It’s been said many times, many ways before: If our public library system didn’t already exist, there’s no way we could create it in today’s society. But for all the good libraries do, and for all the necessary services they provide, they have been under attack for many years—and the staff who make our library system work, as well as the people who depend on them, need help. As Emily Drabinski, who is running to be president of the American Library Association, argues in her campaign platform, “Decades of disinvestment in public institutions coupled with deep inequalities at the core of our profession have left our libraries without the resources necessary to advance our common mission of providing access to information in all its forms to everyone in our communities.”

In the latest installment of Art for the End Times, Lyta speaks with Drabinski about her campaign, the decades-long assault on libraries as a public good, and the internal struggle to make the library system a more just, equitable, and socially progressive institution. Emily Drabinski is an Associate Professor and Critical Pedagogy Librarian at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center library, where she is also serving as interim chief librarian.

Pre-Production/Studio/Post-Production: Dwayne Gladden


Transcript

Lyta Gold:          Hello and welcome to Art for the End Times. Today, we’re going to do something special. I know I say every episode is special, but this one is… Okay, fine, they’re all special. But this one is different because we are going to take a step back. We’re going to take a meta approach to some of the questions that we’ve been exploring in these previous episodes. Because so far we’ve talked a lot about different artworks and different art forms, but we haven’t really talked that much about how we access these different art forms and artworks in the first place. And this is a very near and dear topic to me because I once studied to be a librarian. I have a degree in library science that I’ve sort of used, more or less. But the real big thing is that when you get a degree in library science, you learn about all these incredibly complicated background discussions that happen about accessibility and access and just how this extremely large amount of information that exists in the world is given to people and is put in a place where people can get to it.

And how do you find it? How do you store it? How do you preserve it? All of these are really complex issues, and they really invariably become political issues too, which can be very interesting. So to dive into this today, I’m joined by the incredibly impressive Emily Drabinski. Emily is an academic librarian, a teacher, a writer, the interim chief librarian of the Graduate Center at CUNY. She’s also running for the presidency of the ALA, and that’s the American Library Association. It’s the big national organization for librarians and information professionals. It’s the equivalent of the American Medical Association for Librarians. Emily is also running on a very leftist platform, which is really exciting. Emily, thanks for joining us.

Emily Drabinski:     Thank you so much, Lyta. It’s a pleasure to be here. I didn’t know you had a library degree. That’s great.

Lyta Gold:                Yeah. We actually overlap a bit because, I think, you worked for LIU Brooklyn, is that right?

Emily Drabinski:        That’s right. Yep.

Lyta Gold:              Yeah. I did the LIU program at CW Post, but there are many –

Emily Drabinski:        Right at NYU, sure.

Lyta Gold:                   Yeah. So yeah, I don’t think we ever crossed paths, but it was like 2010, 2012 around then.

Emily Drabinski:        I was there. I was there for the –

Lyta Gold:                I’m too big a flake to have actually become a librarian. And probably a lot of the info I have is way out of date, but a lot of these issues, I mean, they are pretty –

Emily Drabinski:      They don’t change.

Lyta Gold:               Yeah. So to start us off, I think for some people the connection between libraries and leftist politics and socialism in general, it might not be an immediately intuitive imperative of what the connection is. But you’ve talked a lot about public libraries as a public good, as a public space. And I’m curious about how you’d expand on that, how you’d connect that to the socialist project more generally.

Emily Drabinski:      So the library is the last public space that’s supported by the state, and only marginally supported by the state and not nearly enough, but the library does things that I think fit quite well into the socialist project. We pool funds from the community, we use those funds to make collective purchases of materials, and then we share those materials with the people in the community. And through our extensive networks of inter library loans, we can share materials from different libraries across the country and across the world. Public libraries are also… They’re more than books, although as a big reader and someone who believes that reading and writing is how we come to know things and that’s important, there are other things too.

They have some of the only publicly accessible bathrooms in most cities. They are generally cooled in the summer and heated in the winter, they have lights, they have a place to sit down, and they’re profoundly non-commercial spaces. Which is not to say they’re outside of capitalism, of course, we purchase materials. We’re buying things from vendors and that’s where the fight is, but you can go in and not be bombarded by an advertisement. And there’s almost nowhere else in my life where I’m not being sold something. So, yeah.

Lyta Gold:                 Why do you think libraries have held out as well as that they have? I mean, again, embattled, but still have held out.

Emily Drabinski:     It’s a good question. I look at other public institutions, the K-12 schools and higher ed, public higher ed, which is privatized in almost every state in the country, and libraries have held out, I think, because they meet needs that all of us have. The most successful public projects are those where everybody’s in and everybody has a stake. So if you have a child and you want your child to read books, you get a library card and take your child to the library. And that is universal. And we can talk more about that being a political project. But at the end of the day, libraries serve needs that people have, they help you get books. And because everybody uses them, they keep going.

Lyta Gold:                Yeah. As a New York resident, I have the New York City library card, I’ve got the Queens one, I’ve got the Brooklyn one. It’s great. I get all my audiobook content just straight to my phone. It’s a beautiful thing.

Emily Drabinski:       Oh, it’s a gorgeous thing. And it’s not means tested. Everybody uses it. Everybody can access it. It’s for everybody and everybody’s on it. And I think the pandemic made that really clear. People who didn’t use libraries before are now using them for audio and ebook content on the regular. Yeah.

Lyta Gold:            One of the interesting things actually that happened during the pandemic was that the rules about borrowing ebooks and borrowing audiobooks changed a bit for some libraries. And I think it’s largely gone back to the way it was before. Because, I always find this very funny when I log on to request an audiobook and I have to wait as if there are copies. And it’s like this myth that we’ve all just like – I mean, this is the vendor issue that you brought up. We’ve all just agreed that digital assets are not infinitely replicable. It’s a bizarre thing.

Emily Drabinski:       Right. Like the NFT of the library. Yeah.

Lyta Gold:             Yeah. I mean I think of it a lot with NFTs. It’s a weird thing to do to a digital object. Do you think that this is [crosstalk]… Yeah, it doesn’t make any sense. If you have one audiobook file, everyone in the city can listen to it. And they do occasionally open it up for everybody to listen to it because it’s literally just one thing. Do you see this as something that can change in the future? Is this something that the ALA can advocate for? Or is this kind is locked into the model, the purchasing model, and we’re stuck with this?

Emily Drabinski:       Well, I mean, what I think is amazing about libraries is that they are full of these sorts of small problems that make it very clear that the problem is a problem with capital. So once you explain to someone the why of that question, why can’t everybody listen to the same book at the same time, the reason is profit. That the vendors need to create a profit out of their book sales. And so that’s one of the ways that they do that, is they make the good artificially scarce. So that’s like something that you might try to didactically explain to someone outside of the context of the library, just that profit is the problem.

And it’s a little hard to wrap your head around and you sound like a loony, but when you explain the operation that you’re having to deal with in the library, it’s super concrete, everybody understands it, everybody’s been mad about it. And now you can embed a critique of capitalism in your explanation. And I think in a lot of ways, libraries, among the things that they make accessible, are these kinds of political critiques and systems. And it’s one of the things I like most about working in them. They’re material spaces, the problems are all instantiations of the problem of capital, I mean, I just explained it to you.

Lyta Gold:            Yeah. Do you think that’s part of why there are attacks on libraries, that there are attacks on public funding and for them is… And attacks on books? Do you think that’s a big piece of it?

Emily Drabinski:         Absolutely. You want to make these spaces so rickety and problematic and troublesome and sites of just attacks such that people flee from them and it doesn’t feel worth it anymore. So the attacks are not on individual book titles, because I don’t think that the right is doing a lot of reading, but I do think they’re attacks on any public institution that, when funded by the state, solves problems collectively. Nobody wants that to be happening right now except for all the rest of us.

Lyta Gold:            Exactly. We would love to have collective solutions to these enormous problems.

Emily Drabinski:        Yeah, let’s do it.

Lyta Gold:                   So what do you think that libraries and the ALA specifically as the overarching organization, what do you think that they can do to push back against this tide of disinvestment?

Emily Drabinski:       So the ALA is a huge organization. It’s a national organization. It’s been around since the 1890s and has somewhere around 50,000 members. The education and library sector is among those densely unionized, which is not very dense, but it’s denser than a lot of places. So there are lots of workplace struggles happening there, especially during COVID, fighting over safe working conditions and things like that. So I think ALA can move the needle on some of those big issues just on the basis of its size. It’s also an organization that is telling stories to library workers and telling stories to the public about what libraries are and what they can be. And if we tell the right kinds of stories about them, I think that people can see that the library is crucial in the fact that it is a public good in a public space. And that we might be able to argue the extension of that to other public goods, that an investment in the library would lead people to also believe, oh, we might invest productively in public parks or in schools. And so those kinds of conversations, I think, are essential.

Also, the second piece of that for me is – So there’s a narrative piece and then there’s a training piece. And ALA does a lot of work around professional development. Changing the cataloging standards, you can come to ALA and learn through its programming and how to deal with the new cataloging standard. And I think we can embed in the organization training in organizing and mobilizing skills. So we’ve got all these 50,000 members that come together one or two times a year to see each other and listen to speeches and talks and learn how to solve problems together around the library. And one of those training pieces I think can be, how do I organize in my workplace on behalf of myself and my colleagues in ways that improve my life and also the lives of the people in my communities? Because we know that worker-led movements are a way to improve communities in cities and towns. So I think those are the two ways I’m thinking about it in this campaign.

Lyta Gold:              That’s great, that’s great. If there were to be right wing or liberal pushback to say that like, oh, if you’re doing the workshop and unionizing, you’re only offering one perspective or something. I mean, it would be a silly argument, but I could see it getting made. How would you counter an argument like that?

Emily Drabinski:        Well, the entire project of contemporary libraries in many ways is just a giant neoliberal project. That we’re going to use the library as a site for teaching immigrants to code. There’s fantasies that the library can solve all these social problems by teaching different classes or helping immigrants get their citizenship. We’re already telling those kinds of stories, that the solutions to the big problems that we face as a society can be found in a workshop that happens at your library. So one of my arguments would be, this is like a tiny little thing in the ocean of messaging that we get about a more neoliberal approach. And one that’s about extracting profit from the public to fund these vendors that we purchase materials from. So that would be one argument.

And the second would be that the attacks are everywhere, to the extent that every single person working in a library right now, even if they’re not a socialist, or even if they’re not a Marxist, they do want the community to just get their hands off their book collection so that we can use our expertise to build collections for our communities according to our professional standards and sense of authority. So that’s like, I don’t anticipate getting pushback because I think if you conceive of this not as a socialist project but as a project of building with each other the kinds of collections that we think we need, everybody’s on board with that.

Lyta Gold:               Right. Yeah, I think that’s sometimes a question in librarianship that gets missed by the public that so much of building a collection is making decisions about what’s in and what’s out, because you can’t have everything. And that, every month or two on Twitter there’s like a picture of books being thrown out behind a library and people lose their minds. Because I think a lot of people just don’t get that you have to make these kinds of choices.

Emily Drabinski:       Yeah. And the right sure knows that. They know that this truth is contested. They understand that the battle is on how resources are distributed in a community, and they would like the resources distributed towards right-wing authors. And so we need to be as organized as they are in our fights against that.

Lyta Gold:               Yeah. I guess a question in terms of library standards, in terms of collections and also cataloging, you wrote a really interesting article some years ago about the usage of different… “Queering the Catalog” was the title of the… It was great. It was looking at the ways in which we talk about gender and the way things are grouped together, and what’s grouped with deviant stuff, and what’s considered normal. What direction do you see librarianship going with this? Because it seems like it’s mostly going in a better direction in the last couple years, mostly. But I mean, that’s my outside view from not actually being in a library for a long time.

Emily Drabinski:       Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, so the argument is that how we describe and categorize things is a political project and that political project is carried out according to heteronormative, white, patriarchal, American, explicitly United States, certain ways of organizing the world and that libraries need to attend to that both as catalogers and classifiers. So thinking about ways that we can interrupt those systems as well as teaching people that when you’re interacting with the system, it is a system of power every time. And the power is baked into that, and you’re going to have to work four times as hard to find materials about African American women because they’ll be cataloged as African American, Negro, Black, and Afro-American, so four different terms and certain language changing all the time, as you would about white women who are the default, you just search for women. So that’s something we have to teach people.

So another example of how a very normal thing for a person who comes into a library is you do a search for something, and the words don’t match the words of the system so you don’t retrieve what you want to retrieve. And that frustration, taking that moment of frustration and thinking about it, not as like you need to learn how to use the system, but that is the frustration we feel when we come up against systems that are not intended for us and that are not built for us to get what we need out of them. So it’s like a political teaching moment that we… So I think that lots and lots of librarians are thinking about critical cataloging work and putting a lot of effort into that. The push from librarians and students at Dartmouth to change the heading of Illegal Alien in the Library Congress was like –

Lyta Gold:            It’s still that?

Emily Drabinski:       ..It’s still a struggle. They changed it just in the past few months after an extraordinary amount of energy went into fighting back against that. But I can’t change the language in my catalog if I am the only cataloger left and we’ve outsourced the function to vendors that sell us the systems that we use, that automate our records, and we’re copy cataloging from each other. So that’s why I think any action we might take in terms of cataloging and classifying materials in ways that are more equitable relies on labor conditions that allow for workers to have the time and the space and the resources to do that, which they don’t currently have.

Lyta Gold:             That was something I found actually very distressing in library school because I had worked at the Overland College Library when I was an undergraduate. And I worked with catalogers and I saw the work that they were doing. And when I got to library school even a couple years later to find out that like, oh, no, it’s all copy cataloging. We’ll teach you the standards, but you don’t really have to do this. And it’s heartbreaking because it does matter to understand this information, to get in there with it and see like, oh, this doesn’t make sense as a way to describe this thing anymore. But if you’re just copy cataloging – Again, just for non-librarians, the records already exist and you’re basically just pasting it into the system – As opposed to doing the work of looking at a new book and being like, what is this? How do I describe this? Which opens up this really interesting way of thinking about things.

Emily Drabinski:       And my current work is looking at how those organizational systems have been exported by the US. And so I’m trying to run an ALA campaign that is public and that surfaces issues of labor. And also I’m really interested in thinking about an anti-imperialist librarianship and what that would look like, because those knowledge organization schemes are a primary US export. And so you can walk into the library at… I walked into the library when I was visiting Mexico City and they have this beautiful new library and you look up and everything’s in the Dewey fucking Decimal System. You’re like, well, how is this hyper racist, sexist, misogynist, Melvil Dewey guy. He is the way that we’re organizing information in Mexico? And you look at US imperial former colonial holdings and neo-colonial holdings around the world, and they’re forced to organize their information according to our sets of categories, such that if you are in the Philippines and you are organizing materials about Filipino life, you end up having to put that in ethnography.

And that’s like, I don’t know, it’s completely fucked up. And trying to explain legacies of US imperialism, people get bored and they don’t want to listen to it, but oh my God, that’s such an obvious problem. And it just makes material a political argument in a nice way, I think.

Lyta Gold:               So I’m curious what an anti-imperialist librarianship would look like, because certainly the way that we’re organized, this is like, Melvil Dewey is a very bigoted guy. And certainly organizing anything around his work is just outdated. But at the same time, these systems have to talk to each other across countries. So how would you make universal standards that are still sensitive to the particularities of where they come from?

Emily Drabinski:      Well, I don’t know, and I don’t know that you can but I think we are way overdue in our field for a reckoning with the ways that US global power has been extended through the knowledge organization systems that we produce. And I think the first thing we might do is do an accounting of that. Just make some lists as we do in organizing, make some lists of the tools that continue to be exported by the US without question. The state department continues to have American corners that spread the good news about the United States. And do people know about those? Do we try to intervene in those? Are they sites of struggle? Could they be, how would they be? That’s the conversation I’m hoping that we can have in the field.

Lyta Gold:           Yeah. And these are not like… What’s fun about cataloging standards, things like that, is that it’s always changing. You’re always coming up with a better, or more interesting, or fair, or more inclusive way to do things. But I think, as you were saying for imperialism, people don’t necessarily realize it’s an abstraction, and this becomes a very interesting way to explain. And then there’s also issues of bias within the country, and there’s pushback against… Librarianship itself has often been a very white profession. It’s certainly not always, but are there ways in which libraries and the ALA in general can do a better job of, within the country, opening things up and looking at racist practice, often just accidentally inscribed racist practices that are happening?

Emily Drabinski:     Absolutely, the profession is 90% white, and that number hasn’t changed. And so there are programs and initiatives within ALA that do a lot of good work around getting people of color into the profession. There’s a few different scholarship programs. There are ethnic caucuses of the American Library Association that are quite active and quite effective in raising issues and moving the needle on some of these problems. But I think what there isn’t is a recognition that we are not going to task force or statement our way out of racial exclusion. That’s not how this works. That if you want a profession that is less white, you have to hire people of color to work in your libraries.

I’ve spent my entire career in libraries, pretty much in New York City, where there are plenty of Black people working in libraries. There are plenty of people of color working in libraries. But they’re working in paraprofessional staff positions where they make a third of what I make as a white, MLS degreed librarian. And I think that’s something that we have to be really honest with ourselves about as a profession, is that there’s no shortage of people of color in our libraries. In most places they’re just not getting compensated for the work that they’re doing. And you’ll hear talk of like, let’s get rid of the MLS. Let’s not make a degree required, but I think those degree programs are like a ladder into the field for a lot of people. And I think it’s a fantasy to imagine that we could remove the MLS and then magically libraries would be equitable, that white people would stop just simply reproducing themselves and their hiring practices. There’s nothing automatic about that.

And the barrier isn’t a degree, the barrier is a legacy of white supremacy and racial exclusion upon which all American institutions were founded, the library. And I’m taking very much a union approach to the campaign and have a background in labor organizing and just was in a meeting with some librarians yesterday. And they were asking me, I got a question about, well, unions, aren’t those just white institutions? And we have to acknowledge that unions are rooted in racial exclusion, that they’re about initially protecting white jobs from African Americans and immigrants. But that’s true at the root, and so how do we address that? I think we address that in part by being really honest and clear about it, and then making sure that our discussions move from describing a present reality towards, how do we functionally shift power here?

So I can give you one example. So I took over as the reviews editor of College and Research Libraries a couple years ago, because I like being an editor and I like books. Whatever. Anyway –

Lyta Gold:                 A librarian who likes books?

Emily Drabinski:      I love reading, Lyta, it’s really true. I read a lot. But the reviewers were all white. And so coming in, instead of being like, well, let’s have a task force where we decide how to diversify the reviewers that we call upon to position literature in our discourse, which is like, if that’s a white project then you’re going to get a white field. And so instead of coming in and having a task force about that, I was like, well, let’s just get more reviewers of color. And it takes nothing. It takes 10 extra minutes for me to think beyond my white networks and just being intentional about the ways that we produce opportunities for people and making sure that those opportunities are distributed equitably. It’s not difficult work to do if you decide to do it. And that’s, I think, the field needs to decide that it’s going to do it and stop talking about doing it.

Lyta Gold:                Yeah. And in many ways it’s reminiscent of the problems of publishing, I think very similar, I think it’s also about a 90% figure. It’s an interrelated problem. And the solution usually is panels and discussions and a lot of earnest… And it’s well-meaning I guess, but it doesn’t do anything to make things any better.

Emily Drabinski:        Yeah. I mean, and it’s an endless parade of white people parading in front of you saying that they recognize that racism is a problem. I’m aware and what am I going to do about that now? And what I’m going to do about that is I look at what I have control over, and it’s this amount of resources. And I’m going to distribute them such that those opportunities and those resources go to people of color in my organization, in the association, in the pages of my journals and my books, all of it. You just decide to do it and do it.

Lyta Gold:                Yeah. So back to the MLS degree briefly, do you think that there are… It was certainly a great education. There were a lot of things that I really liked about it. But one of the things I found very interesting is that because you have an MLS does not mean that you get a library job, not even at all. I was actually quite surprised. And I remember a lot of jobs I was looking at around the time I was graduating and they’re like, well, if you volunteer here for a year, we might hire you after that. And I’m like, I cannot afford to do that. Do you think that there’s ways to improve that? Is it a problem of too many MLS degree holders? I mean, that seems like there’s a real financial barrier to not only getting the degree in the first place but then getting a job once you have the degree. And that’s going to make it hard for librarians of color in particular to get there.

Emily Drabinski:     Yeah. I mean, and I think this way about PhD is also that the problem is not at the site of training, it’s at the site of the jobs that are available. So everyone will tell you that their libraries have lost a lot of staff since they started in the field, and it’s really true. When I was at Long Island University, I started one year, we had, I think, 18 faculty librarians. By the time I left, we had six. So we can lay the blame at the feet of the MLS program, or we can lay the blame at the feet of austerity in higher education. That is only an issue when they want it to be. It’s not like there’s been a shortage of vice presidents hired. But the reason that there aren’t library jobs, it’s not MLS programs, the reason is that institutions aren’t funding libraries.

Lyta Gold:                   Why do you think that’s, I mean, neoliberal priorities and austerity, but what else do you think is behind the specific cutting of library staff? Because I know often that they’ll bring up things like, oh, you know Google et cetera is good enough and you don’t need it, but what do you think are the factors here?

Emily Drabinski:       Yeah. I mean, I think it’s partly that. I will never forget my first welcome to campus meeting when I started my job at Long Island University of Brooklyn and was at some tea with the vice president who said, the library of the future is a portal. And that the way that the portal erased any of the labor that went behind selecting, acquiring, describing, making accessible, preserving materials, it disappears. So there’s a way that the internet has erased the work for people so that they don’t believe it needs to happen. So the metadata question, like why are we stuck with these regressive cataloging systems? Well, partly it’s because we can’t afford to do otherwise.

And then there’s just been, I think, a longstanding trend of outsourcing basic functions. So the things that you see in every other industry, the outsourcing to private companies, the work of the institutions such that you don’t need cataloging librarians if we’re all using the same system and making one record and sharing it, even though our users use different language when they come into our libraries. So I think those are some of the ideas I have. Although, I don’t know. Why has the state totally failed to fund public goods for as long as I’ve been alive? Why has my lifetime been one of systematic ongoing intensifying disinvestment in public goods? I don’t know, Lyta. I would love to know the answer.

Lyta Gold:            God, yeah. Sorry to bring up such a depressing question, but it’s remarkable that we could, to borrow a phrase from the internet, we could have had a bad bitch, we could have all these nice things. And instead you have the three librarians left in a branch being the people to hand out masks to an entire borough.

Emily Drabinski:     And they don’t even know until they show up that day at work that they’re in charge of circulating the only public health saving measure that we’ve been given access to. It’s the public library and the post office, and both are like hobbling along, trying to carry the weight of social good. It’s bad news.

Lyta Gold:                 Yeah. And then people, they have the impression of like, oh, mean librarians and mean post office workers. And it’s because it’s one person doing 12 jobs and they’re exhausted.

Emily Drabinski:       Yeah. I lasted 10 months in the public library system. It was so devastating to have this front row seat on the abandonment of people and to be the last place people could come. It’s a very challenging job. Very tough.

Lyta Gold:                Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. But you like [crosstalk].

Emily Drabinski:        Yeah, academic’s a little better. Yeah. But it’s like, they’re coming for us too.

Lyta Gold:                So to take the conversation that’s slightly less depressing, I want to ask what you would like libraries to be in the future? If they don’t have to take all these public functions of picking up the slack from other things, what else would exist and what would you like libraries to be doing?

Emily Drabinski:     I’ve gotten this question before because I’m running for ALA president and people want to know my vision for the future. So in the field, the vision for the future always has big data in it, and a lot of digitization, and a lot of this and a lot of that, and bells and whistles that I think are totally exciting and fun and new, and not my jam at all. I think after 20 years in the field, I’m sort of a reactionary conservative when it comes to libraries. I think that they should serve the function that they’ve always served, to pool resources and purchase materials and describe them in ways that make sense for their users. And connect them to resources, and provide books and story time, and research materials, and the places you deposit your dissertation, and the stuff of knowledge creation and formation. I’m really into that.

And I think that libraries should do those things. And then everything else is very much a local concern. So some libraries need a 3D printer and a makerspace and some libraries don’t need that at all. They need quiet, individual study carrels. So it’s not like there’s a one-size-fits-all model. But I do think a library system that everybody used would be a priority for me, that had something for every single person in the community and that everybody felt was theirs. Because I know a lot of people see the public library as a place for children, very old people, and poor people, and the library’s a place for everyone. So in my vision of a library, we’re all in there. Seeing each other, engaging in cross-class contact as we meet our needs together, use the bathroom, get a coffee. Yeah. My big vision.

Lyta Gold:                I mean, it is a big vision though, because we don’t have a public space where everybody goes to, where everybody of every class goes to.

Emily Drabinski:        Yeah. I mean, the erosion of cross-class spaces in our contemporary moment is really sad and scary for me. We were going to take it to a better good place, so.

Lyta Gold:                   Do you think, this is maybe a silly question, but renovation of physical space is part of it too. Because in libraries, physically beautiful places to go to are physically appealing and warm, not just temperature, but cozy places to be.

Emily Drabinski:      Yeah, absolutely. I think there’s a Green New Deal for libraries, which is like, a lot of people talk about the Green New Deal for archives. Our buildings are crumbling, they are endangered by flood and fire, and we need investments in the physical plan. And I forget who I was talking to, but they were like, well, have you ever done these five library things that everybody’s done? Have you thrown a tarp over something that’s being flooded? Have you had to deal with a mold infestation? That’s everywhere. I was in a library in Quezon City in the Philippines and the tour guide was showing me part of the library that’s cut off and covered by plastic while they deal with a leak.

And he was like, I’m sorry that our library is not as blah, blah, blah. And I was like, wow, that’s all libraries. If there’s one thing that global libraries have in common, it’s the devastating physical situation that a lot of us are in where I don’t want to go into the library because it’s not nice in there. We deserve those things. We deserve those things and that shouldn’t be too much for us to ask from the state.

Lyta Gold:               Yeah. I took a preservation class in library school that just blew my mind at like, because it’s making libraries nice places to be in, but how much work goes into physically protecting materials. And it was a very good hands-on class. Like this is what you do if there’s a mold infestation, this is what you do if… This is what you do if you’ve got these old things, some old electronic form that nobody’s using anymore. And this is how you save it when it becomes obsolete. Yeah. And what you were saying about narrative, I think the part of the narrative is people don’t understand that information on the internet isn’t just eternal. Things are actually extremely fragile. So how would you go about changing that narrative and letting people understand that information needs to be protected, like physically, it doesn’t just live in the air for eternity.

Emily Drabinski:        Yeah. There’s a sense that information isn’t material because I got it on my phone, which is a material object that required hyper-exploited workers in other parts of the world to get the minerals available to make my phone so that I can do Wordle and keep a record of it. That, I think, focusing on the materiality of information, people encounter those things. So it’s like people come up against a link that’s dead and now they can’t read that thing that they wanted to send to their mom. So that’s like, everybody’s encountering that, they’re just not understanding that is what they are encountering. One of the biggest problems we face in the library is people really believing that all information is free, that I Google it and then I get it.

Or I go through the library website after a librarian has goaded me into it and then it feels free because I got it automatically. So the erasure of the costs that go into these systems. But then you hit a paywall sometime and that’s like, how do we make that a teaching moment when it’s mostly happening in private? I don’t really know, but we can talk more about it. I think we can talk more about the material. I’m a materialist, as you can probably tell, but I think we can talk more about that, and that’s how we change the narrative. But yeah, I don’t know, how do you get people to see that the world could be different as the challenge.

Lyta Gold:              Yeah. It really is. Yeah. I’m a physical books person all the way. Like eBooks, if I have to, if I can’t get it any other way, but yeah. It’s a –

Emily Drabinski:       Although I don’t like a hardcover book.

Lyta Gold:                 Oh, really? This is a whole big thing. Hardcover versus softcover, there’s partisans. Your anti-hardcover?

Emily Drabinski:         Listen, my hands can’t hold it up. I can’t. Yeah. I have arthritis in my hands from whatever. I won’t go into my personal medical problems, but I can’t hold a hardcover book anymore. But softcover I’m into.

Lyta Gold:              That’s actually funny because a hardcover, I guess, is an American thing. I didn’t realize this until recently, that European countries don’t really do hardcover.

Emily Drabinski:        Oh, I didn’t know that.

Lyta Gold:            Yeah. This is something I was told on the internet. Who knows if it’s true. Yeah. It’s funny though, the belief that books are out of date, books are old fashioned, and then a lot of people are very organize your home, get rid of all your books, et cetera. They’re a pain when I move, because there’s –

Emily Drabinski:       Oh, my God.

Lyta Gold:            They’re not like… I have them forever. I never have to worry about a vendor taking them away from me.

Emily Drabinski:        Yeah. They just exist on the shelf. They don’t disappear because you lost your contract because the state cut your funds again. Just today my library had its access to a database turned off because of too many downloads on a certain IP address.

Lyta Gold:               Oh, no.

Emily Drabinski:       And so I would like to be thinking about other things, but instead I’m having to think about how to manage the flow of access such that profit is maintained for this company.

Lyta Gold:              Mm-hmm (affirmative), God.

Emily Drabinski:        And I didn’t get into this work to do that, but we find ourselves in a situation where we do that a lot. What kinds of workarounds do I have to put in place to secure profit for private companies? And that’s a bummer.

Lyta Gold:           Yeah. And the extent to which all of these digital materials remain owned by private companies, the monopoly, particularly on academic papers. And it’s hard, too, because we get mad at people who are falling for misinformation on Facebook, but they have no access unless they know how to get it through their library in this possibly complicated way because we have to protect access for the… Again, I mean this is a larger capitalism problem, but is there a way to really improve that access so the people aren’t driven to just believing what they see on Facebook?

Emily Drabinski:     Yeah. I mean, I don’t know. It’s like there’s a very robust open access movement to try to break that apart. And I think that there’s a lot there. But I think people fall for misinformation a little less than they are organized into believing a certain set of things so that they can be mobilized for another purpose. So it’s like, my mother is on Facebook and reads Facebook stuff and she doesn’t fall for it. And I think that’s partly because she’s in communities that are not bent on building capacity for a far right-wing movement. So I think that’s the issue from where I sit. So we can change how information is published so that it’s cheaper and easier to access. But really what we need to be doing is organizing on the ground such that people have… The information that they receive makes sense inside of a political narrative that they’ve come to understand. Because they are engaged in other kinds of political work with one another, mutual aid networks with one another.

Because I believe what I believe not because I got it from a reliable source. I believe what I believe because of the connections and communities that I’m in. And those are, for me, because I am very lucky and blessed, those are hopeful, left radical circles where we believe that a different world is possible. And we are constantly in conversation with one another about what would need to be in place to make that better world. And that is what we need more of. And the library is a place where we can do that work because there’s all these opportunities for inserting that analysis into the patron interactions. Which I can hear now, people are like, she’s a political indoctrinator.

But yeah, I am. And I think we have to be, and it’s time for the left to really own that and be really public about it, which is what I’m trying to do with this campaign. I don’t know if I’m going to win on it. But there’s no shortage of people who look around at the world and say, this is not okay. My job is not cool. I have been given half a mask and 1,400 COVID tests to hand out to people who are hungry. Now is the time for us to step in and say, yes, let’s come together. There’s more of us than there are them and we can fight back against this and it’s gonna start at your job in the library. And I believe it.

Lyta Gold:              We got to the helpful part. We [crosstalk] had to go through the depressing [inaudible]. So the election is soon, right? It’s March?

Emily Drabinski:       Yes. The ballots will go out March 14 and the election closes April 6.

Lyta Gold:               I have to see if I’m still an active ALA member. I might not be.

Emily Drabinski:        Yeah, you’re probably not and it’s too late to sign up again. But listen, the campaign has really been so amazing. We’ve pulled in a bunch of great people and maybe I don’t win, but if I don’t win this year, one of my comrades will win next year. I do believe that. So we’ll make sure you’re signed up for the next one.

Lyta Gold:               Yay, sorry about that. I still get all the emails, so I’m on –

Emily Drabinski:         Good, okay. Well, as long as you get a bunch of email, that’s what we’re here for.

Lyta Gold:                 Very last frivolous question to wrap up, because you love books. And so much of what this podcast is about is a legitimate, very sincere love of books, and movies, and TV and things. Is, are there books just off the top of your head that you would recommend to people? They could be like radicalization things, novels that you really like. What are you really into? What’s good?

Emily Drabinski:       Okay. I’m reading a book right now called A Nation on the Line by Jan Padios. It’s a book about call centers in the Philippines and it is the sharpest and clearest analysis of transnational global capital and its effects that I’ve ever read. And I have read a lot of those kinds of books. And it’s fantastic. So if I have one book that you should read so that we can talk about it, A Nation on the Line would be it.

Lyta Gold:              Got it.

Emily Drabinski:       What else am I loving? You can see I’m looking over here because I have stacks and stacks of books. I’m in a book club and we read 50 books a year in 50 different categories.

Lyta Gold:              Oh, my God.

Emily Drabinski:        Yeah. It’s really fun. So I’m reading a bunch of different books. And a good friend of mine is doing a deep read of Guantanamo Diaries. So I’ve got some of those on my stack as well. Yeah. It’s not all that fun. Maybe I want to leave you with a fun book that I’ve read recently. Arsenic and Adobo. It’s the first in a series of Philippine mystery novels.

Lyta Gold:              Oh, fun.

Emily Drabinski:        [inaudible] mystery novels, Arsenic and Adobo, that’d be the one I would say.

Lyta Gold:                   I love a good mystery novel, so.

Emily Drabinski:       Yeah, that one was like eating a piece of candy, and she’s got a multi-book deal, so.

Lyta Gold:            Oh, nice. All right. Just check them all out. Cool. Well, thanks for joining me, Emily. This has been so much fun.

Emily Drabinski:       Lyta, I’ve had a blast. Thank you so much. I appreciate your time.

Lyta Gold:                  So if you’re listening to this, you’re probably subscribed to Real News Network. We have many other shows which are great. Listen to them, and tune in next time. Thanks for joining us.

Lyta Gold

Lyta Gold is a freelance writer and editor. She is also the host of the TRNN podcast Art for the End Times. Follow her at @lyta_gold.