Stacey Abrams: Libraries Must Tell the Story of America | ALA Virtual 2020

At the American Library Association's (ALA) virtual conference held this week, replacing the annual in-person conference which was canceled because of the pandemic, ALA President Wanda Brown invited as her President’s Program speaker Stacey Abrams—author, Georgia gubernatorial candidate, and founder of the organizations Fair Fight (for voting rights) and Fair Count (for census participation).

screen shot of Stacey Abrams in front of bookcaseAt the American Library Association's (ALA) virtual conference held this week, replacing the annual in-person conference which was canceled because of the pandemic, ALA President Wanda Brown invited as her President’s Program speaker Stacey Abrams—author, Georgia gubernatorial candidate, and founder of the organizations Fair Fight (for voting rights) and Fair Count (for census participation).

Abrams, interviewed by new ALA Executive Director Tracie Hall, spoke to the need for police reform, and for leadership that will address inequities at every level, in education and healthcare as well as the justice system. "We have to put more money into education and affordable housing," she said, and “if that means siphoning money from social workers with guns, that is our obligation.”

Abrams also spoke to the centrality of memory, which highlights a potential role for libraries, archives, and historians both local and otherwise: “We have these flares [of protest] that fade into acceptance. We forget what we know. We have to be more intentional about memory, more intentional about lifting this up and asking the questions.”

 

LIBRARIES MUST BECOME A MICROCOSM

A librarian’s daughter, Abrams responded directly to Hall’s question about what the profession itself can and should do. “We need libraries to help us tell the truth about who we are,” she said—“a nation that promises opportunity but has struggled to make that promise real.” To tell that truth effectively, she called on libraries to change organizational culture. “The people at the library have to be willing to see and accept everyone who calls on us.” Because of what she called libraries’ “moral neutrality,” librarians are “trusted voices” who can “knit us back together,” but to do that, “they have to sound like America and the people need to look like America—be seen as a microcosm of America and to be in community with the people who need them most.”

To do that, she said, “we need to be intentional. Diversity doesn’t just happen.” You have to remove barriers to entry, she said, suggesting libraries first must assess what those barriers are—education, awareness, pay—and then call them out and make a strategy to overcome them. Which, she suggested, starts with presenting the impact and complexity of what it means to be a librarian as a career to kids starting in elementary school, and continue through providing college scholarships and supporting those already in the field.

She said librarians should not close themselves off to divisive opinions but should amplify the messages that are unifying. “Use the platform not to have a partisan position but to have a people position,” she said. “If you want to participate in your society, this is where it starts.”

 

VOTING RIGHTS

It also starts, she said, with voting. Abrams suggested that libraries can serve as ballot drop sites, and beyond that, to educate the public both about the importance of voting but also the fact that it is the beginning, not the end, of the process of bringing about political change.

Voting is the most fundamental power possessed by a citizen in a democracy, said Abrams, but it is “a complicated and tedious power to use and it doesn’t immediately provide solutions. Too often voting is held out as this panacea; you take it and everything is fine. It is more like chemotherapy; sometimes the treatment is almost as painful as the disease, but you need it because it is the only way through. So often young people are told if you vote it the problem will go away. There are no saviors. The act of voting is not about perfection, it is about persistence.”

 

COUNTING ON THE CENSUS

Abrams tied her work on the census, too, to the power of narrative . “If the count is wrong…the people who need it the most are left out of the story of America,” she said. This ties directly back to voting: Communities of color that are undercounted are therefore underrepresented in electoral power. But it also ties to economic power, because the moneys spent by government on an area, whether for catastrophic recovery from an extraordinary event like COVID-19 or simply to make progress, are allocated based on the Census. The communities that need the highest level of investment are the least likely to be seen or served,” she said, citing LGBTQ+ communities as well as those of color. Abrams called on libraries to fight misinformation and conspiracy theories about the census, telling them, “Be the source that says this is safe, accessible, and necessary.”

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Meredith Schwartz

mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Editor-in-Chief of Library Journal.

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