Gov. Kay Ivey delivers the State of the State address on March 7, 2023 in the Old House Chamber of the Alabama State Capitol. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)
Gov. Kay Ivey Wednesday asked the Alabama Public Library Service make funding for local libraries contingent upon conforming to policy changes that Ivey says will protect children in libraries.
“Libraries should be a place for exploring a wide variety of viewpoints and ideas,” Ivey wrote in the letter. “At the same time, however, libraries must not be a place to expose children to inappropriate content without the knowledge and consent of their parents.”
The letter comes amid right-wing attacks on the content in libraries in Alabama and around the country, often on books acknowledging LGBTQ+ people or containing LGBTQ+ themes.
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Book challenges are at a 20-year-high, according to the American Library Association.
Ivey’s Wednesday letter did not specify what content she considered inappropriate. In an email Wednesday, Ivey spokeswoman Gina Maiola pointed to an earlier letter from Ivey, which included books with LGBTQ+ content. The letter also referenced two young adult books from Ozark-Dale County Public Library for sexually explicit content, but those books also contain LGBT content.
The Alabama Public Library Service agreed to catalog potentially inappropriate books after a proposal from John Wahl, head of the Alabama Republican Party and a member of the governing board of the service.
The governor sent a letter to Alabama Public Library Service Director Nancy Pack on Sept. 1 expressing concerns about content. Pack responded in a Sept. 12 letter saying that many libraries required or encouraged parents to be present when children checked out books.
“The policies underscore that parents bear the responsibility for their children’s use of library resources and the selection of materials,” Pack wrote. “This approach reflects a common strategy in libraries to balance child safety and access to the resources while encouraging parental involvement and responsibility.”
Ivey wrote Wednesday that Pack’s response did not satisfy her.
“The local library policies you submitted generally fail to support parents hoping to protect their children from inappropriate content,” she wrote.
The governor wrote that state funding for local libraries should be based on the existence of policies related to the location and relocation of materials inappropriate for children, as well as advance approval for displaying, recommending or otherwise actively promoting books by staff.
The governor also said funding from the American Library Association, which has come under attack from conservative activists, be approved by a governing authority in an open meeting. In her letter, Ivey says that the local library board hold these meetings, but suggested the state Legislature could do so.
Ivey also asked Pack to direct local libraries to clarify their ability to respond to parental concerns about sexually explicit or inappropriate material that also says that restricting based on age is not censorship and “disclaim” the relevant ALA policy that libraries cannot discriminate based on age in location and promotion of library materials.
“Governor Kay Ivey’s concerns, as outlined in her October 4, 2023 letter, are taken with the utmost seriousness, and the Alabama Public Library Service is actively engaged to address the issues she has raised and recommendations she has made,” wrote Ryan Godfrey, Communications and Public Relations Manager for the Alabama Public Library Service, in a statement Thursday. We want to assure the public that our commitment to support Alabama’s libraries remains unwavering as we work to formulate a plan to address these issues.”
In response to the local controversy, the board governing the Ozark Dale County Library created a staggered library card system, restricting some book checkouts based on the age of the child.
‘Weird and hazy and a little Big Brother-ish’
Matthew Layne, president of the Alabama Library Association, said in an interview Wednesday that much of what is in Ivey’s letter is in place in a lot of libraries.
Libraries, he said, generally already have content review policies and avenues to speak with concerned patrons. He said libraries and librarians aren’t always perfect with their book selection.
Certainly there can be some some kinds of salacious type stuff that occurs in books, but my concern is that they are equating sexually explicit with anything having to do with a LGBTQ+ family, and so I think we're going to need a definition of what they consider sexually explicit.
– Matthew Layne, president, Alabama Library Association
“As a librarian, I really welcome that opportunity to sit down and have a discussion with a patron about why the particular book is on the shelf, and what their issues are with this particular book,” he said.
Layne mentioned two concerns he had about the letter. He said that the term “sexually explicit” was used throughout, but it didn’t receive a clear definition.
“Certainly there can be some some kinds of salacious type stuff that occurs in books, but my concern is that they are equating sexually explicit with anything having to do with a LGBTQ+ family, and so I think we’re going to need a definition of what they consider sexually explicit,” he said.
He was also concerned about the section about actively promoting to children and its scope. Layne’s not sure if that means that a librarian would need pre-approval to recommend a book about a dragon if a kid says they like dragons.
“It just get kind of weird and hazy and a little Big Brother-ish as far as who is deciding that,” he said.
Layne said that librarians are not trying to push specific books but are rather trying to get the right book to the right patron.
“It doesn’t matter to me whether you think Bill O’Reilly hung the moon or whether you think John Stewart hung the moon, like, if those are the books you’re looking for, then then those are the books, or something similar, that we’re going to find and get you access to,” he said.
In his one-year term, Layne said he had hoped to focus on amplifying resources that libraries can provide, such as HomeworkAlabama, a tutoring program offered through the libraries. Instead, he has spent much of his time responding to these book challenges.
Layne said that these challenges have the potential to impact librarians serving their communities.
“When you’re having to reconsider how your collection is displayed, you’re not necessarily considering, ‘What can I do to teach job training and career skills to teenagers?'” he said.
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Editor’s Note: This story was updated on Oct. 5 with an APLS statement provided after publication.
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