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In an inspirational address at the close of the virtual 2021 American Library Association conference, former President Barack Obama told librarians that what they do “is more important than ever”.  In a conversation with Secretary of the Smithsonian Lonnie G Bunch III, he praised libraries as “citadels of knowledge and empathy”, and added: “People love libraries and the idea of libraries.”

In a wide-ranging conversation, the former President talked about fake news, democracy and racial justice.  “[T]he degree to which misinformation is now disseminated at warp speed in coordinated ways that we haven’t seen before,” he said, “and that the guard rails I thought were in place around many of our democratic institutions really depend on the two parties agreeing to those ground rules, those guard rails.  And when one of them right now doesn’t seem as committed to them as in previous generations? That worries me. And I think we should all be worried.”

He talked about how being born to a white American-born mother and an African father had influenced his outlook.  “I can’t resort as easily to stock figures of heroes and villains. It turns out people are complicated, just as countries are complicated….”  He said that democracy in the US – “the classic belief that people can elect representatives and they can make decisions and we can live together particularly in a multiracial, multi-ethnic society” – requires us to consider and respect multiple views.

“One of the things I worry about, both in our country and around the world, and I write about this in A Promised Land, is the rise of absolutism, the sense of absolute certainty that there is this unbridgeable distinction between us and them. And that is typically what leads to breakdowns in democracy.”

On race he said: “When you’ve got a bunch of white kids carrying signs that Black Lives Matter, that signifies a recognition and sophistication that gives me hope.  The question now is how do you build on that and institutionalize it and translate that into concrete actions, right? In terms of criminal justice laws that might have reduced mass incarceration, in terms of economics and contracting and hiring.  You know, that’s where the rubber hits the road. And if we start seeing more progress there, then we’re not going to eradicate racism or prejudice, but we can reduce it.”

In closing, he chose to praise librarians again for their work.  “Whether you’re [in] a small town, or a big city, you’re opening up the world for our children, giving them access to possibilities that they might not otherwise have,” he said.  “Creating safe spaces where reading is cool. You mean a lot to not just those individuals who benefit from your work, but you mean a lot to our democracy and our country.  So we appreciate you. Keep it up.”