seen one of those shirts in several years). We commonly celebrated controversial books during what has sometimes been called “Intellectual Freedom Week,” and took pride in our apparent courage to take a stand against censorship.
However, with the arrival of public Internet terminals in 1997 at Burnaby Public Library, this sacral value was soon being tested. How could we manage the potential viewing of explicit pornography on screens in a public space given our commitment to intellectual freedom?
Initially, many libraries attempted to prevent patrons from being involuntarily exposed to pornography by physical means: privacy screens, location of terminals, or even embedding monitors on desktops, so they were visible only from directly above. Eventually, however, these methods generally proved to be difficult to maintain and not particularly effective.
Software filters were available, of course. However, the profession regarded these as a threat to intellectual freedom, since they often inadvertently blocked sites delivering (non-porn) information about sexuality, or blocked genuine artistic expression that featured nudity. While recognizing that there was always the potential for a patron, even a child, to be exposed to another patron’s viewing of explicit material, it was deemed more important that we protect access to information, and to be wary of stepping on the “slippery slope” of attempting to restrict what patrons could view online.
Of course, the inevitable happened, and patrons, including young children, were exposed to pornography. One incident at the Ottawa Public Library in 2017 was widely reported. In this case, two pre-adolescent girls saw explicit videos on a site called PornHub that a male patron was viewing at a terminal. The girls told their mother, who in turn reported the incident to a librarian on duty at the time. And this resulted in the second of two shocks that this mother had that day: Not only was her daughter being exposed to pornography, but the library had no policy to control what sites patrons could visit. “When it comes to adults accessing information, whether it be in books or magazines or on the Internet or on computers, we do respect their intellectual freedom,” said the manager of branch operations.
This doctrinal absolutism—even in the spirit of intellectual freedom, a principle I otherwise support—bothered me. It represented what I saw as an unfortunate turn to an ideological approach, rather than what once was called “practical wisdom,” which flowed from the accumulation of insights that could be applied judiciously by reasonable people in regard to particular situations. This process can be guided by general principles, such as intellectual freedom. But it does not represent a dogmatic application of such general principles onto every particular case.
Dissenting voices did eventually emerge, but they were in the minority, and it took years for them to actually affect policy in many libraries. For example, the largest public library in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, Vancouver Public Library, didn’t implement an Internet-usage policy that restricted the display of “sexually explicit images” until 2014, about 17 years after public Internet terminals had arrived in their branches.
I saw the issue through Isaiah Berlin’s essay on the hedgehog and the fox. The hedgehog, he explained (channeling the Greek poet Archilochus), knows one big thing, while the fox knows many things. It often felt to me, sitting through many discussions about the problem with pornography, that we were acting as if we knew only one thing: that protecting intellectual freedom was good. The voice of the fox—which was trying to tell us that more than one value was at play, and that compromise among them was not forbidden—was hard to hear when the hedgehog was in the room.
In recent years, it became clear to me that a commitment to intellectual freedom hadn’t been the only factor at play: Given how long it took for some libraries to pull back from a libertarian take on pornography, it surprised me how quickly many librarians embraced limits on intellectual freedom in regard to discussion of one very specific (and entirely different) policy issue.
In 2019, as many Quillette readers will know, B.C.-based feminist Meghan Murphy attempted to hold talks in various Canadian library meeting rooms to discuss the proper balance between transgender and feminist rights. Controversially (for some), Ms. Murphy doesn’t see this as a debate in which only one side should be permitted to speak. As a result, she has been smeared as “anti-trans” and transphobic.
Ms. Murphy faced several challenges, which included being denied the use of library space altogether, and the prospect of having to pay expensive security costs if she pressed ahead. For the first time in my career, I heard colleagues express widespread doubts about the limits of intellectual freedom. Curtailing freedom of speech and association was fine, some said, if it’s done in the service of protecting vulnerable minority groups.
As mentioned above, I’d previously come to regard our understanding of intellectual freedom as being too extreme. And so, on the one hand, I was pleased that we were now discussing limits and balance. But on the other hand, I had to wonder, why only now? Why was it okay to risk the exposure of young children to pornography in a public library, but it was not okay for adults to be exposed to difficult policy questions in a meeting room where attendance is voluntary?
The only way I could make sense of the contradiction was to conclude that the real commitment being demonstrated wasn’t to principle per se, but rather to politics. My colleagues instinctively sought to defend the underdog, take a stand against a perceived oppressor, and offer a check against bullying. This attitude reflects the fear of ruthless majorities that is embedded in classical liberalism, a reflex often expressed as a concern for minorities, and an awareness of the danger of majoritarian tyranny, even within societies that obey the forms of democracy.
This impulse is humane and necessary. However, it’s also possible—especially when discussions about human rights are walled off from debate and deliberation—for even some small constituencies to exercise unchecked control over the larger community. I suspect this was what that mother in Ottawa felt when she was told, in 2017, that the rights of PornHub enthusiasts trumped everyone else’s right to enjoy the library without having children be exposed to triple-X material.
The issues I am discussing here invite larger questions about the role of public libraries in an age of rising distrust. While my colleagues and I long took it for granted that librarians should channel an anti-majoritarian approach, this idea was always in tension with the fact that these are public institutions that are, by definition, supposed to serve the broad public. Do we need—especially now, in this age of populist revolt—yet another institution whose leaders believe it is their role to educate patrons in the latest patois of correct speech and thought?
An anti-majoritarian posture made sense to me in a more conservative time, when most other institutions in society seemed to abide by traditional (some might say reactionary) “family values.” And in some ways, the tolerance of porn was a countercultural, anti-majoritarian reaction to that tendency. But those days are gone: Today’s cultural orthodoxy isn’t about family values, but rather is dominated by dogmas from the progressive Left. And so when librarians suppress any challenge to those dogmas, they aren’t being countercultural. They’re just signal-boosting the officially approved position of the managerial elite.
It does need to be noted that not all public libraries attempted to prevent Meghan Murphy from speaking. Toronto Public Library, for example, made national news for permitting Murphy’s event to proceed in the face of large protests (as well as opposition from the city’s mayor). The same was true in Vancouver and several other venues. These library directors took a principled line, even though it meant fighting against the ideological currents that now dominate their field.
Let me spotlight another issue that will seem almost comically banal to many readers, but which I believe is quite illuminating.
In recent years, there’s been a wave of public libraries, beginning in the United States but now extending into Canada as well, that have eliminated fines for materials returned late. Proponents of this trend see it as striking a blow for disadvantaged people who may have difficulty returning their loans on time. But the result is that the majority of borrowers may become more vulnerable to having a shared common good (i.e., items in the library’s collection) being made less available due to lower rates of return.
Now, it must be said that there have been some preliminary reports showing that the elimination of fines serves to increase facility usage, without significantly affecting rates of return (though I don’t believe this experiment has been run long enough to definitively tell us what the final effect will be). But the consequences of such a policy aren’t what interest me for purposes of this essay. Rather, I’m more concerned with how I heard this policy change being justified.
A common objection to going fine-free has been that fines teach people to use library resources responsibly. To this, I would hear librarians say words to the effect of “It’s not our job to teach responsibility.” Which, on the face of it, is a fair position: We are society’s research back office, allowing people to educate themselves with the facts they need to advocate for their views—and we don’t seek to edify them according to this or that normative idea (except maybe that you should keep your voice down when others are trying to read).
But at about the same time that libraries began going fine free, I noticed, many public libraries also began adopting newly emerging practices of the progressive Left, such as adding pronouns to email signatures, promoting drag-queen reading events, and spreading anti-racism teachings through book lists and staff training.
Even if we are to assume that all of these innovations are not only well-intentioned, but beneficial in their outcomes; they also are widely interpreted as marking a library as being on board with a certain kind of ideological movement, whose aim is to encourage citizens to adopt a specific, politically defined set of values and perspectives.
Defenders of such practices will respond that all of these changes are merely about expressing empathy and compassion, thereby making the library a welcome and “safe” space for all groups—which, surely, is at the core of a public library’s mandate. But as scholars have shown, a nominally apolitical embrace of empathic policies can have a counterproductive effect, in part because aggressively projecting empathy for one group often blurs into demonizing another. A 2019 paper published in the American Political Science Review, for instance, noted that “even the most empathic individuals may fail to experience empathy toward their partisan opponents. Worse yet, empathy may even trigger anger toward one’s opponents if they are seen as harming ingroup members. Thus, people who are most disposed to feeling empathy may be more politically polarized than those who are less prone to experiencing empathy.”
We have learned to have negative associations with the word “populism,” as the term often is used in the context of abrasive or even xenophobic politicians. But, ironically, this same word also arguably has traditionally described your local public library—a place that anyone may enter, without any kind of credentials. If we are to start imposing elitist litmus tests, even implicitly, we risk alienating a portion of the public.
People aren’t dumb, and they know when they aren’t welcome: An institution that condescendingly decries Meghan Murphy as a bigot is an institution that is effectively decrying anyone who agrees with her as a bigot, too. How does that further the goal of inclusivity?
A spirit of elitism can be as toxic and corrupting to a public institution as racism and sexism. And the librarians I once worked with understood this fact, taking pride in their rejection of the narrow, bourgeois dogmas pressed upon them by society’s elites. But years later, a new generation of librarians is rushing to demonstrate their fidelity to that same managerial elite. One 2020 US study, for instance, found that librarians were 12 times more likely to donate to Joe Biden than to Donald Trump—a ratio approached only by university professors, creative directors, deans, media producers, and other well-paid members of the white-collar class.
Certainly, it is possible to be highly progressive (or conservative) in one’s personal views while also being careful to maintain an objective approach in one’s professional life. But in the social-media age, ideological commitments have become more transparent (and performative), blurring the line between one’s various spheres. In the last years of my employment, library directors seemed to more openly take on the role of activists, and their staff quickly learned to fall into line. We need our library boards and municipal politicians to act as a check on this development, and restore balance to library management when this happens.
As many have noted, the rise of Trump fueled a sense of urgency (some might say social panic) among many progressives. And it should be acknowledged that Trump himself said and did things that were inimical to a spirit of free thought and inquiry. But at the same time, the rise of populism that brought him to power betrayed the very real discontent and alienation in various communities. Public library managers had fair warning that many of their patrons were bristling at elitist messaging.
Instead of responding constructively, however, many workers in my profession doubled down on values drawn from an extreme and unrepresentative end of the political spectrum. In my workplace, I rarely heard curiosity about populist points of view expressed in meetings, or an attempt made to exercise a sympathetic reading of the resentments growing within western societies. This was a missed opportunity for public libraries to re-energize public trust.
“Burnaby Public Library is a racist institution,” one of our library administrators said at a staff meeting shortly before I retired. I stated that I disagreed, and asked for concrete examples of racism. The answer was that people of colour are underrepresented on staff. This was meant to end the conversation, even though it could easily be countered that members of non-white communities were simply taking different off-ramps on the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, for many different reasons.
Others in the meeting seemed sure of their progressive position, or at least pretended as much. It made me think of Lao Tzu’s end-of-life lament: “All are clear, I alone am cloudy.” Perhaps he sat through similar meetings. (As keeper of royal Chinese archives 25 centuries ago, he was, after all, one of the world’s first important librarians.)
How can these people be so certain, I asked myself. Where is the sense of complexity and ambiguity that comes from listening to an array of voices that is reflective of the diverse backgrounds of our patrons?
I no longer belong here, I concluded. No doubt, at least a few others in the room took the same view in regard to my presence.
I’d become a librarian because I loved learning, and I loved being surrounded by books—windows offering many views on the world. A visit to your local public library should provide a visit to the infinite and the ungraspable, not just another venue in which to be hectored with the same political slogans you can find running through your phone’s social-media feeds. We need to recognize that a healthy society will always contain clashing viewpoints, competing values, incommensurable ways of looking at the world. A public library can play a key role in keeping society healthy, but only if it doesn’t pledge itself to one side of the culture war.
While my time as a professional librarian is over, I will still offer my take on what the ideal library should look like: Our collection is diverse, spanning highbrow to lowbrow, and mainstream to esoteric, from the driest catalogs of facts and figures to otherworldly fictional realms. Recognizing the limits of human wisdom and the biases that infect any age (including our own), we are committed to a vision of plurality and ambiguity over one of orthodox certainty, which is why we remain professionally agnostic about contemporary political and cultural conflicts.
The next time you visit a library, take a walk through the stacks. Even in a small library, 100 lifetimes probably wouldn’t suffice to genuinely and sympathetically see the world from all the viewpoints represented in the books around you. It is a reminder that we will never get beyond ambiguity in human affairs, that we will never have complete clarity of vision, never have the whole picture. The broad range of material in our collections can help position public libraries as bulwarks of viewpoint diversity in our democratic space, and a place of refuge from an increasingly narrow and controlling culture—but only if librarians avoid ideological capture.
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