Amid an ongoing surge in book bans, political attacks on librarians and the ALA, and being personally targeted by right-wingers over an innocuous, since-deleted tweet, to say it has been an eventful year for Emily Drabinski is an understatement. But in her year at the helm of ALA, Drabinksi has not only persevered but thrived, visiting dozens of libraries around the country and, like the librarians and staff she represents, working to make a difference.

PW recently caught up Drabinski to talk about her term as ALA president, which ends at the conclusion of the 2024 ALA Annual Conference.

Have you had a chance to reflect on your time as ALA president, or are you still too busy?

You know, we have one big last push: we’re doing a cross-country library tour, visiting nine or so libraries as we drive out to San Diego for the conference. So I’m keeping my reflection hat in the closet for now. But I’m excited about the trip. We’re bringing a filmmaker and we’re going to hopefully produce a short documentary about the power of American librarians for libraries to screen for their communities.

I have been doing a little bit of counting, though. I’ve visited 31 states during my presidential year. I’ve talked to more than 70 audiences about the importance of libraries. It’s just been extraordinary to have the chance to meet hundreds of library workers across the country and listen to their stories and to have a hand in sharing them with a broader audience. It’s been just an unparalleled opportunity.

So many of the headlines about libraries today are about book bans and political attacks on libraries. How much of that did you see when visiting all these libraries, and how much of it was just, you know, libraries in action?

Yeah, there’s a bit of a disconnect between the story being told about libraries in the headlines and the reality on the ground. Book banning is a huge issue, yes, and also many libraries are struggling to do everything they’re being asked to do in their communities without sufficient resources. But there’s also just so much joy in libraries. Every library I’ve visited as president has had something that blew me away.

the distance between the arguments book banners are making and the reality of what’s really happening in libraries, which anybody who walks into a library can see and experience, is so vast that it just can’t hold.

Last month I was in a library in New Hampshire that is circulating garden beds for the growing season. Talking to the associate director there, she just loves seeing her community gardening together. And she told me the library is now working to get more accessible garden beds that people with mobility difficulties can work in, too. And that just encapsulated for me what libraries do—we see the gaps, and fill them, gaps that are often left behind by disinvestment in public institutions.

I know it hasn’t been an easy year for you being personally targeted by right-wing politicians. Did you encounter any of that in your travels?

Only at one stop did I encounter protesters. There were two of them. It was in Florence, Ky., and they were swiftly moved across the parking lot to continue their protest in front of a Cracker Barrel.

But yeah, I can’t tell you how painful it’s been to be used as a bludgeon against the people and institutions that I care about most in the world. I care deeply about libraries. I care about children. I care about communities. But I have to say I also met and talked to plenty of people on the road whose personal politics are different from mine, but we agreed that libraries are important. And you know, that left me feeling if we can agree on that, maybe the rest of this stuff can sort of fall to the side.

We’ve seen some recent legal victories against book banners and suggestions that the tide may be turning against them. What’s your sense of where things stand?

You know, I go in and out. I look at bills like the one recently passed in Idaho that has led to libraries closing their doors, or in Louisiana, where legislators are opening the door to political appointees taking over library boards, and there’s still quite a lot of heat. I’m leaving my year as president feeling great pain for my colleagues who are struggling with new laws aimed at undercutting libraries and the agency of library workers.

But we’re also seeing affirmative legislation to protect libraries in some places, which you didn’t see a year ago. I think that’s progress, and a sign that attacking libraries and librarians is a political loser. And of course it is—the distance between the arguments book banners are making and the reality of what’s really happening in libraries, which anybody who walks into a library can see and experience, is so vast that it just can’t hold.

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