In Philly, Sally Yates commends librarians as holders of truth

Former U.S. Deputy Attorney Sally Yates opens the Public Library Association Conference at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

Former U.S. Deputy Attorney Sally Yates opens the Public Library Association Conference at the Pennsylvania Convention Center. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates reflected on the tumultuous 10 days that she led the the Department of Justice in the nascent Trump administration Wednesday as she opened the Public Library Association’s annual convention in Center City.

In conversation with Pam Sandlian-Smith, association president, Yates talked about the abrupt end of her tenure after she refused to defend President Donald Trump’s first ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Yates said she found out about the ban from an assistant who read about it in the New York Times. She said the ban, which was issued during the transition period between the Obama and Trump administrations, caught her office off guard with only one staffer on duty.

After a weekend of review, Yates deemed the ban as undefendable because it used religious affiliation as a pretext.  “The DOJ should never be involved in advancing a pretext,” she said.

More than a year later, Yates said she has no regrets.

“Even if I had more time, I wouldn’t have changed my decision,” she said.

Addressing hundreds of librarians from across the country, Yates described libraries as “one of the few inherently democratic spaces we have.”

From their roles as resource and information centers, to polling places, she said librarians harbor objective truths important to an informed electorate.

“You are thought leaders, holders of truth in our communities. And our nation, our world needs you more than ever before,” she said to applause from the audience.

Throughout her remarks, Yates highlighted the role of public libraries as neutral grounds for debate in an increasingly polarized country.

“Out of rigorous debate come the best answers,” she said.

Asked what worries her the most, Yates said public trust in democratic institutions topped the list. She said she sees public libraries, with a reported 1.4 billion visitors last year, as a place for people to digest and think critically about the media they consume.

“Just because ‘post-truth’ was Merriam Webster’s word of the year [2016] doesn’t mean it needs to be normalized. Truth is the foundation to democracy,” she said.

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