Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) picked an unusual foil during a Judiciary Committee hearing last week about the historic rise in challenges to school books.
When it was his turn to question witnesses, he called up a video of Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. In a Zoom call, Caldwell-Stone had been recorded arguing that book advocates should “reframe” the book challenges. This debate should not center on whether titles are sexually inappropriate for minors, Caldwell-Stone said. It should be about “diverse materials … that are about … everybody’s right to see themselves and their families reflected” on bookshelves.
Lee let the recording play out, then pounced. “What we saw here was someone saying the quiet part out loud,” he said. “The goal is to sexualize children — to provide minors with sexually explicit material … and then hide this content from the parents.”
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 — culminating in Tuesday’s Senatorial name-check.
Like Lee, politicians and parents on the right increasingly paint the association, known as the ALA, as a defender of pornographic literature for children — tying their allegations into a broader conservative movement that asserts school libraries are filled with sexually explicit, inappropriate texts. (A 2022 tweet in which the organization’s president called herself “a Marxist lesbian” added to concerns.)
Over the summer, state libraries in Montana, Missouri and Texas announced that they were severing ties with the ALA, imperiling their libraries’ access to funding and training. The Texas decision was taken after state Rep. Brian Harrison (R) wrote to library leaders saying that “the ALA works against parents by fighting to keep pornographic materials in public libraries.” Conservative legislators in at least nine additional states are urging their state libraries to follow suit and disaffiliate. That includes Alabama, where state Rep. Susan DuBose in August published an op-ed calling the ALA “a conduit” for pornography. Four days later, Gov. Kay Ivey (R) wrote to her state’s library saying she was worried about “the environment” in libraries statewide and feared the ALA was “making the situation worse.”
Meanwhile, librarians and those on the political left are defending the ALA as a key provider of money and skills for librarians, a trusted authority on efforts to censor books and a champion of citizens’ freedom to read. For more than 20 years, the ALA has tracked book challenges at school and public libraries; during the Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday, Democratic senators often pointed to data from the association to support their arguments.
In particular, they cited an ALA report tracking 1,269 attempts to remove library books in 2022, the highest number of challenges to books since the ALA began compiling statistics on the issue. A Washington Post analysis found that books about LGBTQ people are fast becoming the main target and that a large percentage of complaints about books come from a small number of highly active adults.
“What we’re seeing is a lot of fear from people, a very vocal minority that has managed to paint the wrong picture of the majority of public libraries,” said Susan Gregory, the director of Bozeman Public Library in Montana.
The disaffection with the ALA is unprecedented and related to larger societal tendencies to refuse vaccines and to doubt climate change, said University of Pennsylvania professor Jonathan Zimmerman, who studies the history of education. He said that for more than a century, the ALA benefited from “professional deference” as the leading organization for librarians.
That deference is gone.
“We used to trust our librarians to make judgments,” he said. “This is just another chapter in the erosion of professional authority.”
Caldwell-Stone, who attended Tuesday’s hearing, said she was sad but unsurprised that her organization is coming into the country’s political crosshairs. She said the seconds-long video that Lee played was taken from a 90-minute seminar. She was specifically discussing how to respond to parents who call picture books pornographic “simply for featuring families headed by same-sex couples,” she said.
“I can stand by what I said in the past, in the future, now, whatever,” Caldwell-Stone said. “But — you know, it goes with the territory now. I guess this is just what’s happening.”
Founded on Oct. 6, 1876, in Philadelphia by 103 male and female librarians, the American Library Association took as its original mission helping “librarians do their present work more easily and at less expense.” Its motto soon became — and remains — “The best reading, for the largest number, at the least cost.”
Over the century and a half since, the organization has mushroomed to include chapters in all 50 states — as well as D.C., Guam and the Virgin Islands — and nearly 50,000 members. Today it sends on average $12 million to libraries every year and provides thousands of hours of professional training. It also helps libraries navigate federal grant applications, hosts a scholarship program for librarians of color and accredits library and information-science schools nationwide.
Public libraries draw most of their funding — covering essentials such as employee salaries, office supplies and book purchases — from city and county taxes, according to library advocacy group EveryLibrary. Federal grants, which the ALA helps libraries to obtain, as well as money from the ALA, make up a relatively small percentage of most libraries’ budgets. Still, extra federal cash allows libraries to purchase access to expensive databases including those focused on genealogy records, as well as to offer popular amenities such as summer reading programs, portable WiFi hotspots, adult classes and other initiatives for children. ALA money, meanwhile, often goes to scholarships or free travel for librarians to professional conferences. And the ALA trainings and online courses cover a range of activities including cataloguing, marketing, and intellectual freedom and copyright issues.
Librarians say the organization’s work is vital.
Conrrado Saldivar, a librarian in Natrona County, Wyo., who serves as head of his state’s chapter of the ALA, praised what he called its first-class trainings. Gregory, the director of Montana’s Bozeman Library, said the ALA facilitates conversations between librarians in far-flung places and “broadens your views of what good library service looks like.”
In Arizona, the ALA gave out $1.9 million in program grants over the past two years, much of it used to buy books and computers in small, rural libraries, said Erin MacFarlane, the legislative committee chair for the Arizona Library Association. Her association is facing pressure from conservative parents and politicians to divest from ALA, she said, but has so far resisted.
But others say the ALA has strayed from its mission. Apart from allegations that the organization helps to expose children to pornography, some take issue with what they call political views advanced by the association’s leaders.
In April 2022, freshly elected ALA President Emily Drabinski tweeted her joy that she, “a Marxist lesbian who believes that collective power is possible to build and can be wielded for a better world,” had won the top job. Drabinski wrote in a statement to The Post that “just like any American, I am entitled to my freedom of thought and expression. However, I want to make clear that my views, beliefs, and ideologies are mine alone and are not shared by the American Library Association.”
The Montana State Library Commission voted to leave the ALA in July, the month Drabinski took office, because its Constitution “forbids association with an organization led by a Marxist.” The Texas State Library and Archives Commission left the ALA in August, shortly after Harrison, the state representative, urged it to do so, citing Drabinski’s tweet.
“I am proud to have successfully led the fight against them in Texas,” Harrison said in a statement. “No taxpayer should have to subsidize a Marxist and socialist led organization like the American Library Association.”
In Missouri, Secretary of State John Ashcroft said he became aware of the ALA in July when someone showed him a video of Caldwell-Stone giving tips to librarians on how to restrict which groups can host events in library spaces. Caldwell-Stone was specifically detailing how libraries could reject story hours held by BRAVE Books, a Christian, conservative publisher of “faith-based children’s books.”
After checking to ensure he had the power to dissolve ties with the ALA — he did, given that he oversees the state library — he wrote a short letter to the ALA’s executive director informing her that he had directed his staff to “discontinue any future financial payments” to the association.
“We’re happily gone,” Ashcroft said in an interview. “Tax dollars will not be used for this junk, for … pushing librarians to disallow services because they disagree with someone’s political beliefs.”