Discussions on unions, politics mark librarians’ conference

By Jim Altenberg
and Pattie Thompson
August 14, 2023
Discussions of defense of constitutional freedoms, “woke” book bans, need for unions today, politics led to high sales of Pathfinder books at American Library Association conference.
Militant/Salm KolisDiscussions of defense of constitutional freedoms, “woke” book bans, need for unions today, politics led to high sales of Pathfinder books at American Library Association conference.

CHICAGO — Nearly 16,000 librarians from public, school, prison and military-base libraries, along with publishers, authors and vendors, gathered here at the McCormick Place June 22-27 for the American Library Association conference. The gathering took place amid increased attacks on constitutional rights, rewrites of well-known authors whose views clash with today’s politically correct  inquisition, and bans on books from various political forces.

As part of the conference, volunteers staffed a large Pathfinder Press booth in the exhibit hall, featuring works in several languages by Socialist Workers Party leaders and other working-class revolutionaries worldwide. The booth was a nonstop center of discussion on an array of topics, including the need for unions, women’s emancipation, racism, antisemitism and the example of the Cuban Revolution.

Many were interested in Spanish-language titles, saying they wanted to expand their libraries’ Spanish collections.

Volunteers introduced participants to Pathfinder’s newest title, The Low Point of Labor Resistance Is Behind Us: The Socialist Workers Party Looks Forward by SWP leaders Jack Barnes, Mary-Alice Waters and Steve Clark. Many participants pointed to the opening sentence on the stakes for the working class in defending and using constitutional freedoms, and discussed the dangers in the Democrats’ unrelenting drive to criminalize political disputes, targeting Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump along with his supporters. Others were drawn to the discussion in the book on the labor movement, saying they were union members or involved in unionization efforts at their libraries.

An important component of the ALA gathering was the organization’s campaign against censorship of reading material and of library collections. There were many presentations on this issue, including in the opening session where the featured speaker was well-known children’s author Judy Blume. Her popular fiction, which addresses issues faced by adolescent girls, has been the target of censorship efforts for decades.

The ALA campaign focused almost entirely on titles challenged by forces aligned with former President Donald Trump and other Republican candidates. But the fact is, many working-class parents are genuinely concerned about what their children are being taught in the schools, which is increasingly saturated with “woke” political indoctrination and sexually explicit material, all the way down to kindergarten. They demand a say in their children’s education, which has less and less to do with learning to read, write, do mathematics and understand history and the physical world.

Little was said at the ALA event about liberal “cancel culture,” which seeks to ban books, authors and public speakers and others who do not bow to “political correctness.” Conference organizers set up a “banned books” display that included none of the works by William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Joseph Conrad, J.K. Rowling, and others targeted as “racist,” “offensive,” or, as a recent bill before the California legislature put it, lacking “inclusive and diverse perspectives.” No objection was raised against increasing efforts to strip or rewrite books that some claim use upsetting words.

Along with Blume, the opening session of the conference featured Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, who campaigned for a law that would pull state funds from libraries that selectively remove books. Illinois Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker in signing the bill slandered its opponents as racists, claiming its purpose is to prevent “white nationalism” from “determining whose histories are told.”

Books to workers behind bars

As in years past, the ALA conference was an important forum for librarians involved with prisons and jails to discuss their work. Pathfinder volunteers Mark Severs and Jim Rogers participated in many of these meetings, showing prison librarians Pathfinder books. A Maryland librarian told one of the panels, “I would like to thank our friends from Pathfinder for the work that they do.” Some came to the Pathfinder booth, buying books and arranging to be contacted after the conference.

Among the hundreds of panels and other activities, some dealt with current political developments. Two panels addressed Russia’s war against Ukraine and Moscow’s attacks on libraries and culture. Also addressed were expanding library services to non-English speakers and people with visual impairments.

Pathfinder volunteers introduced Abram Leon’s The Jewish Question: A Marxist Interpretation to participants, including at a reception of the Association of Jewish Librarians. Six people bought copies, and others signed up to be contacted later.

Sales of Pathfinder books at the booth were significantly higher than at previous ALA conferences. A total of 129 books were sold, along with 19 subscriptions to the Militant. Top-sellers included The Low Point of Labor Resistance Is Behind Us; Women’s Liberation and the African Freedom Struggle by Thomas Sankara; The Jewish Question; and Women in Cuba: The Making of a Revolution Within the Revolution by Cuban revolutionary leaders Vilma Espín, Asela de los Santos and Yolanda Ferrer. One person bought Farrell Dobbs’ four-volume series on the Teamsters union movement in the 1930s.

Pathfinder volunteers across the country have begun to call the over 100 people who signed up to be contacted. Two young women invited Pathfinder to a librarians’ conference in Indiana this fall. And as a librarian in the Bay Area told volunteer Jim Altenberg, “I really appreciate you following up. I was very impressed by your collection.”