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Boise librarian elected American Library Association president

Boise librarian elected American Library Association president

Emily Drabinski, an Idaho native and Boise High School graduate, became the president-elect of the American Library Association on Wednesday, April 13.

BOISE, Idaho — Emily Drabinski is proud to be an Idahoan and just as proud to be the next president of the American Library Association.

“Especially living in New York, people ‘oh, you’re from Idaho, like potatoes’ and that’s it, that’s all they can say I’m really excited to play a role in making Idaho about something more than that,” Drabinski said. “Making Idaho a place where people come from, to build the kind of communities and families that work for them.”

The American Library Association (ALA) was founded in 1876. The association helps advocate for American libraries at the federal level and call themselves the “foremost national organization providing resources to inspire library and information professionals to transform their communities through essential programs and services.”

Idaho’s state librarian must be a graduate of a library school accredited by the ALA. The ALA even has a motto, “the best reading, for the largest number, at the least cost.”

Drabinski, the interim-chief librarian at the City University of New York, became the president-elect of the national association on Wednesday, April 13.

She grew up in Boise, but left at the age of 18 to attend Columbia University with the intent of becoming a writer. Like many of those who end up in New York with big dreams, it helps to have a back up. 

In search of a steady paycheck, Drabinski earned her library degree and believed she would simply work at the library, helping people find books. 

Now, Drabinski is going to be a lot more than helping people find their next read. As president, Drabinski said she wants to provide people the tools they need to organize locally and teach them how to push for the kinds of public policies they need to run their local libraries. 

Her aspirations seemed like a good jumping-off point into local libraries and this year’s legislative session in Idaho. 

Accusations of libraries peddling pornography and obscene materials to kids, lawmakers trying to remove their exempt status from having any such items on their shelves and ultimately, cutting the Idaho Commission for Libraries’ budget by $3.8 million. 

So, what does the Idaho-raised, president-elect of the American Library Association think about what has been happening with libraries in Idaho?

“You know, even though I’ve been gone from Idaho since ’93, I very much feel like an Idahoan at my roots and so I try to keep up on the policy and it seems like what’s happening in the legislative arena is really quite scary,” Drabinski said. “For example, they were trying to remove libraries from exemption when it comes to, well I guess they just called it pornography, and there was a big push back from librarians saying, ‘look this isn’t on us this is about parents.'”

At the end of Idaho’s legislative session, the Idaho Senate Republicans announced plans for a working group to study allegations that Idaho libraries are making explicit materials available to minors.

“Yeah, I think like it’s concerted political efforts to push this story about what libraries do,” Drabinski said. “We are sort of pushing pornographic materials on our patrons and it’s really not what we do at all.

“All our librarians, especially public librarians, school librarians, they’re members for the community, professionally trained to select, acquire and maintain collections that meet the needs of their communities. That’s just what we do as a job. There’s no ‘big library agenda,’ you know.”

House Bill 666, which would have removed the exemption for public and school libraries, universities, and museums from being prosecuted for disseminating harmful material to minors, was eventually replaced by the study group.

“The bill didn’t pass, but when you are just trying to do your job in your community, barely a living wage and you’re really committed to things like helping kids read, when you have to deal with that kind of state attack, it has long-lasting implications for your experiences at work,” Drabinski said. “It would make me feel like I was not safe, that I could not be supported in the work that I did for families and communities that I serve.” 

The Idaho House and Senate both passed a $7.7 million budget for the Idaho Commission for Libraries, a cut of about $4 million from the original appropriation. 

RELATED: Idaho House and Senate vote to adjourn until Thursday

“I mean, I can’t think of a more short-sighted legislative action,” Drabinski said. “You know, I think you look at libraries as one of the last social safety nets for our communities that serve everybody. We work very hard to make that true. We have collections and services to serve everybody in the community and so when you cut funding for that, you’re cutting funding for everyone.”

KTVB’s Brian Holmes: “You feel like this is a movement in the country right now?”

Drabinski: “Yes, definitely, it’s a concerted movement, it’s very organized. There’s a lot of evidence that these are not one-off parent complaints or singular pieces of legislation. You look at what’s happening in Idaho, in Tennessee, even in the state of New York, incredible upticks in book challenges and all of us are facing those kinds of challenges. They’re just too similar from place to place for me to think they’re not kind of organized and we need to be just as organized as we push back.”

The ALA president-elect added the legislation in Idaho and movement nationwide is much different than the memories she has of the Gem State. Growing up going to Madison Elementary School, followed by North Junior High School and Boise High School, Drabinski said she recalls Idaho libraries as a “close-knit community.”

“I mean, I have so many warm memories of Idaho and a lot of them revolve around the library,” Drabinski said. “To see people coming with agendas that are far to the outside of what most ordinary Idahoans think is appropriate, it’s really devastating trying to find a way forward through these kinds of attacks.”

Drabinski said if there is a big library agenda, it’s to support the First Amendment, the right to read, the right to express ourselves — those kind of profession-wide commitments. 

The future ALA president will not begin her tenure until July 2023. For the next year as president-elect, she will be learning how to do the job and continuing her support of local libraries. 

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