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In Georgia, a bill to cut all ties with the American Library Association is advancing

The American Library Association had its annual conference in Chicago last year. Several states have moved to disassociate with the ALA amid what some conservatives say has been politicization of the group. ALA officials deny having a political agenda.
Claire Savage
/
AP
The American Library Association had its annual conference in Chicago last year. Several states have moved to disassociate with the ALA amid what some conservatives say has been politicization of the group. ALA officials deny having a political agenda.

Updated March 3, 2024 at 11:19 AM ET

Those who've been trying to remove certain books from childrens' sections at public libraries are now taking aim at what they see as a source of the problem: the American Library Association.

A growing number of states and local libraries are cutting ties with the nation's predominant library professional association, saying the ALA has become too radical. On Thursday, a bill that would go further than any other passed the Georgia state Senate in a 33-to-20 vote and now heads to the House.

Republican state Sen. Larry Walker says he sponsored the legislation after discovering his library had received a $20,000 grant from the American Library Association to diversify its collection, adding books dealing with LGBTQ and BIPOC themes. Walker says he became determined to stop what he calls that "radical" organization from being "political indoctrination centers ... promoting aberrant sexual behavior and socialist anti-American rhetoric."

"I feel this is kind of being forced on our children and kind of shoved down our throat," Walker said. "I'm a pretty tolerant individual, but this has gone too far."

About eight other states, including Montana, Missouri, Texas and South Carolina, have also made moves to disassociate from the ALA. Some local libraries have opted out themselves. But Walker's more sweeping bill, the first of its kind in the nation, would force all school and public libraries in Georgia to cut ties with the library association.

Anti-ALA furor fueled by a social media post

The push against the ALA has been gaining steam ever since the group's president, Emily Drabinski, celebrated her election to a one-year term as ALA president with a now-deleted social media post expressing excitement that the group would be led by someone like her, "a Marxist lesbian who believes that collective power is possible to build and can be wielded for a better world."

Taylor Hawkins, with the conservative Christian lobbying group Frontline Policy Action, which helped draft and promote the Georgia legislation, points to an article by Drabinski in the academic journal The Library Quarterly a decade ago called "Queering The Catalog."

"She discusses a strategy for queer library politics, directly injecting politics into the library," Hawkins said. "This is an organization that cannot be trusted with influence over public libraries in the state of Georgia."

Emily Drabinski's tenure as president of the American Library Association has been marked by controversy after she described herself on social media as "a Marxist lesbian."
Paul Morigi / Getty Images for PFLAG National
/
Getty Images for PFLAG National
Emily Drabinski's tenure as president of the American Library Association has been marked by controversy after she described herself on social media as "a Marxist lesbian."

For her part, Drabinski offered a written statement claiming her scholarship was being mischaracterized.

"Though it's personally painful to see my identity attacked," she said. "I also recognize this moment is about more than one person, one person's politics or one person's sexual orientation. The fight we are witnessing now is fundamentally about whether our communities in America should be home to inclusive, welcoming libraries where all residents — regardless of means or identity — can access books selected by trained librarians."

The ALA says it has seen a decline in membership in recent years, but attribute that more to a post-pandemic economy than any politically motivated defections. And the group denies any bias, insisting the organization is not defined by any single person's ideology.

"We've had many different presidents with many different ranges of political beliefs, and they're entitled to their beliefs as much as the individual who doesn't like seeing an LGBTQ book on the shelf," says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom.

She says forcing libraries to cut ties with the ALA is itself government censorship.

"Will [libraries] become arms of the state, only communicating those messages that a political actor believes is appropriate?" she mulls. "It just stuns me. We are the professional membership organization for librarians. Would you do this to the American Bar Association? Would you do this to the American Medical Association?"

Timing of Georgia's bill comes at what some see as a perilous moment

"Librarians in Georgia are pissed," says Georgia state Sen. Nabilah Islam Parkes. "I mean this is clearly not rooted in good policy. This is more of a political attack."

Islam Parkes says the bill would rob libraries of all the support the ALA provides, from grants and library materials, to professional development and access to a national network of peers. There's currently no other group offering similar resources. The ALA is also the only organization that accredits university programs in library and information science that train future librarians, and the Georgia bill would make it illegal to spend public funds on that.

"I got an email today from a library director who said that this is like trying to use a sledgehammer to smash a mosquito," said Islam Parkes.

To some, the timing of the legislation is especially perilous. The ALA shares standards and materials to help libraries promote information literacy, and this is exactly the wrong moment to be letting up on that, says David Lankes, a professor of librarianship at the University of Texas at Austin's School of Information, and a member of the ALA.

"We ensure that our barbers and our butchers are up to serving our communities well, but when it comes to the people that help us navigate the worlds of mis- and disinformation, we're putting barriers in place for them doing their job," Lankes says. "That's scary."

"It's a travesty, honestly," says Terri Lesley, who saw the impact firsthand when she was library director in Wyoming's Campbell County, which in 2022 became one of the first local library systems to sever ties with the ALA.

Lesley says she opposed the move and was subsequently fired. She says even though the policy there was less draconian — librarians could still take part in ALA training as long as it was on their own time and their own dime — the impact was still significant.

"The staff are at a huge disadvantage," she says. "They're not exposed to the things that help us do our jobs most efficiently and most creatively, and it harms the community."

Campbell County's decision also meant the ALA's Library Bill of Rights, which affirms broad access to books, was removed from its library policy. New language was added barring "sexually explicit or graphic materials" from the kids' and young adult sections.

A national conservative activist group called MassResistance, helped drive those changes, and founder Brian Camenker says many more local libraries are interested in doing the same.

"Just yesterday we were talking with a county supervisor in Virginia, and we were giving her our model legislation, and you know, it's a surprisingly easy sell all around the country," Camenker says.

But not always. Some governors are pushing back.

Wyoming's Republican Gov. Mark Gordon, for example, says he shares concerns that the American Library Association has become politicized, but he's refused calls to cut his state's ties with the ALA, calling that a "media stunt."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tovia Smith
Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.