Meet the Socialist Librarian Running for President of the American Library Association

Libraries are widely beloved in America, but they’ve been decimated by austerity in recent years. Emily Drabinski is a socialist librarian who is running for head of the American Library Association to change that.

Emily Drabinski wants to become the first socialist president of the American Library Association. (Ali Cotterill)

The story of Emily Drabinski’s openly socialist run for president of the American Library Association (ALA) could start in many places: her politicization as a child campaigning against Styrofoam cups at a local frozen yogurt shop, her early career scholarship about how queer materials are catalogued in libraries, or her interactions during the pandemic with patrons for whom libraries are a critical lifeline. But you could also start the story with a sandwich.

In September 2011, Drabinski was a faculty librarian at Long Island University (LIU). She had been on strike with the rest of her union for a few days and was attending a meeting about a contract offer. But there wouldn’t be much discussion on the matter — members walked in to find handouts on their chairs, listing bullet-pointed highlights of the agreement. She recalls union leadership at the front of the room telling attendees they’d be voting yes on the contract, which no one was even given a chance to read.

“I remember sitting there thinking, this does not feel like I have a say in this,” Drabinski recounted.

It wasn’t what fighting in solidarity with others was supposed to feel like, a sense that was underscored by what happened next: the union president decided to celebrate the ratification by bringing in a really big sandwich to thank “the community” — including management — for their support during the strike. Drabinski was livid.

“Labor struggle is a struggle. It is not a sandwich,” she said indignantly. “I was so mad about the sandwich. We invite the administration to come join us for a sandwich, as if we had all just gone through a pageant!”

The experience pushed Drabinski to become more active in the Long Island University Faculty Federation, where her librarian skills in organizing and note-taking made her a natural fit for the role of secretary. But if the first contract negotiation she experienced at LIU convinced her of the importance of building internal union democracy, a subsequent one would put that conviction to the test: in 2016, Drabinski’s local found itself at the center of one of the biggest national labor stories of the year. Just after their previous union contract expired, LIU management locked out the faculty — canceling paychecks, health insurance plans, and bringing in scabs scrounged up on (Jacobin interviewed her about the lockout at the time.)

Drabinski had never been on the receiving end of such a forceful display of brute power, the kind that doesn’t care if you live or die. Given the canceled health benefits, this was no metaphor — one of Drabinski’s locked-out colleagues lost coverage as their dependent spouse was undergoing cancer treatment. Drabinski once again found her clerical chops surprisingly useful in planning a fight-back: in the hours leading up to the lockout, she scrambled to file for a bullhorn permit, disseminated the university president’s contact info to colleagues, and hunted down answers to their frantic questions.

The union mobilized members, allies, and students to its cause, forcing management to end the lockout in twelve days. No sandwiches were shared this time.

“I learned how much work it is to mount a defense against power,” Drabinski recalled. “I learned how crucial it is to get people together in moments like that. You’ve got to make a list, you’ve got to write out everybody who’s involved and has a stake, you have to talk to every single one of them. And you have to get every single one of them to talk to somebody else. And the conversations you have with each other are how you shape your strategy, and how you figure out how to turn your complaints into demands. That’s the work of forming collective power.”

That’s the kind of power that Drabinski believes all library workers need right now. At a moment when culture war battles are increasingly waged over right-wing wedge issues like “critical race theory,” and book banning and public goods of all kinds are under threat, the library is an often overlooked site of political struggle. Drabinski hopes to use the ALA presidency to help build the solidarity to champion a treasured social institution.

Drabinski lives in Brooklyn with her girlfriend and their son. But she was visiting family in Idaho as we spoke one recent morning over Zoom, with the sun gradually rising to light up the living room over the course of the call. She was probably willing to schedule such an early interview on the East Coast because she’s got her work cut out for her: despite libraries being some of our most beloved public-sector institutions and the ALA offering a wide platform as the principal librarians’ professional organization, the association has never had a socialist president.

To become the first, Drabinski will have to prevail against Kelvin Watson, an accomplished veteran and current executive director of the Las Vegas–Clark County Library District, running on a platform calling for public-private partnerships and better marketing of library services. Drabinski has countered Watson’s leadership experience with her own perspective over two decades as a leftist rank and filer.

“People really do need to know more about what libraries do,” she said about Watson’s platform. “But I believe the way to get people to understand why libraries are important is by engaging people in a struggle for the fair share of the social wage. It isn’t a matter of better advertising. It’s a matter of sort of stronger connections between libraries and our communities and the communities we serve, and the shared struggles that we all have — because we are all suffering from the maldistribution of wealth.”

Challenging Austerity

It’s practically impossible to articulate the function and value of libraries without sounding like a cheeseball, but I must: libraries are institutions that allow communities to pool their resources to share things in common. I mean that literally: libraries do not means-test the distribution of their goods, like so many other social goods in America, and instead make them available to everyone. Libraries include (but are not limited to) tangible buildings meant for everyone to use: they’re temperature-controlled structures with chairs and books and places to pee, where you’re allowed to be without buying anything.

And libraries also happen to be points of access for the sum total of human knowledge, where you can seek out answers to any question ever asked and ones that haven’t. Libraries suggest a universal right to learn about and prepare for any qualifying exam, to understand why you live where you do and why you have to work for a living and why it’s a good idea for you to vote; to become an expert on grasshoppers without ever leaving your town, to know what your surname means and what wars your ancestors likely escaped from, to bring home a stack of Bruce Willis DVDs and work systematically through them in chronological order, and browse aimlessly, satisfying impulsive curiosities from cradle to death. Libraries are at once immensely valuable and perhaps equally frivolous, because a life well lived doesn’t limit itself to useful things.

For Drabinski, that’s all libraries ever have to be: her pie-in-the-sky future vision of libraries is one in which they perform the same core functions they already do now. Those functions — and whichever others come down the pike — rely on workers: people to acquire materials, license, and organize and classify the collection; set up systems so people can find what they need; manage a complex sharing protocol; maintain and preserve the items and prepare them to be found again.

But in recent years, austerity has made work more challenging for libraries to operate smoothly. The ALA has shed some six thousand members during the pandemic alone. Furloughs in cities like Philadelphia and El Paso became permanent layoffs; similar proposals gained ground in New York and Los Angeles. Vacancies have remained open. School librarian positions frequently land on the chopping block during budget negotiations. States have slashed public library budget lines. Academic institutions whose revenue plunged during COVID-19 are frequently trimming library services. One recent survey of academic library workers found that 61 percent of respondents worried about budgets, and 53.9 percent were concerned about staff shortages.

Meanwhile, those libraries that have managed to maintain staffing and funding levels haven’t escaped the recent renewal of a relatively dormant front of the culture war: right-wing public and legislative fits over circulating book titles.

Attempted book bans multiplied a reported fourfold in 2021, with over three hundred flare-ups across the country centered on titles including The 1619 Project and Gender Queer. Still other library employees have been asked to stretch their resources, time, and staffing capacities further by putting together COVID-19 test distribution systems on a moment’s notice — a crucial service, to be sure, but one that would never fall to libraries if our public health system was robust enough to serve people’s needs.

That’s the crux of the argument that Drabinski’s campaign is making to the ALA’s fifty thousand members: the broader trend here isn’t just a lack of public respect for libraries or a failure of marketing but the workings of capitalism itself. And the only way to defend libraries as a public good, ensure that workers have a fair and well-compensated workload that will keep the institutions running smoothly, and vehemently oppose reactionary chest-thumping over kids’ books is to marshal the labor power of library workers themselves.

That will require the type of labor organizing that Drabinski found librarians are already good at as she began her tenure as secretary of Long Island University’s union: list-making, systematizing details, and tapping into peer networks within workplaces and across the field. It’s already how she’s run her campaign: during weekly campaign Zoom meetings, her campaign’s volunteers (organizing under the hashtag #EmilyForALA) have worked to develop a shared political analysis, devised plans to help librarians to join the ALA before the eligibility deadline, and delegated tasks to get out the vote.

The campaign has even strengthened the sorts of ties that rapid mobilization in the event of a lockout or protest would depend on. At one Thursday evening meeting I sat in on, around a dozen volunteers — one working a night shift and dialing in with headphones from between tall book stacks, another with blue hair and an #EmilyForALA banner as her Zoom background — discussed what other networks they could tap into to whip still undecided votes. One woman said she’d discuss Emily’s candidacy with all the zine librarians she knew, which could deliver five to ten votes. An undergrad who worked at his college library committed to making inroads with his own colleagues.

For her part, Drabinski has pledged to support these efforts once she’s president, directing a discretionary budget toward organizer training. And she’ll use the ALA’s large platform to make an impassioned case for public goods generally — and workers’ role in securing them.

“I think what the ALA could do is teach people to have an organizing conversation,” she said. “But mostly, the president is the person who will respond to an attack in the New York Times on the expertise and authority of library workers. We need a president whose public statements will be on labor’s side, that will be socialist in tone. There’s a real appetite for that right now.”