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Alabama library director makes case for American Library Association affiliation in response to Gov. Ivey

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – As debates continue over explicit and gender ideology-based content in libraries across the state, Nancy Pack, director for Alabama Public Library Services, defended the state’s partnership with the American Library Association in a response to Gov. Kay Ivey.

On Sept. 1, Ivey sent an open letter to Pack in which she raised concerns over the accessibility of sexually explicit content to children and teens, and included a series of questions, many of which centered around the national association. 

The largest library association in the world, the ALA has received scrutiny in recent years over its reading recommendations and partnerships with local libraries across the country, largely from conservative lawmakers and groups. Since June, three states have cut ties with the organization, with lawmakers pointing to certain books included in reading recommendation lists as not age-appropriate, as well as comments made by the organization’s president, Emily Drabinski, who once described herself as a Marxist.

Alabama Public Library Services Director Nancy Pack.

“Public libraries are funded by taxpayers to provide a wealth of resources that contribute to education, intellectual growth, and informed citizenship,” Pack wrote in a report attached to the letter sent to Ivey. The agency provided a copy of the letter to Alabama Daily News.

“Cutting ties with the ALA would potentially deprive Alabama communities of valuable support, resources and networking opportunities that the association provides.”

Among Ivey’s questions to Pack was to what extent does the state agency incorporate American Library Association rules or standards, and to what extent does the agency apply those rules, standards and reading recommendations to local libraries across the state.

In her response letter, Pack wrote that her agency is largely independent from the association, and that the APLS “does not routinely create statewide reading lists.” Furthermore, she wrote that the APLS “lacks the expertise required to thoroughly evaluate the extensive range of materials featured in these selections,” though does usually develop a summer reading list independent of the association.

Pack did say that the APLS had adopted the organization’s Library Bill of Rights – which largely advocates against censorship – save for its most recent article, Article VII, which states that libraries should safeguard library use data. The article, however, would be at odds with Alabama law, which allows for parents to have access to their child’s library records.

Local libraries and their respective boards are also largely responsible for reading materials, as well as where they’re placed within the library, she added.

In the attached report, Pack also pushed back on characterizations of the ALA, specifically those that label the organization as having a “Marxist agenda.”

“It’s important to note that the ALA’s support for (Drabinski’s) views does not necessarily imply an endorsement of Marxism as a whole,” Pack wrote.

“Rather, the ALA is dedicated to promoting open dialogue and the exchange of ideas, which are fundamental to a healthy democracy. Disengaging from the ALA based on a singular ideological disagreement could be seen as an attempt to stifle intellectual diversity and limit the range of perspectives that Alabama residents are exposed to.”

Pack ultimately labeled it as the responsibility of parents to curate what content is appropriate for children and teens, and that libraries had no place or authority dictating what patrons can or cannot read. She also went through a number of repercussions the APLS could see were they to cut ties with the ALA.

Potential funding disadvantages was one possible outcome, as certain grants and funding sources “might prioritize projects aligned with ALA’s goals and values,” Pack argued. As an example, Packs cited a partnership between Microsoft and ALA in which Alabama libraries received computers, with more than 95% of all Alabama libraries receiving grants from the Gates Library Foundation.

Other repercussions were a “reduced focus on diversity and inclusion,” which she wrote the ALA played a significant role in fostering, “loss of advocacy power,” with the ALA being among the most powerful lobbying voices for public libraries, and “isolation from national initiatives,” such as participation in U.S. Census data collection, which ties directly to federal funding for libraries.

Ivey had also asked Pack to provide an itemized account of money paid to the American Library Association from the state library agency for the past five years. In total, the state agency had paid roughly $38,000 since 2019, with the majority of funds paid for membership with the association and training.

The debate over content in Alabama public libraries extended to the most recent Sept. 13 board meeting of the APLS.

“In summary, disassociating from the ALA could lead to a variety of negative repercussions that affect both library professionals and the communities they serve,” Pack wrote.

In a partisan fashion, lawmakers were divided on the issue.

House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, urged the APLS Board in a letter to work to resolve the “ongoing controversies regarding inappropriate material being made available to children and young readers in public libraries across the state,” and warned if the issue was not resolved by the time lawmakers reconvene in 2024, that they could likely “help the APLS do its job” through legislative action.

Ledbetter also recommended the APLS officially cut ties with the ALA, calling the national organization’s policies “extremist.” that were “diametrically counter to the more traditional beliefs and values that remain firmly rooted in Alabama.”

Rep. Scott Stadthagen, R-Hartselle, also warned the board that legislative action may be taken were the APLS not to “shield children from content they clearly should not see, hear or read,” and wrote that Pack had seemed to have “embraced the most extremist positions of the ALA and its self-proclaimed ‘Marxist lesbian’ president.”

On the other hand, Alabama Democrats have largely framed the issue as a breach of the First Amendment, and labeled the effort as a distraction.

“In my opinion, I think this is a distraction,” Rep. Patrice McClammy, D-Montgomery, told Alabama Daily News Monday.

“For me, I think it’s an overreach of government, and it’s another attack against First Amendment Rights, so I think it more of another distraction from the real issues that we have going on in the state and in this country.”

McClammy pointed to other issues, such as the nearly 300,000 Alabamians without health care that would receive coverage were the state to expand Medicaid, or the ongoing litigation of the state’s congressional district maps as more pressing matters.

Rep. Ontario Tillman, D-Bessemer, mirrored McClammy’s position, telling ADN Monday that regulating books in public libraries was a “freedom of speech issue.”

“I’m looking at it as another political distraction by my colleagues across the aisle; I think that we have more pressing issues that we need to focus on,” Tillman said. 

“We’ve got 300,000 people in the state of Alabama that don’t have health care, we have people who don’t have clean drinking water, so I do think there are other issues that we need to focus on. For the very people who tout the Constitution, for them to try to have government overreach into a situation where we’re talking about books… I think it’s a lot of government overreach at this point.”

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