Mounting efforts in recent months to challenge or outright ban certain books in libraries around Alabama have affected how people are treating librarians, Alabama Public Library Service (APLS) director Dr. Nancy Pack said at Thursday’s APLS board meeting in Montgomery.
“They have degraded professional libraries,” Pack said. “My degree has been degraded down to nothing. And to me that is awful. It’s going to be very hard to recruit staff.”
About 30 attendees filled the APLS board room and an overflow room nearby to discuss libraries and the American Library Association (ALA). The board voted to table the issue of disaffiliating from the ALA until the spring when the APLS’ membership expires. The board noted less than 20 libraries in the state are affiliated with the ALA and about 500 librarians are individual members.
Calls to disaffiliate from the ALA have grown louder amid the calls to outright ban, or remove from chidren’s library sections, certain books deemed sexually explicit or subjects dealing with themes such as LGBTQ.
Board member and Alabama Republican party chairman John Wahl wanted to make a motion at Thursday’s meeting to opt out of the ALA. Still, other board members wanted more information before making that decision. Wahl said the ALA is “pushing a Marxist agenda” because ALA President Emily Drabinski Tweeted about her beliefs after being elected.
Pack said she will write a letter to Drabinski to say her comments have “negatively affected Alabama libraries,” particularly the rural libraries that don’t have a lot of staff or funding.
“The American Library Association is composed of over 50,000 librarians who hold religious, political, and social beliefs as diverse as the material on the shelves of any good library,” said Matthew Layne, president of the Alabama Library Association, when addressing the board. “Ms. Drabinski is not an autocrat, but one voice in the ocean of voices that make up the American Library Association.”
APLS board president Ronald Snider said libraries sustained damage due to controversies.
“I’ve been alarmed by some of our libraries receiving threats of physical harm to people, board members called Nazis. This vitriol that’s happening is hurting all libraries,” Snider said.
Several residents spoke during the public participation portion of the meeting, including Dallas Baillio, former Mobile County Public Library director. He handed out information about several groups including: the ALA; Clean Up Alabama (CUA), an organization that’s raised opposition to certain books; and Moms for Liberty, which is among groups that have pointed out selected passages from books that they feel are inappropriate and should be removed from library shelves.
Angie Hayden of library advocacy group Read Freely Alabama (RFA) also spoke about the proposed changes to the administrative code mandated by Gov. Kay Ivey to ensure libraries aren’t exposing children to inappropriate materials.
“After months of misrepresenting young adult literature as children’s books to manufacture outrage, Clean Up Alabama said in a recent AL.com article that they believe that Governor Ivy’s proposed administrative changes, which you will vote on today, do not go far enough,” Hayden said. “And in that piece, they demand policies that would restrict access to “content regarding sex, sexuality, and gender, even if it isn’t necessarily explicit. This has never been about sexually explicit content. So I think we can stop pretending.” She added that the comments made by CUA are “vile accusations that endanger librarians.”
“We must now insist that you reject extremism and preserve the rights of Alabama citizens and families like mine and libraries to curate collections that represent all community members,” Hayden said.
Prattville resident Carol Jahns spoke and presented the board with a packet of information regarding a study on “the impact of pornography on adolescents” and selected passages from books like Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” which has “inflammatory racial and religious commentary and references” and sexual assault and “Gender Queer.” This graphic novel by Maia Kobabe depicts oral sex between two men and menstruation.
“I’m just going to let you read it at your own pace or not, or just burn it,” Jahns said. “Burn it because the stuff that’s in there is not that very nice.”
She added parents don’t want this kind of material in their libraries and that the APLS should disaffiliate from the ALA because it gave awards to books like “Gender Queer.”
“There has to be a line in the sand somewhere,” Jahns said. “This has got to stop because what is next from ALA?
Clean Up Alabama president Hannah Rees also spoke to the board and said she’d hoped local libraries would address these concerns but that a lot of blame has been passed around.
“It seems that everyone wants to point the finger at someone else for responsibility,” Rees said. “The library board that was appointed wanted to point the finger at you guys. And then our local leaders wanted to point the fingers at the state legislators. So, everyone is saying, ‘Hey, it’s not my responsibility, it’s yours.’ We’ve either appointed you to these positions or we’ve elected you to these positions. And so we expect you to do something, but so far, no one has.”
The final public participant was Auburn resident Leah Welburn. She said the room is “full of wholehearted people whose pure intentions have been put towards nefarious ends and there are real harms being caused by your actions.” She said we should be united in this state and work against the “forces of hate, division and othering.” Welburn added that the real issue is not children being exposed to sexually explicit material but of censorship.
“Claims are being made about child safety when the reality is an issue of parental discomfort,” Welburn said. “Discomfort of adults learning that their children are given the opportunity to explore the stories of people different than their parents.”
Following the public comment portion, the board said they’re still waiting for an opinion from Attorney General Steve Marshall on whether or not the APLS can determine what libraries can or can’t do. Ben Albritton from the attorney general’s office attended and said this is day 63, and the office has 90 days to reply.
The next discussion item was a complaint to the board from the Read Freely Alabama on Wahl. RFA accused Wahl of having a conflict of interest serving on the board and being the GOP chair.
“I don’t think it is either appropriate for us as a board to say that any board member is prohibited to responding to any question or making any comment,” Snider said regarding Wahl’s invitation to a roundtable called “Stop the Sexual Exploitation of Children in Alabama Libraries” hosted by Clean Up Alabama. “I don’t think it’s appropriate to do that. I don’t think any other action is required.”
Wahl addressed the board and said the comments on his opinions were degrading free speech.
He wanted to “take the negativity out of it and look at people as individuals and have an open dialogue but be open and honest with each other. I value hearing people’s opinions.” Wahl said he didn’t attend the event because he wanted the board to refrain from receiving criticism for his actions.
Board member Jerria Martin encouraged members of Clean Up Alabama and Read Freely Alabama to exchange solutions because they share a passion for reading and a love for children.
“You guys have spoken so passionately today,” Martin said.
Towards the end of the meeting, APLS board member Virginia Doyle said she doesn’t know who got the ear of the legislature and Gov. Ivey to propose potentially cutting library funding, but that “it’s just wrong.”
“If they want to cut the money from the libraries, it won’t hurt me and it won’t hurt you,” Doyle said, pointing to other board members. “But they’re going to go home and they’re going to face the people. They’re not hurting this board. They’re hurting the people at home.”
Snider said more people have been attending APLS board meetings since August than in the last 25 years.
“We appreciate the diverse views that have been expressed today,” Snider said. “I think that all of this controversy which has involved a handful of libraries that has damaged all libraries in terms of the funding that we so desperately need.”
In other action Thursday:
- The board then discussed the suggestions Gov. Kay Ivey made in a letter to the APLS in October regarding changes to the administrative code, in lieu of state funding. Snider said the submission process will begin around January 20 before the next legislative session. It will be published at the end of January. There would be a 90-day public comment period. Pack added that the Legislative Review Service must approve the language before proceeding.
- The board agreed to request a 5% increase in funding for state aid. They also will request more funding for the Homework Alabama website and the Alabama Virtual Library. Snider said they receive $1.31 per capita in state funding. Out of the 220 libraries, 130 serve a community of less than 10,000 people, according to Snider. He added that 77 of these libraries serve less than 5,000 people.
- The objectionable content form was discussed, and clarifications were made about the substance of this list. The board agreed that the list of possibly inappropriate books for minors would not be made public but intended for library staff to review. Anyone could submit one book at a time and provide a name, address, and phone number. The system would send an automated message to acknowledge submission. No timetable was given for when this form would start taking submissions.