Montana State Library Commission votes to withdraw from national association

By: - July 12, 2023 6:37 am

Bio Scientist major Emma Scales studies in the Rice University Library on Aug. 29, 2022 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Bell | Getty Images)

The Montana State Library Commission voted 5-1-1 in favor of withdrawing from the American Libraries Association, citing comments made by the incoming president of the organization where she self-identified as a “Marxist lesbian” in a since-deleted Tweet.

“Our oath of office and resulting duty to the Constitution forbids association with an organization led by a Marxist,” read the language the commission voted to send to the ALA.

The commission took the vote Tuesday, with one commissioner opposed and one abstaining, after hearing more than an hour of public comment, much of which was in support of the withdrawal and laced with false narratives around sexually explicit material being pushed to children in libraries.

“We ought not promote, celebrate or support what scripture condemns,” said Dana Gonzalez, who was in favor of withdrawing, before quoting scriptures from the Bible she said condemned “what Emily has stated,” referring to the ALA president-elect.

Newly appointed Commissioner Brian Rossmann was the sole “no” vote, with Commissioner Peggy Taylor choosing to abstain from voting. Taylor did not respond to an emailed request for comment on her decision.

Rossmann said given that the role of the president of ALA is ceremonial, withdrawing would be a “a rather drastic response – to one individual’s politics,” and recommended sending a letter expressing disapproval in her expressed politics instead.

In the past year, right-wing media outlets zeroed in on a tweet from ALA President-elect Emily Drabinski in which she identified herself as a “Marxist lesbian.” Some considered the proclamation to be evidence of a false narrative rooted in right-leaning conspiracies claiming LGBTQ+ titles at the library aim to “groom children,” with similar rhetoric echoing in Tuesday’s meeting.

However, librarians said during the meeting the ALA is nonpartisan and provides support and training needed in libraries across the state, as well as advocacy for funding at a national level, and that leaving the organization means not having a seat at the table. Drabinski herself earlier explained to WNYC the Marxist movement helped shape her thinking about social change, and she believes parents should be in control of the material their children see.

The withdrawal is effective immediately, including a discontinuation of payments outside existing contracts, per the letter.

Commissioner Tom Burnett, an appointee from Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, proposed withdrawing from the ALA during the commission’s last meeting and drafted the language for the letter.

At the meeting, Commissioner and Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen expressed support for withdrawing from the ALA.

“I believe we can rebuild. I believe that we can reauthorize later if indeed, after a year’s time, the American Library Association has a different leader or a different path,” said Arntzen, a Republican.

Librarians and library directors around the state were some of the opponents to the decision to withdraw during the meeting, speaking to the services provided by the ALA to local libraries.

Bozeman Public Library Director Susan Gregory said she’s been involved with ALA for more than 40 years, and spoke to the training on literacy for adults and children, training on staff management, conferences “things that I have benefited from over my career and that my staff benefits from.”

“I have yet in all the years I’ve been going to conferences to see any kind of program on Marxism, communism, or why it’s important to take one political stance or another,” she said.

Gregory said it was unfortunate Drabinski inserted her political beliefs “into a situation where it’s inappropriate” but said the role of president in the organization is more akin to one of a figurehead.

“I’m very concerned if Montana pulled out, that we will be ignored, and we will have no means to change anything,” Gregory said.

State Law Librarian for Montana Franklin Runge and Executive Director for the Missoula Public Library Slaven Lee were among those who submitted written comments in opposition to withdrawing from the ALA.

One written comment in support of withdrawing was signed “A Montana librarian in fear of violent, aggressive coworkers further radicalized by the ALA who are targeting children to deliver them to predators.”

Commissioner Tammy Hall commented that it “said a lot” that this person was afraid to use their name, “because of the personal attacks this person would be open to if they didn’t follow what I would call the woke agenda being promoted by the ALA to our librarians.”

“It’s really sad when the association that’s supposed to represent you doesn’t leave room for any diverse opinions,” Hall said.

Matt Beckstrom, the elected Montana chapter representative to the ALA by the Montana Library Association, said the Montana State Library has been a part of the ALA for more than 60 years and that all libraries in the state have benefited from the partnership.

Beckstrom said the ALA provides access to resources, grants, federal assistance, national advocacy for funding, including a policy lobbying office in Washington, D.C. He went on to say Drabinski’s comments were not unconstitutional, at the state or federal level, nor did they reflect the values of the ALA or its members.

“If you truly want to make a change in your association, stay in and speak up,” Beckstrom said.

Rossmann, who voted no, asked Commissioner Burnett, who drafted the letter, about the language surrounding the duty to the constitution as it conflicts with a “Marxist leader.”

Burnett responded, “Marxism stands in direct opposition to the principles of the Constitution of the United States. It’s fair to discuss and learn about Marxism, not to affiliate with Marxist-led organizations.”

The Montana State Library will going forward no longer pay the $1,000 membership renewal associated with the ALA.

Montana State Librarian Jennie Stapp said during the meeting she was not there to defend the ALA, but some of the points of view expressed in the meeting were not accurate, although she was not going to debate those during the meeting.

“It’s the practice of the State Library when we are working with libraries, facing these very kinds of conversations in the community, to encourage community members to come together to have these kinds of conversations and to try to find resolution together,” Stapp said. “I feel like leaving the American Library Association does not give us the voice to try to find resolution and doesn’t mirror the practices that we advise to libraries.”

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.