Home » News » American Library Association finds itself in middle of ‘woke’ wars

By Dennis Hetzel, published on November 9, 2023

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There was a time when it would have been hard to imagine the word “controversial” applying to the American Library Association. 

The ALA’s purpose statement goes like this:

“To provide leadership for the development, promotion and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.”

Those quiet days are gone. Go to the www.ala.org homepage and the first thing you see is a red banner that says: “Dealing with censorship challenges at your library or need to get prepared for them? Visit our Fight Censorship page for easy-to-access resources.” 

The ALA now finds itself embroiled in allegations from conservative groups that it’s too “woke” in promoting content some find offensive and pornographic. ALA supporters say the attacks are code words to normalize hate against LGBT individuals while suppressing discussions related to race, white privilege and other hot topics. 

As the Associated Press and others have reported, libraries have begun cutting ties with the ALA, particularly over the issue of whether the ALA’s stand against censorship and book bans gives children too much access to content these libraries believe is inappropriate.

“This summer, the state libraries in Montana, Missouri and Texas and the local library in Midland, Texas, announced they’re leaving the ALA, with possibly more to come,” the AP reported. “Right-wing lawmakers in at least nine other states — Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming — demand similar action.”

A September story in The Washington Post framed the ALA’s new role as a center of controversy like this:

“The American Library Association is facing a partisan firefight unlike anything in its almost 150-year history. The once-uncontroversial organization, which says it is the world’s largest and oldest library association and which provides funding, training and tools to most of the country’s 123,000 libraries, has become entangled in the education culture wars — the raging debates over what and how to teach about race, sex and gender.”

ALA president Emily Drabinski didn’t help the ALA’s reputation in many quarters when she reportedly tweeted in 2022 that she’s a “Marxist lesbian.” This sparked an outcry from groups such as the Liberty Counsel, a conservative legal-advocacy organization that the Southern Poverty Law Center lists as an anti-LGBT hate group, an allegation the group denies.

“This is the problem with the American Library Association, it has changed from an organization that helped communities and used common sense into one that just promotes a view,” Dan Kleinman, a blogger and long-time ALA critic, said in an Associated Press story about unfolding events in rural Campbell County, Wyo., where the sparks surrounding the ALA turned into a fully involved fire.

According to the AP, library board member Charles Butler in Campbell County said the local library was the first to withdraw from the ALA after community members complained about a drag-queen story hour. 

ALA officials deny they have a political agenda, saying the organization remains nonpartisan.

“This effort to change what libraries are, or even just take libraries away from communities, I think, is part of a larger effort to diminish the public good, to take away those information resources from individuals and really limit their opportunity to have the kinds of resources that a community hub, like a public library, provides,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom.

Meanwhile, the AP reported that individual membership in the ALA is down 14 percent since 2018 to about 49,700, the lowest since 1989 according to figures on the organization’s website. The ALA attributes the decline to suspended library conferences during the pandemic.

Campbell County is one of several locations around the country where officials have sought to criminally prosecute librarians who fail to remove objectionable material. The librarian there was fired after she didn’t want to follow the board’s directives, citing First Amendment concerns.

In Campbell County, policy changes removed the ALA’s “Library Bill of Rights,” which states: “A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.” The new policy says the library system takes seriously keeping “obscene, sexually explicit or graphic materials” out of youth sections and can apply that priority in the routine “weeding” of damaged, unused and out-of-date books.

Wyoming’s Republican governor, Mark Gordon,  said a letter from 13 state lawmakers and Wyoming’s secretary of state asking him to pull the Wyoming State Library from the ALA was a “media stunt.” Instead, the AP reported, “he called for discussion about the ALA’s ‘organizational drift’ but is keeping the Wyoming State Library in the ALA.”

Meanwhile, it’s getting harder for librarians to do their jobs without facing harassment. In July, the Associated Press reported on Jamie Gregory, the 2022 South Carolina school librarian of the year. She has been called a “pedophile” and a “groomer,” accused of distributing pornography, and has had her personal address shown on social media. 

“In Gregory’s conservative community in Greenville, S.C., the public library board was pushing branches to remove Pride displays in June,” the AP reported. “In March, she testified against a bill that would allow parents to challenge any educational materials they say violate banned teachings around white privilege and implicit bias.”

Gregory said she’s not backing down. At the ALA convention’s annual meeting in Chicago in July, attendees were invited to sit in a giant chair to read excerpts from a banned book. Gregory reportedly selected “Gender Queer,” an autobiographical comic by author Maia Kobabe on what it means to be to be nonbinary and asexual.

The ALA says “Gender Queer” was the most challenged book of 2022.

Related links

American Library Association – The Free Speech Center (mtsu.edu)

United States v. American Library Association (2003) – The Free Speech Center (mtsu.edu)

Librarians train to defend intellectual freedom, fight book bans  – The Free Speech Center (mtsu.edu)

Judge blocks Ark. law allowing librarians to be criminally charged over ‘harmful’ materials – The Free Speech Center (mtsu.edu)

Conservative book ban push fuels library exodus from national association that stands up for books | AP News

States cut ties with American Library Association – The Washington Post

Texas cutting ties with American Library Association over accusations of group’s ‘Marxist ideology’: Report | Fox News

Pennsylvania Freedom Caucus calls for libraries to leave the American Library Association

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