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American Library Association President Emily Drabinski: ‘It’s Been Devastating’ Fighting Book Bans


It’s that time of year again: National Library Week! A time to celebrate the endless adventures that children can experience in books that are free and accessible to all, and the safe spaces that libraries provide for learning and creating a sense of community.

Or, it’s a time to reflect on how we got to a place where librarians are living in constant fear. They have become the targets of Republican politicians and far-right groups like Moms for Liberty that are hellbent on banning books about LGBTQ+ people, people of color and racism. Some librarians are quitting their jobs because of constant harassment; others are getting fired for refusing to clear shelves of books that conservatives don’t like.

More recently, and perhaps most alarmingly, the GOP’s censorship campaign has shifted from book bans to legislation threatening librarians with jail time.

The Idaho state House in 2022 passed a bill that would send librarians to jail for a year for checking out books to a minor that some might consider harmful. That bill never became law. But this month, the Idaho Legislature sent another bill to the governor requiring librarians to move “harmful materials” out of reach from minors or face lawsuits. Those include books that mention “any act of … homosexuality.”

In West Virginia, the state House passed a bill in February that would make librarians criminally liable if a minor comes across content that some might consider obscene. Critics of this bill warned it could result in challenges to even classic books, and lead to criminal charges being levied against librarians over books with any descriptions of sex.

HuffPost recently caught up with American Library Association President Emily Drabinski to talk about what is going on with these attacks, if the nation’s librarians are doing OK (“everywhere I go, the story is the same: library workers are afraid”), and how she and others who care about kids having access to a diversity of books are pushing back.

Drabinski also described the personal attacks she’s faced after tweeting ― and then deleting ― that she identifies as a Marxist lesbian. Several state libraries have cut ties with ALA in part because of her self-identification. In Georgia, the state Senate recently passed legislation that would ban libraries from spending money on services offered by ALA, which a Republican state legislator called “Marxist and socialist.”

“It turns out there’s an algorithm for those two words in conjunction,” she told HuffPost. “It has become a bludgeon people have been using to attack libraries and library workers. It’s been devastating. … I ran for this office because I love libraries and I love library workers.”

This Q&A has been lightly edited for brevity.

Emily Drabinski, the president of the American Library Association.

Paul Morigi via Getty Images

What is going on with these attacks on libraries?

It’s intense out here. As president, I have been traveling all over the country talking to librarians and visiting libraries in all kinds of places. Everywhere I go, the story is the same: library workers are afraid. They have a lot of anxiety. Even in places where they’re not seeing censorship in their own community, the threat of it is weighing heavily on library workers.

For example, I was just in South Carolina. For librarians here, having me come and visit is even challenging. The weaponization of libraries that we’ve seen since 2021 – when I’ve really seen this starting, then the attacks on ALA and now me personally ― is a bludgeon that’s scaring people everywhere. I hear that everywhere I go. It gets in the way of doing a job that everyone feels is important. People should agree: Kids should be able to read. Schools and public libraries are institutions that make reading possible for people, regardless of their needs and identity.

So what I’m seeing are a lot of people sort of bending themselves to accommodate and try to be “not a lesbian” or whatever. But that doesn’t seem to stop the attacks.

Librarians are in a really difficult political spot. We’re committed to a space for everyone. We’re committed to giving kids books that they want to read. It’s what libraries do. That job gets harder and harder. You’ll see in Florida, for example, where librarians are pulling books off the shelf and not even putting them on the shelf because the legislation there is so broad. The degree to which we comply with that, I think, is a question for everybody.

Are people coming for your federal funding?

I don’t think that’s at risk. Most libraries are funded locally. Federal funding is pretty small. But state-level people are facing attempts to gut funding. For example, in Iowa, they have the largest number of bills attacking libraries and library workers’ right to read. One of the bills this session would have changed language that mandates library funding, for some amount of county money going to public libraries, it would change it from “must” to “may.” This language change would have made it elective if Iowa supports libraries.

Iowa has a robust and rich network of libraries because of its state requirements. There are 500 public libraries in Iowa. There are 99 in West Virginia. You can guess which state has a state requirement that counties fund their libraries.

When you fund libraries, you have more things that the library funds in the community. What gets lost in conversations about book banning is that it’s really about eliminating the institution of the library, period. It’s not about the books. Well, it is about the books, but the books are the way in to gut one of the last public institutions that serves everyone.

Are people really trying to wipe out public libraries?

I don’t know that they would say this, but I think that is the way you see it playing out. There was a library in Michigan a few years ago where the attempts to ban LGBTQ+ materials were so intense, the staff resigned en masse. That’s one way that a library has closed.

In Texas, a [conservative] library board in effect lost their effort to ban books. So a county decided to limit funding for the library overall. There was a lawsuit and now it’s running. But when they can’t control a handful of books, they want to close the library altogether. Or run it completely in their image.

In northern Idaho, Boundary County, the attacks on the library staff there were so intense and so violent. People would follow librarians home from work with guys standing outside their houses. Public libraries are having difficulty getting insurance. The insurance agencies that insure public libraries are saying it’s not worth the risk for them.

The endgame is attacks on public education, attacks on teachers, and libraries are sort of the next frontier. The library is the heart of a community. That’s what they’re attacking right now. It’s such a bummer.

What have the personal attacks on you been like?

ALA is one of the biggest voices opposing this kind of censorship. Of course they were going to attack ALA. For me personally, there have been multiple state libraries that canceled memberships with ALA. In Montana, that was explicitly because of me. The language said it was because, when I was elected, I tweeted I couldn’t believe a Marxist lesbian was president. So now it’s “a liberal organization and they elected a Marxist.”

It turns out there’s an algorithm for those two words in conjunction. It has followed me, dogged me. It has become a bludgeon people have been using to attack libraries and library workers. It’s been devastating to hear from library workers who are getting calls from community members asking, are they Marxist?

I ran for this office because I love libraries and I love library workers. I also have a union background. So, to see my identity weaponized against the people I care the most about has been very emotionally difficult.

It’s especially challenging in Montana. They were the first state to withdraw from ALA because they said it was against the Constitution of the United States to be affiliated with a Marxist organization.

But when I went to the hearing and listened, it wasn’t about me being Marxist at all. It was about me being a lesbian. The attacks were around my gender and sexuality. We know attacks on LGBTQ+ books and reading materials have been alongside efforts to ban trans-affirming health care for kids, and efforts to limit gay content in the classroom. You can’t even say the word “gay” in Florida. I see attacks on me as another piece of this assault on LGBTQ+ people, particularly trans lives.

Far-right groups like Moms for Liberty are trying to ban books that talk about LGBTQ+ people, people of color and racism.
Far-right groups like Moms for Liberty are trying to ban books that talk about LGBTQ+ people, people of color and racism.

Baltimore Sun via Getty Images

Does this make you reluctant to stay in this role?

I’m a volunteer-elected leader. My day job is at Queens College in New York. I teach library science. My job is fine. They’ve been very supportive. So, no, at ALA I’m the president. I was elected by a big margin of our membership who wanted to see me in this role. As much as we might disagree about how the world came to be, the big bang, God, capital and labor, what we agree about is that libraries are important. Access to information is important. Access to broadband is important.

Think about when you got your first library card. Was it exciting? For most of us, we have a memory of what that meant. It opened up a world to us. To try to eliminate that for young people is so devastating. When we put conditions on who people can be as readers, what we’re really doing is putting conditions on who they can be as people.

I don’t want this moment to be about fights over libraries. Instead, we can celebrate. More people are talking about libraries than they have in my entire career. There are so many more stories about what libraries do to bring together the community. A tiny minority of people have taken control of the narrative about libraries and what they do.

Is it really a small minority?

Yes. But in a lot of states, they have power. In Georgia, they have a bill that would prohibit any public funds from being spent on any ALA services. That bill moved out of the Senate and will be considered by the House. I think in any other iteration of American history it would have been a nonstarter.

When did somebody, anybody, know who the president of the American Library Association is? Much less a senator from Georgia. Why is he thinking about who I am? Because they have power, if that explains it.

The Washington Post did a good story where they analyzed where these 1,000 school book complaints came from. They came from five people.

Yeah. What they do is challenge a book. They say a book is not good to have in a collection. We have mechanisms to allow people to weigh in. But it’s not in good faith. They are challenging huge numbers of books at a time. Books they have clearly not read.

These attacks are unrelated to what’s actually happening in a library. Survey after survey shows that people love libraries. ALA did a survey about librarians being trusted to decide what books they have in their collections. [Seventy-five percent said that they have confidence in librarians to do this.] Michigan ran a similar survey a year later. That number was even higher.

So when people hear about these kinds of attacks, very few people find that it is resonant.

“I think it’s about eliminating the universal access to the stuff of imagination, which is what libraries provide.”

– Emily Drabinski, president of the American Library Association.

I don’t know. I wake up every morning thinking it has to be over because it doesn’t make any sense. But it’s not over.

I don’t know if you’ve read any of these banned books. ”Flamer” is my favorite of the top 10 banned books. It’s a graphic novel about a boy at Boy Scout camp grappling with his sexuality. A quiet, intimate, kind story about how even when we’re different and we feel alone, there is a flame inside of us that glows. In fact, it’s quite a Christian story — there’s a light inside of you, no matter who you are. I met the author and asked him, “Tell me about your readers.” He was telling me, even though the book is for youth, he hears a lot from adults who say they needed this book when they were younger.

You read it and it’s such a beautiful book. You think about how much effort is being put into stamping it out. It is just devastating.

I wish I knew the endgame. We live in an upside-down world where a person is against a kid reading. My fear is we’re heading to a dark world where people don’t have access to books unless they have the means to buy things for themselves. I think it’s about eliminating the universal access to the stuff of imagination, which is what libraries provide. The idea that imagination is something that not everyone can have.

This is why the conversation needs to be larger than book bans. If we only focus on books, we’re gone. I think we’re in a bigger fight than that.

If you walk into a library, you can’t be against it. You walk in and every time you see something that blows your mind. I was recently on vacation with my family in Tahoe. I was late to turning in my grades, so I went to the library to use Wi-Fi. I uploaded them; it was free to use. Then you could check out the library’s snowshoes. You could use them on the trails by the entrance to the library. Amazing.

Libraries are hyperlocal institutions that meet the needs of your community. I could tell you millions of stories about what libraries do. We all want this. How we found ourselves in a place where it’s up for debate, I don’t know how we got here. But I know how we get out of here, and we need to talk about how libraries are amazing.

Is there any final message you have for people concerned about this?

The first thing you should do, if you have a library card, use it. If you don’t have one, go get one. If you have a friend who doesn’t have one, bring them with you. We need people to see our libraries, because I think when you see them, you will appreciate their value and you will want to defend them.

We have a campaign, Unite Against Book Bans. I urge your readers to check it out. We have all kinds of resources for fighting back against organized censorship in our communities. It advocates taking action when you see things happening.

Recently, a library in New Jersey was being challenged again for having a book about puberty in their high school collection, which is entirely appropriate. That platform activated 40 local people to come out. It’s an advocacy platform. ALA was able to mobilize advocates through it for this event. These are people who are very interested in their kids being able to read the books they choose.

We have master’s degrees in building library collections. I don’t cut my own hair. I don’t paint my own house. People don’t think there’s something to selecting books. The idea that [far-right groups] would know better than we would?

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