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This Organization Is Fighting to Get Cops Out of Libraries

In June 2020, as the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests started in earnest, everyone suddenly wanted to read. Anti-racist reading lists circulated in the media and on social platforms, pressure to support local and independent bookstore sales increased, and more attention was paid to Black authors. This newfound interest in literature also created more work for many librarians. 

Last summer, a group of librarians from across the country started meeting regularly to discuss the need to make libraries a safe, accessible space for people to read and access all kinds of information. They eventually formed the Abolitionist Library Association (AbLA), a group of library workers, students, and community members who aim to divest money from policing in libraries and redistribute resources to communities. Over the past year, the association has worked to remove police from libraries nationwide and allocate funds to community-led efforts. In June, the group officially launched a website, which shares resources related to police abolition, anti-racism, cybersecurity, and more.

Though the association has dozens of members from various states, members all work toward similar goals on a local level. Reanna Esmail, the lead librarian for instruction at Cornell University and a member of the facilitation team at AbLA, tells Teen Vogue that two of the group’s biggest goals are to ensure that library budgets do not go toward policing and to create a safe library environment without the use of police force. 

“For me, one immediate goal of AbLA is to advocate for transparency about how police and policing affects libraries,” Esmail says via email. “There is still a lot we do not know about how pervasive policing is in our institutions. This includes not only the physical and visible presence of police, like [with] police security in some libraries, but financial commitments such as budget allocations, ties to the prison-industrial complex, and issues with data access and privacy rights, like when surveillance cameras are used.”

AbLA’s campaign to divest from policing in libraries has already had immense success. In 2020, Los Angeles members of the association were able to get the Board of Library Commissioners to transfer $2 million from LAPD Security Services to a Reimagining Safety Initiative. According to Esmail, “local organizing efforts that AbLA members have been involved in or supported have resulted in the elimination of library fines, an increase in the minimum wage for library workers, increased trainings on de-escalation and crisis intervention techniques that do not involve police, and investments in community-affirming resources.”

The fight to remove police from libraries has been ongoing for years: Activists in cities across the country, including St. Louis and New York, have recently called for police divestment, as have students from several universities, including Cornell, Columbia, and MIT. But many members of the AbLA tell Teen Vogue that libraries can uphold policing and the prison-industrial complex in unexpected ways; for example, some libraries use furniture made by incarcerated workers. Association members want not only to remove the police presence from libraries, but reimagine and create a sense of public safety for library patrons that is entirely separate from policing and prisons.

“I think that the work of the association is vital, as it is redefining the relationship between libraries and the community,” says Jess, a staff librarian at a public library in Massachusetts who prefers not to use her last name. “Libraries can often be seen as gatekeeping institutions, and it isn’t uncommon for marginalized people to feel unwelcome or have negative connotations with libraries. It’s important to actively create a library culture that pushes beyond the preconceived notions of what a library is meant to be or who belongs there, and that is exactly what AbLA is doing.” 

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