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State librarian: Book challenges are nothing new

Dr. Nancy Pack pointed to past clashes over book censorship as the template for defending the freedom to read in the latest wave.

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Dr. Nancy Pack serves as the Director of the Alabama Public Library Service, which is synonymous with the title of state librarian.

During an interview on the current book challenges sweeping the nation and cropping up in the state, Pack wasted no time pointing out that this is just the latest installment of a phase that has been repeating throughout history.

“Just Google ‘The Rabbits’ Wedding,’” Pack said.

Pack was referring to a 1958 children’s picture book, written and illustrated by Garth Williams, which depicts a Black rabbit and a white rabbit that get married.

Its inclusion in Alabama public libraries drew the ire of the White Citizens Council of Montgomery, who took the book to promote interracial marriage and run afoul of the state’s laws against such relationships. 

Alabama State Sen. Edward Oswell Eddins led the charge in the Legislature, and even suggested “this book and many others should be taken off the shelves and burned.”

The book was written for children ages 3 to 7. 

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Emily Wheelock Reed, the state librarian at the time, found the content not to be objectionable and stood up to the efforts to remove the book.

Eddins eventually had Reed questioned before the body, threatened not to approve her budget, and demanded her resignation, but Reed held firm against an outright ban of the book.

That certainly wasn’t the last instance of a book challenge in Alabama, and book challenges have ebbed and flowed across the nation over the decades.

But the nation has currently taken a sharp turn into a heightened time of book challenges, with parents primarily challenging children’s books for sexual and LGBTQ content.

“When you’ve been in this business this long, you see what goes around comes around,” Pack said. “Censorship has been around for a long time. Sometimes it has been worse, sometimes it has been less. It’s nothing we haven’t weathered before.”

So far, there hasn’t been a push at the state level to censor any books within public libraries. However, Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, brought a bill to require “age appropriateness” as a standard for review for books chosen by the Alabama Literacy Task Force, citing a book called “A Very Good Lie” as one example of a book currently approved that might be considered age-inappropriate.

Gov. Kay Ivey also notably forced the resignation of Barbara Cooper, secretary of the state’s Department of Early Childhood Education, over a “woke” resource book for preschool teachers.

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There have also been challenges cropping up at some libraries in the state, such as at the Autauga-Prattville Public Library where some citizens have announced intention to challenge at least 80 books in the children’s section primarily involving LGBTQ content.

Pack said it is not the role of the librarian to wade into what topics a parent should consider age-appropriate for their children.

“A librarian’s role, in my opinion, is to provide accurate information, to curate what the community needs are, and to make sure they know what materials are needed in their community,” Pack said. “You have to tell the parents it is our role to have access to materials. It is their role to decide whether they want to come to library and monitor what their children are looking at.”

Pack could soon find herself in a similar position to Reed, as Rep. Scott Stadthagen, R-Hartselle, has praised the efforts in Prattville and has hinted at some kind of statewide legislation in the next session that echoes those attempts to move books.

“We also have books that are getting into our school system, that our kids do not need to see what they see in these books,” Stadthagen said recently on Mobile radio FM Talk 106.5. “And that is something that is going to be number one priority on my list next year.”

Stadthagen did not respond to APR’s request for comment for this story. 

His comments on the radio leaned more towards school libraries than public libraries, which Pack identified as having some key distinctions.

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“Public libraries are very different than school media centers in the respect that public libraries are essential for community, they are the hub of the community. You’re either going to take your family to the library and use it or not,” Pack said. “School libraries support the curriculum of the schools is how I view it, and getting children the info they need to do reports and support the curriculum.”

Other states have challenged public libraries in recent sessions, with Missouri’s House of Representatives threatening to defund public libraries altogether after resistance to the lawmakers’ attempts to ban certain books.

Arkansas passed a law that makes it a crime for a librarian to lend a book “harmful to minors” to a child.

Alabama has not taken such a drastic step, but Pack made it clear — she will stand up for the freedom to read.

Jacob Holmes is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected]

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