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Massachusetts Labor Movement Backs Intellectual Freedom in Our Libraries

In recent years, Massachusetts libraries have been increasingly affected by a coordinated, nationwide effort to bar or restrict access to books and programming that extremist groups find objectionable. According to the American Library Association, Massachusetts saw 45 documented attempts to censor books and other library resources in 2022 — the fourth highest number of any state. 90% of reported book challenges were demands to censor multiple titles - and of those demands to censor library books, 40% sought to remove or restrict more than 100 books all at once.

In response, at the urging of AFT Massachusetts and the Massachusetts Library Staff Association (MLSA), the Massachusetts labor movement has come together in an expression of support for library staff, intellectual freedom, and free access to libraries and library materials.

President Kelly on intellectual freedom

A resolution passed by the MA AFL-CIO at the statewide labor council’s October convention states that “the MA AFL-CIO recognizes that free and open libraries, intellectual freedom, and freedom of expression are essential to a fully functioning and equitable democracy” and that “the MA AFL-CIO will support their MLSA siblings and libraries when anti-majoritarian, fascist and racist groups attack library programs and materials.” The resolution has also been passed by the North Shore Labor Council and the AFT Massachusetts Executive Board.

“The members of the Massachusetts Library Staff Association fully support the concept of intellectual freedom: the right of library users to read, seek information, and speak freely as guaranteed by the First Amendment,” said Patricia Kelly, Head of Reference at the Lynnfield Public Library and President of the Massachusetts Library Staff Association. “We are so proud and grateful that our union siblings in the NSLC, AFT Massachusetts, and MA AFL-CIO have joined us in support of libraries, library programs, and access to information for all.”

MLSA members have been on the front lines of this conflict, defending intellectual freedom in our state’s libraries.

“I spent a lot of time and energy in 2020 and 2021 fighting for the integrity of the library collection and for workplace safety at the Baird Middle School in Ludlow, MA,” said Matt Amory, a member of the MLSA who now works as a Librarian for Information and Technology at the Canton Public Library and serves as Treasurer of the MLSA. “I saw firsthand that book challenges are proxies for wider ‘culture war’ issues. False claims that libraries are full of pornography are calls to action and organizing tools for the minority of people who want to stop societal progress on racial and gender equality and LGBTQ rights, and return to the antebellum status quo. Challenges to library materials are pretexts for wider campaigns of intimidation of library and school staff.”

“The majority of the populace opposes these retrograde political and cultural beliefs, but anyone who resists in any way run the risk of becoming the target of smear campaigns on social media, threats of violence, and actual physical harm,” he continued. “It has been incredibly gratifying to see Union siblings standing in solidarity with librarians who are targeted by these attacks.”

“It would be good if other AFT Massachusetts members appreciated the unique challenges faced by public librarians. Our buildings, services, and work are open to all patrons and the public - regardless of age, socioeconomic status, level of education, mental status, ability, or privilege” said Michael Conboy, Assistant Director of the Reuben Hoar Library in Littleton and Vice President of the MLSA. “We are currently on the frontlines against threats to intellectual freedom, access to materials, and programing; sometimes with threats against library funding as well. All union members should therefore be working together to protect the access to information and intellectual freedom, which are some of the basic tenets of a free and democratic society.”

“Right now, we are hyper-focused on supporting libraries that are facing challenges against materials and programming. We are also working to develop best practices that will assist our library members in dealing with an increase in patron behavior issues,” said Patricia Kelly. “But we don’t want to lose focus on basic funding issues like budgets and compensation that affect our members and their quality of life and work.  AFTMA leadership and members have always been supportive of our goals and have stood with us during rallies and actions.  I am sure the AFTMA membership will continue supporting their library union siblings!”

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