Aleksandr Rodchenko, Lenin workers’ club in Paris (1925). Image credit: The Charnel-House.

Creating a Socialist Vision for Public Libraries: A Conversation with Emily Drabinski

Red Fault contributor and Austin DSA member Bennett B. conducted an interview with socialist, labor organizer, and President-elect of the American Library Association, Emily Drabinski.

Interview by Bennett B

Bennett B: To start off, I want to say congratulations on your victory. It’s a huge inspiration to socialists, librarians, and socialist librarians. Would you mind explaining briefly what power being President of the ALA [American Library Association] comes with?

Emily Drabinski: I would say first that I’m not sure yet. I think I have to get in there to see what the power really is. My term as President-elect starts in July just after the annual conference and I’ll be President-elect for a year and then President beginning July 2023. So I’m just at the beginning of understanding what I’ll have access to. The association has its own sort of long historical project that I am just beginning to understand, and then there is the power that I think I’ll be able to build inside of it that I think is the part I’m more interested in.

The American Library Association is the oldest and largest library association in the world, it is coming up on its 150th anniversary. It is a trusted voice of American library workers and librarians, so I think some of it is the power of storytelling, the power to tell stories to library workers and to the public about what libraries are, what they do, and what it would mean to fully fund libraries as a project of expanding public space. I’ve been thinking more and more about the public library as, every square inch that is the public library isn’t a store or a private equity office building, so if we expand the public library in terms of both space and the networks that it can take up in a social space, the more we have for the public. If we think of the public library as the public square, we want more of that. If we fully fund and expand the libraries we would reclaim more of the city for the public.

So, can I do that as President of the ALA? Obviously not, all of these struggles and fights are local, but helping people access the language of a socialist vision of what the city could be and the role of the library I think is something I could do.

I’ll also get a little bit of money to do what I want, and that’s the thing that separates the left from the right right now, is access to resources, so I’m looking forward to thinking through how the resources that will be given to me can be put to good use for the goals that I think all of us on the left share.

BB: I think that notion of reclaiming public space resonates with a lot of people in Austin, and around the country, we see a lot of public institutions being replaced with places where you have to spend money.

You mentioned the socialist vision of the library; the reason I know about your campaign and the reason that I was invested in it is because you ran openly as a socialist. What does being a socialist mean to you?

ED: It’s interesting that you say that because I didn’t feel, when I was running, that I was running as a socialist. I felt like I was running as an organizer. Concretely as a labor organizer, specifically, a workplace organizer. My background is really in union work. I’m a member of DSA in name and contribution, but I’m not active in the movement, although I’m supportive.

For me, organizing towards the world we want is something that I think does resonate with the socialist movement as it’s happening right now. That’s definitely how I approached the campaign. I really believe in collective power, and I believe in it because I’ve built it and I’ve used it, and I see what it can do in terms of fundamentally changing the conversation. I think about how many things we can talk about openly since AOC was elected, that we couldn’t before.

I think the socialist project, along with a range of other movements against white supremacy, patriarchy, and others, has played a role in the fact that we can now talk openly about the abolition of the carceral state. The public conversation about defunding the police, and thinking about different ways of organizing our relations to one another. To me, that’s something that’s only possible through deep organizing and is the ethic that we brought to the campaign. There were a bunch of Bernie folks who were working with me, in particular my friend Leah who always has four or five clipboards at every moment. The campaign was an example of the kind of organizing we see as essential to making libraries a site for struggle on behalf of the public. I think we talked to and, crucially, listened to as many people as we could about the importance of libraries as part of what you and I might call a socialist vision, but I think could be called a progressive vision, a liberal vision, but I think it resonates with a lot of people in the way that socialist ideals do right now.

BB: To that effect, I think maybe the reason I perceived your campaign as “openly socialist” is because the vision was so applicable to people in my circle who then conveyed to me, ‘you should look at this candidate, she’s running as an open socialist’.

ED: It’s funny, I am openly socialist, but I don’t pick the label and it’s been made very clear to me that I campaigned for and won election to a fundamentally liberal organization, in the “small L”, so publicly claiming a socialist identity has implications for the broader association. So what I’m doing now is trying to figure out how to navigate, and what kind of language I can use that will not torch the efforts of people who are dealing with totally different political situations than I am here in New York City, although I don’t know how different they really are.

I tweeted that I was a “Marxist lesbian” when I won, and I absolutely am a Marxist, and absolutely am a lesbian, but I got a ton of blowback, which is not great, but I don’t know. We have to be brave, we have to be willing to fight, and the right has no compunction about being completely out there with their totally hardcore racist ideals, and their white replacement theory bullshit. We have to be as brave as they are and as public as they are, I think, but I’m having to navigate that in a big, big, big organization that has a lot of different stakeholders and a lot of different priorities.

BB: I agree, definitely, and I commend and am very grateful for your bravery in that regard. I think many people in power could learn from you.

ED: I agree! Thank you for saying that (laughs). They all keep talking to me like I’m the problem. I can’t tell you how many people have called me into their office to give me a scolding, and I’m like “I’m the problem? Look at these people!” They are running circles around us.

BB: In terms of the situation here, I work as a page in an archive at the university, and there are a lot of DSA members here in Austin who work for the city library. Because I work for a state university, I’m a member of the state employee’s union, and the people who work for the city are members of the city employee’s union. What is the relationship between the ALA and the various unions that might represent library workers on the local level?

ED: The ALA is a professional organization that exists to inform best practices, to allow for continuing education, to provide space for us to talk with one another about how best to handle problems that libraries face. It’s very explicitly not a union. It has a 501(c)6 attached to it called the Allied Professional Association that has as its charge advocating for library workers and that is the arm of the association that I’m dealing with, but it is not a union at all. So, figuring out the relationship between a professional association and a worker advocacy organization is part of the project that I’ll be trying to figure out, and I think it is important to figure that out.

When I think about what a professional development organization can contribute to the union movement, I think what we can do is think about those organizing skills and those advocacy skills as part of what we ought to be developing for one another.

If we’re talking about “professional development”, that has to include developing the skills to organize a workplace. As I think about what I’m going to do in my presidential year, building those skills is an absolute priority for me. At the end of the day, the fight is always going to be local, you’re going to have a campaign that makes sense to you on the ground, that is about your particular configuration of power where you work and where you live. But the skills of having organizing conversations, making lists, building campaigns, testing our power as we move through those campaigns, those are skills that everybody needs.

The association talks a lot about advocacy work. I think thinking about advocacy as part of an organizing project is the way that I’m thinking about the relationship. So, you are in a union, and there’s nothing automatic, as you know, about being in a union, many are rooted in racial exclusion as with any other American institution, so what are the skills we need to take over those unions and democratize them? To form unions where they don’t already exist, to use union power and build strike-ready units when it comes time to bargain. Thinking about those skills as part of professional development is the way I think about it.

BB: You have alluded to the campaign process and how it was very worker-oriented, how you had a very clear sense of how many votes you needed to win. I know there was at least one person from Austin DSA who worked on the campaign. What was the best part of the campaign process? What were you most proud of?

ED: I really believed that if we were going to go talk to more people, we were going to win. Because we’re right. We are offering an affirmative, positive vision of the future where everyone is fed, clothed, housed. Where everyone has access to the things that they need for a good life, and you talk about that with people and they agree with you. But it has to be a one-to-one conversation. You can’t rely on broadcasting a message, because we all get broadcasted a lot of messages right now. So the thing that I’m most proud of in the campaign is the sheer number of conversations we had with one another.

The campaign met every week for an hour to talk about strategy, about what was happening. We would talk about who we talked to. Max talked to every library school student at the University of Maryland, Leah talked to every library worker in Delaware, John talked to every librarian in northern Michigan. So we were having those conversations and thinking about expanding the footprint of the library as one way of taking space. But I also think that those kinds of conversations with the connections through talking to one another and sharpening our analysis and hearing from one another about what we’re struggling with is another form of taking space.

Building networks that take up more of the public conversation and the discourse; those networks are what I’m really proud of, and thinking about ways to build those inside of the association now that I’m moving into a leadership position and learning what tools they have for building networks. They have a lot of them. ALA annual is coming up at the end of June and there are already so many invitations that I am getting because of my position, I think, because I’ve never been invited to anything before. Thinking about the ways that those are networks that are often built to facilitate the concentration of power, and are there ways to use those to expand access to power and decision making? And how we can do that from a leadership position is the next project. I don’t have a great answer now but I do know that we can figure that out as we go. Although it stresses me out sometimes, I’m like “Oh no, what if I can’t do anything good? What if I’m just immediately co-opted and a robot of the neoliberal project?” (laughs). I hope that never happens but you never know, I try to keep myself honest. You have to have people around you that keep you honest. That’s the thing, I can see why it’s attractive to just bask in the gifts that they give people who are in charge. It’s like, once you become rich enough to afford drinks the drinks become free. That’s been one of the things I’ve discovered in my life as a white person to whom wealth accumulates because of the way the system works.

BB: Do you have any final thoughts you want to share?

ED: The most important thing we can be doing right now is building collective power with one another relative to demands that we develop in the struggle together. I feel the need to say that every time because I can’t think of a more important thing we can be doing, especially in the run up to 2023, 2024 where I think the presidential election could get a little scary.

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