Librarians Mobilize for Equity Under the Trump Administration

Facing policies that threaten their service models, core values, and federal funding, librarians voice concerns—and mobilize.
1703_Equity_Trump_TappanZee_GSTAclubWhen the Trump administration withdrew federal guidance that allowed transgender students to use the bathroom matching their gender identity, members of the Gay Straight Transgender Alliance at Tappan Zee High School in Orangeburg, NY (right) stepped up their efforts to make sure transgender students don’t experience discrimination. While the school already has one gender-neutral restroom, the students are advocating for a second one, as well as a changing area in the locker rooms near the gym that can accommodate transgender students. They created a video on the topic, which they presented to the school’s faculty. They also received training on how to deliver a workshop to teachers interested in becoming student “allies.” School librarian Lois Parker-Hennion has been supporting all their efforts. She serves as an example not only of how librarians can provide a friendly environment for students who might face bullying, but also of how they are finding themselves facing the real-life impact of hot-button issues that have taken over the headlines since President Trump took office. “The students have really taken the lead on this,” Parker-Hennion says. “It’s just the kind of engagement and learning we want our students to have.” Faculty-Meeting-Presentation_700px

Slides from a presentation that the Gay Straight Transgender Alliance at Tappan Zee High School presented to faculty.

Whether it’s making transgender students feel welcome, providing services for immigrants and refugees, or increasing students’ news literacy skills, the work that school and public librarians do every day is center stage now, in light of some of the new president’s policies and executive orders. Librarians are galvanizing for action and advocacy after the president’s proposal to slash library, arts, culture, and education agencies from the federal budget. The budget draft eliminates the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), along with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. Since the important role of school libraries was specifically written into the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) during President Obama’s second term, the library community is also keeping close watch on how the provisions of ESSA might be implemented under a president and an education secretary who appear ready to turn more education policy decisions over to the states. Audrey Church, president of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), a division of the American Library Association (ALA), says the president’s budget proposal, which also cuts federal education funding by 13.5 percent, or $9.2 billion, while promoting school choice, is a  good indication of how schools, and school libraries specifically, might be affected. “We want to be sure school libraries are still on the forefront and receive funding because they touch every student in the school,” she says. Meanwhile, AASL has also been holding a series of state workshops across the country to better prepare school librarians to advocate for funding at the state and local district levels. So far, over 1,500 librarians have attended 39 workshops, and more are scheduled. Julie Todaro, ALA president, says that while it’s important to form relationships with state and local lawmakers who value school librarians, ESSA took 10 years to develop and includes libraries in several key ways. “You can’t turn around and have a sea change in six months,” she says. “You can’t turn around and say states have to do it all.” With Republicans already looking at ways to reverse some ESSA regulations, and the vote on the President’s budget expected at the end of April, Todaro says that ALA is working to “craft our message for National Library Legislative Day” May 1-2, 2017.

Equity_callout_TodaroOutreach to refugees

The pending budget vote and the future of ESSA are among several issues that ALA has been monitoring since the election. When President Trump’s executive order prohibited some refugees and immigrants from entering the United States, Todaro issued a statement on how the organization is “shocked and dismayed” by actions that “stand in stark contrast to the core values” of ALA. “We will continue to speak out and support efforts to abolish intolerance and cultural invisibility, stand up for all the members of the communities we serve, and promote understanding and inclusion through our work,” she said. Changes in policy regarding immigration have placed a new significance on the programs and services that librarians provide to immigrant and refugee families. For example, the Kansas City Public Library’s Refugee and Immigrant Services and Empowerment (RISE) program organized an event that drew more participants than it might have if Trump had not been elected. Participating in a campaign created by, RISE organized a three-hour, Valentine’s Day-themed #ToImmigrantsWithLove letter-writing event, asking members of the community to write kind notes of support that are distributed in welcome packets to newcomers. Montage_ArlingtonBold

At Arlington (VA) Community High School, serving immigrants between 16 and 30, students create visual reminders to themselves to be "Be Bold for Change" following an author visit by Karen Leggett Abouraya. Photo courtesy  Arlington Community High School

Julie Robinson, the refugee and immigrant services outreach manager for the 10-branch library system, says she was expecting maybe 200 people to turn out and write postcards. Instead, roughly 1,100 participated, including children. A local teacher, whose class is predominantly made up of refugee students, talked to children who attended, and separate story times were offered for younger and older groups. Many participants also wrote notes in the languages of the refugee groups that have been arriving in Kansas City. “We did see an incredible amount of interest on our social media sites,” says Courtney Lewis, a spokeswoman for the library system. “This just took on a new level of importance to the public.” RISE is also an example of how public libraries have increased efforts in recent years to provide information about U.S. citizenship, partner with resettlement agencies, and add books about newcomers’ home countries and in their home languages. “We had people falling through the cracks,” Robinson says. “Refugees and immigrants don’t actually know about libraries. [To them] most libraries represent government.” RISE offers citizenship classes, and Robinson has worked with Webster University in Kansas City to provide training to English-as-a-second-language (ESL) teachers working with immigrant and refugee families. She also hopes to receive a grant that would allow RISE to transport children from neighborhoods where refugees are being resettled to libraries for monthly story times. Children who are new to the country, she adds, help their parents adjust to life in the United States with the help of services provided by libraries. In Arlington, VA, librarian Deah Hester has focused on adding books about immigration and that feature “voices from other parts of the world” to her collection at Arlington Community High School. “We do have students who are from the countries listed in the travel ban,” Hester says. “They are worried about being able to travel to and from their home countries in the near future, or having relatives come visit them here.” Some who attend the alternative high school, composed almost entirely of immigrants between the ages of 16 and 30, are also concerned about being separated from their children who were born in the United States, Hester says. In November, her school held a “town hall” meeting to give students an opportunity to voice some of their concerns. The Arlington Public Schools posted a link to Arlington County’s resources for immigrants on every school’s website, and Superintendent Patrick K. Murphy released a statement in early March reaffirming the district’s commitment to educating all students “in light of the most recent changes to our nation’s political landscape.” Hester adds that she has found the Twitter hashtag #WeNeedDiverseBooks to be especially helpful as she tries to expand her collection. “I want each of the students in my school to be able to read a book that features someone from their own country and know that they are not alone,” she says. Urban Libraries Unite, an advocacy organization, has also recently launched Libraries Serve Refugees, a website with a variety of resources to help libraries better serve refugees, as well as information on what some systems are already doing. “America has always been the land of promise, the shining city on the hill,” says the site’s welcoming message. “A lot of us who work in libraries still believe in all that stuff.”

Preserving government documents

Equity_calllut_Jacobs2Library services are also connected to another politically charged issue—capturing and preserving federal datasets, documents, and websites from previous administrations. Since President Trump took office, some government websites related to climate, animal welfare, and education have been temporarily taken down or changed, leading some to speculate that officials are removing files or information that would contradict their agenda. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act site, for example, was taken offline when Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was confirmed, but then later restored. DeVos blamed the blackout on technical problems and said the site had been “neglected for nearly four years.” Widespread efforts are now under way to preserve government URLs. The Library of Congress and the U.S. Government Publishing Office is collaborating with several university libraries for the End of Term Presidential Harvest 2016. In addition to .gov sites, education datasets are also being captured from as part of this harvest or “crawl.” Individuals, such as librarians, researchers, and information specialists, have been encouraged to “nominate” sites to include in the collection efforts. Data Refuge, another initiative, this one based at the University of Pennsylvania, is focusing primarily on environmental and climate data. According to James R. Jacobs, a government information librarian at Stanford University Libraries, which is involved in both data archiving efforts, librarians “are also concerned with content beyond climate and environmental issues like criminal justice/policing, health, education, oil/gas, food safety and regulation, and campaign finance.” Education 44 is designed to maintain education-related press releases, fact sheets, reports, speeches and other materials specifically from the Obama administration. Peter Cunningham, the executive director of Education Post, which features a network of bloggers, and who served as a communications official under former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, launched the site. Jacobs, of Stanford, and his colleague James A. Jacobs (no relation), data services librarian emeritus at University of California San Diego (UCSD), helped to create Free Government Information back in 2004. But on their website, they write that now “more people than ever are aware of the risk of relying solely on the government to preserve its own information. This was not true even six months ago.” They advocate for requiring government agencies to have information management plans. Jacobs, of UCSD, says there are a few reasons to be wary when websites or documents disappear, one of which is that the Trump administration has opposed Obama’s policies in “such strong and extreme ways.” Another reason, he adds, is that President Trump and his appointees don’t have government experience, which could lead to “inadvertent loss” or the intentional removal of information. “The bottom line for me is that, when the government possesses the only copy of important information, that information is at risk of loss or alteration, intentionally or unintentionally. The reasons can be political, administrative, technical, or financial.  But it doesn't matter what the reason or intention is if the information is lost,” he says. “This is why for more than 20 years, I have been advocating getting copies of government information into the control of libraries outside the government.” One question is whether the disruption of government websites or the unavailability of data is any different during this transition in power than it was in 2008 when George W. Bush ended his second term and President Obama took office. Roberta Sittel, a government information librarian at the University of North Texas Libraries, agrees that there is now a “heightened sense of concern for transparency.” But, she adds, “It’s typical for a new administration to make significant changes to its web presence,” and it’s not unusual for sites to come down. According to a blog post from Internet Archive, a San Francisco-based free digital library founded in 1996, 83 percent of .gov PDFs disappeared between 2008 and 2012—even when there wasn’t a change in the presidency.

Internet access

High-speed, low-cost Internet access, which many students depend on to complete homework and access resources, has also been impacted by the new administration’s actions. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) released and then withdrew documents from its website related to “E-rate modernization” and the nation’s “digital infrastructure.” The E-rate report was issued in January and then retracted a couple weeks later. The infrastructure statement was also retracted. “While new FCC leadership may have new policy directions, the public record should not be permanently altered,” Todaro said in a statement. In addition to the FCC’s decision to retract the reports, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai also reversed his predecessor Tom Wheeler’s decision to add nine Internet providers to the government’s Lifeline program, which provides low-income people a subsidy to pay for Internet access. ALA, as well as organizations focused on improving Internet access, opposed Pai’s action. “As the FCC moves forward, we hope that they reconsider establishing a mechanism for people in the United States to gain access to what we believe is no longer a luxury,” Chike Aguh, the CEO of EveryoneOn, a nonprofit working to eliminate the digital divide, said in a comment. “By disallowing the nine Internet service providers to participate in this program, the FCC has added an additional barrier for those looking to enter the digital on-ramp.” Pai noted in a February 7 post that the providers that were dropped represent only nine of more than 900 providers participating in the program, and that the FCC has to “make sure that there are strong safeguards against waste, fraud, and abuse before expanding the program to new providers.” He is also proposing to address the digital divide with “Gigabit Opportunity Zones,” in which the government would use tax incentives to expand “ultra-fast” broadband in lower-income neighborhoods. Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of the Rural Broadband Association, said she was pleased that the chairman was “placing a spotlight on the fact that more public and private resources are needed to address and overcome our nation’s rural broadband challenges.” The Senate, along party lines, also voted this month to halt Wheeler’s plans to require Internet service providers (ISP) to tell customers what information is being collected on them, who they are selling the information to and how it is being used. Adopted last fall, the rules would have required ISPs to get user permission to share such data as health information, social security numbers, and information on children. The rules were considered a win for those concerned about privacy, but others, including Pai, argued that the information collected by ISPs only represents a small amount of what is collected online—and doesn’t include sites such as Facebook, Google, or Twitter.


Whether their concerns relate to immigrants, disappearing data, or Internet privacy, many librarians have become outspoken critics of the Trump administration and view his positions as contrary to their mission. Equity_callout_Jensen“Many [people] believe that libraries and librarians are apolitical, but it’s simply not true. It’s impossible to be a neutral space with the goal of reaching a community, be it the public or the academic or the special population the library serves,” Kelly Jensen, a YA author and former librarian, wrote on the "Book Riot" blog, where she provided examples of actions libraries have taken in recent months to “embrace their non-neutrality.” These include several images communicating diversity and acceptance created by Rebecca McCorkindale, an assistant library director and creative director at Gretna Public Library, outside of Omaha, NE. Her colorful Libraries are for Everyone images have now been displayed around the world and translated into 53 languages. “I'm guessing that the Antarctic and Arctic are the only places you won't find them,” she says. Matthew Haugen, who catalogs rare books at Columbia University and contributes to the Que(e)ry Librarians resource page, created the #LibrariesResist website as a collection of articles and statements focused on helping “communities made (more) vulnerable by the new administration.” The hashtag has almost 3,500 followers on Twitter and over 1,600 likes on Facebook, and while most contributors are academic librarians, Haugen has said he’s hoping for input from public and school librarians as well. As movements like these continue to spread, some observers point out that librarians’ political statements don’t really amount to a “resistance.” “It is completely legal for librarians and anyone else to put together a list of links. You’re not ‘in the resistance’ if nobody’s trying to stop you,” wrote Library Journal's "Annoyed Librarian" blogger. “Unless something changes drastically, the president isn’t able to issue a gag order on librarians who aren’t working for the federal government. So all those librarians who want to display ‘Libraries are for everyone’ signs or put up displays of books on Muslims or compile lists of links are completely free to.” Other librarians say they aren’t doing anything different than they would have if Trump had not been elected. They prefer to avoid the perception that that they are protesting the new administration. “This is not about politics; it’s about how we want to treat people,” says a communications officer for a library system in a large metropolitan area. “As we have for almost 100 years, we are working hard to be welcoming and helpful, and to ensure that our staff, programming, and materials evolve to meet the changing needs of our patrons.”

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