In his closing talk at the 2021 American Library Association Annual conference on Tuesday, former president Barack Obama praised libraries as “citadels of knowledge and empathy” and said that libraries were “extraordinarily important” in his own life, and to the nation—especially in these tumultuous, politically charged times.
“We're going to have work to do in rebuilding that unifying story of America,” Obama told attendees at one point in his talk. “And since we're talking to a bunch of librarians, I just want to let them know what they do is more important than ever. Figuring out how do we provide our fellow citizens with a shared set of baseline narratives around which we can make our democracy work.”
Obama appeared in a virtual conversation with Secretary of the Smithsonian Lonnie G. Bunch III and over the course of their 40-minute talk the two men touched on an array of themes from the former president’s bestselling memoir, A Promised Land, as well as issues including racial and social justice, the rise of misinformation, and the tenuous state of our democracy.
Throughout the conversation, Obama was thoughtful and mostly optimistic. But in perhaps the most headline-grabbing part of the talk, Bunch pressed Obama on whether his optimism extended to the strength of our civic institutions, deeply challenged in the Trump era, prompting Obama to voice his concerns.
“[T]he degree to which misinformation is now disseminated at warp speed in coordinated ways that we haven't seen before, 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,” Obama said. “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.”
When asked by Bunch how he manages to be so “comfortable with ambiguity” and complex issues, Obama drew on his own background and experiences—born to a white, American-born mother and an African father.
“I can't resort as easily to stock figures of heroes and villains. It turns out people are complicated, just as countries are complicated,” Obama said, making the point that our democracy—“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.”
At the same time, Obama insisted, recognizing the complexity of issues and respecting opposing views does not mean we compromise on core values. “That is not to say that there aren't principles we've got to stand up for. That's not to say that there is no right and wrong but it's all just relative or situational,” he explained. “It just means that we don't assume that there are simple answers."
Asked by Bunch about the source of his optimism in America, Obama, as he often does, pointed to the youth.
“You know, young people give me hope,” Obama said. “I have two daughters now in their early 20s, and when I talk not just to them but to their peers of all races and backgrounds, they are as sophisticated, as thoughtful, as idealistic, as any generation I think we've ever seen. They are biased in the direction of inclusion. They find it hard to imagine a time when people were discriminated against, not just because of the color of their skin, but because of their sexual orientation or what they look like. And I think just fundamentally they understand the issues around climate change, for example, and the need to preserve the planet in ways that at my age I did not. So they make me feel optimistic.”
At the same time, he acknowledged the distrust among younger generations of government, political parties, and other “traditional mediating institutions” and compared the need to restore faith in our institutions to the evolution of libraries.
“People love libraries and the idea of libraries. But they have to be retooled for a digital age, for the fact that people are more mobile, and [to remain] relevant to the community,” Obama said. “The same thing is true when it comes to political parties or unions or organized religion. And that I think is the challenge for this next generation—and part of it's going to involve us [older people] getting out of the way.”
In one of the most compelling parts of the conversation, Bunch brought up issues of racial justice. “I think as the first African American President, you have a unique vantage point on race in this country....I mean we've seen such an explosion of racist rhetoric, hate crimes, and open white supremacy after you left office... I guess the question is, is the country now closer to where we should be, or where we once were?” Bunch asked.
“You and I are testaments to the fact that genuine progress has been made,” Obama responded, before quickly rejecting the idea that his election “heralded a post-racial America,” and acknowledging the despair and the urgency around racial justice issues in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
“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,” Obama said. “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.”
Obama then reiterated his governing philosophy. "As I write in my book, sometimes I'd be sitting around with my staff in conversations about some policy measure. Typically because we had to negotiate with conservative Democrats or Republicans in Congress, it was going to be a partial victory, not 100% victory. And yeah, some of my younger staff particularly would feel a little bit like, 'Ah, should we take this half a loaf?'" And I'd ask them, 'Well, is it going to make things better?' And if their answer was yes, I said, better's good. I'll take 'better' every time. And when it comes to race in this country, I think what we want is 'better.'"
In response, Bunch quoted W.E.B. DuBois: "The reason we take half a loaf is because that way you're not hungry,” Bunch said. “We're at a point where, let us find the middle ground, let us find the compromises but let us keep our eye on the vision.”
“I think that being strategic in our actions, without ever conceding a rock hard unyielding belief in the equal dignity of all people, and that society's goal should be to, in everything it does, recognize the hand of God in all of this, that we are deserving of respect and grace and dignity and that has to manifest itself not just in the sky but here on earth, you know, I think those things, going back to our earlier point in the conversation about being comfortable with ambiguity, that, I think is an essential part of us being effective actors in the world," he said. "You understand that whatever you do is not going to be everything. But if it moves the boulder up a hill then it's useful.”
Obama closed by thanking 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. 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," Obama said. "So we appreciate you. Keep it up.”