LOS ANGELES — Emily Drabinski took over as president of the American Library Association in July with plans to tackle the pressing issues facing her profession, such as shoring up funding and fighting a record number of book ban attempts nationwide.
She said she wants to make sure that the LBGTQ community and Black people see themselves reflected in the books on their library shelves. And she’s planning to prepare libraries for the consequences of climate change, pointing to the severe flooding this summer in the Northeast.
But some Republicans have focused on a single tweet Drabinski sent over a year ago to incite an effort to defund and abandon the ALA, the oldest and largest nonprofit trade organization for libraries. Conservative Republican lawmakers in Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina and Wyoming have pushed their states’ libraries to withdraw from the ALA, citing a since-deleted tweet Drabinski wrote after her election in April 2022.
“I just cannot believe that a Marxist lesbian who believes that collective power is possible to build and can be wielded for a better world is the president-elect of @ALALibrary,” Drabinski wrote. “I am so excited for what we will do together. Solidarity! And my mom is SO PROUD. I love you mom.”
Montana became the first state last month to cut ties, eschewing “association with an organization led by a Marxist.”
Right-wing activists have asserted that librarians following the ALA’s lead have been captured by a “woke” ideology, have labeled the organization “radical” and accused it of pushing a sexual agenda on children. Marxism is a political theory developed by German philosopher Karl Marx in the 19th century that critiques capitalism and analyzes class relations, and influenced many communist regimes. And though it has attracted backlash, Drabinski said she’s not going to hide her political opinions.
“I was excited to highlight and celebrate two aspects of my identity that are really important to me, and are often under a lot of scrutiny,” Drabinksi said in her first interview since taking office last month.
She said she wanted to show a sense of pride to peers who share those identities with her, some of who voted for her because of it, she said. “I didn’t anticipate these kinds of targeted attacks being used as a bludgeon against library workers across the country. I really think that is regrettable, and I wish that wasn’t happening right now.”
Drabinski, 48, stepped into her year-long term as ALA president at a crucial time for libraries, which have become magnets for protests by right-wing activists and are fighting legislation that aims to restrict the books on their shelves, which frequently centers on objections to titles with LGBTQ-themes.
The ALA documented the highest number of attempted book bans in 2022 since it began tracking such efforts in 2001. People in Pennsylvania, Florida and West Virginia have filed criminal complaints attempting to have librarians arrested and charged with obscenity, though none have succeeded, while several GOP governors signed bills that would make it easier to arrest librarians for letting children check out books they deem “harmful to minors.”
Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and Mike Braun of Indiana demanded last week that federal funds for the ALA be halted, and that the government investigate the organization for allegedly advising librarians to discriminate against a Christian book publisher. Mike Flynn, the retired Army general and former Trump adviser who has become a conspiracy theorist and a local Republican leader in Florida, attacked the ALA recently for being led by “Marxist thugs.”
Drabinski, who grew up in Boise, Idaho, and is a librarian at the City University of New York, sees these critiques as “organized pro-censorship efforts” by people who “want to erode support for public institutions that enable access to information for everyone.”
The ALA has plans to beef up its support for libraries facing political challenges, including raising funds to hire lawyers and providing crisis communications support. The ALA will launch a “campaign school” to support and encourage “people who believe in intellectual freedom” to run for school and library boards, Tracie Hall, the group’s executive director, said at the group’s national conference in June.
In January, the ALA will host an intellectual freedom summit in Washington, D.C., which it has done only twice before, during the McCarthy era when people were blacklisted for alleged ties to communist groups. At the time, authors and teachers were singled out and accused of communist subversion, and libraries faced demands that they label books considered “un-American.”
The last time that state chapters withdrew from the ALA, according to the organization, was during the Jim Crow era after the national office said it would not host events in segregated states.
But one difference between now and those previous eras of strife for the ALA is the intense focus on Drabinski’s views and sexual orientation as activists and lawmakers call to ostracize the organization, which is governed by 193 council members and has 62,000 members.
“This isn’t about the figurehead of the ALA,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America, a First Amendment advocacy organization. “It’s much more about sending a chilling message to a larger number of people to put them on notice about what happens to people who stand up for freedom of expression or freedom of identity.”
Book ban battles make an impact
- The American Library Association documented the highest number of attempted book bans in 2022 since it began tracking such efforts in 2001.
- In some towns in Idaho and Iowa, librarians said book banning demands became so hostile they had to quit their jobs. One librarian who spoke against book restrictions in Louisiana was labeled a pedophile.
- Several red states have enacted laws making it easier to prosecute librarians if children check out books that are considered "harmful to minors." A federal judge recently blocked one such law in Arkansas.
When trustees of the Montana State Library Commission debated leaving the ALA at their meeting last month, board member Tom Burnett said that their oath of office forbade them from being associated with a group led by a Marxist. Moms for Liberty chapters outside Montana had called on its members to urge the commission to leave the ALA, hoping to set a precedent for other states to withdraw as well over the organization’s “Marxist lesbian” president.
“It’s a really alarming precedent that they’re proposing here,” Friedman said, “which would be some kind of litmus test for the politics of all organizations that receive state funding, the likes of which haven’t really been adopted before in the United States.”
Wyoming Rep. John Bear, a Republican and chair of the state’s Freedom Caucus, said he’s pushing his state to leave the ALA because he believes the association is full of Marxists who promote books that “create a sexualized child at an earlier age” and are “turning libraries into activist training grounds.”
“The ALA has allowed this political point of view to infiltrate every aspect of their training,” Bear said in an interview. “And their trainings are just completely full of things like, how to deal with parents who don’t appreciate the type of materials that are available to children in the library, how to deal with your state legislature or your local government.”
Bear’s sentiment has been echoed by his colleague, state Rep. Pepper Ottman, who claimed in a July 12 webinar that the ALA’s recommended reading lists were provided “to open children up to pornography” and to groom them for sex trafficking. And his wife, Sage Bear, is on a library board in Campbell County that recently fired its library director because she would not remove books that included LGBTQ or sex education themes.
Drabinski said that she doesn’t want the ALA to “get stuck talking exclusively on the terms that they have set for us rather than the terms that I think the rest of us operate on every day.
“My own personal political viewpoint is a target right now, but my personal agenda doesn’t drive the association,” she said. “It’s the agenda of all of us together.”