American Library Association president hears about struggles and successes from Alaska librarians

A person in a black sweater stands in front of a sign.
Emily Drabinski, president of the American Library Association, stands outside Alaska Public Media Studios on Wednesday, Feb.21, 2024. (Matt Faubion/Alaska Public Media)

As libraries across the state face increased scrutiny over what books are appropriate for their collections, the president of the American Library Association is hearing directly from Alaskans. 

Emily Drabinski was invited to speak at the Alaska Society for Technology and Education Conference in Anchorage on Monday, and has spent the week meeting with librarians from across Alaska to hear their struggles and successes. 

While the state faces unique logistical challenges, Drabinski told Alaska Public Media’s Wesley Early that many problems facing Alaska librarians are happening across the country.


This story has been edited for length and clarity.

Emily Drabinski: The struggles I hear from librarians here are the struggles I hear from librarians everywhere. First is a lack of sufficient resources to do their jobs. All over the country, and here in Alaska included, we are looking at schools and public libraries that simply don’t have sufficient staff to meet the needs of the communities that they serve. And then the, sort of, rising tide of book challenges and organized attempts to censor material. Those haven’t missed Alaska, and we’re seeing them all over the country. And certainly, you know, we know that they’re happening right here in Anchorage and in the surrounding areas.

Wesley Early: In several Alaska communities, including Anchorage, the Mat-Su, Ketchikan, Kenai, there have been debates over what books are appropriate for libraries and even discussions of removing or banning books. How common is this nationally?

ED: Super common. I wish I was telling you that that’s a rare thing and not a problem, but it’s not true. I’d say dating back to about 2021, we’ve seen increases, year over year, a doubling of the number of books that are challenged and censored in libraries. All of them are books that are related to LGBTQ experiences, books about Black life, books about Indigenous life and experience. And that problem is increasing. And, you know, I think it’s really important also to look at that problem in relation to other kinds of activities that we see. So any place you see people working to censor materials, you’ll also see people working to eliminate access to health care for trans and gender-variant youth. You’ll see people fighting against the right of people of color to access public life. Those things happen in common. And so the book censorship issue is everywhere, you know, but so is the attack on LGBTQ+ people.

WE: How does the debate around these issues in Alaska differ from what you heard from other communities around the country?

ED: So in an urban environment, say, there’s a library and it’s full of staff, right? There are like many, many people working at the library. Here in Alaska, you’re very lucky to have anyone working at the library, right? And like, especially in the Interior, you have libraries being run by people who have no training or professional development as librarians, who are then asked to stand strong in the face of attempts to censor materials in the library. And so part of the function of a profession is to get us all sort of on the same page about what we value. 

And so one of the things that libraries really value, more than I think other people do, is equal access to resources for everyone in a community. And that means everyone. So we’re concerned about making sure that you have a book you want to read, even if you like sci-fi, which to my mind is long and boring and no one should read it. But like, I’m interested in you having the book that you want. And that’s a professional value that I hold. And so I’m remembering always that there are people in my community who are not like me. 

As a librarian from Valdez was talking about just on my way here, she was like, “I’m not the audience for my collection development.” So in rural communities in Alaska, you don’t have the sort of professional staff that I think is really necessary to stand strong against incursions against intellectual freedom.

WE: These book bans and the threats of book bans aren’t anything new. But what do you think is different about the issue today versus how it played out for previous generations?

ED: So what’s different now is that instead of getting a concerned community member asking about a single book, you have a situation like you’re having right here in the Mat-Su Valley, where you have people bringing a set of books, a list of titles that they haven’t read, that maybe they are cherry picking pieces and parts out of the book to sort of have an objection to them. The books are not – they’re all the same. You know, so one of the things that’s distinct about Alaska I’ve learned is that the challenges across the country, it’s a mix of LGBTQ+ and BIPOC reading materials, but here it seems to be almost exclusively about LGBTQ+ materials, as well as materials related to sex and sexuality. So you have people making big demands, right? Like, we want you to get rid of all of these books. And that feels really different. They are both organized and overwhelming in a way that’s new. And they are also completely divorced from the reality of the situation, which is that we want kids to read. 

We want everybody to feel like there’s a book that reflects their experience in the library. Like, here’s something I didn’t know about Alaska: Did you know that right here in Anchorage, you have the most diverse school in the nation?

WE: Several of the most diverse schools in the nation.

ED: Several of the most diverse schools in the nation. And so the work that the school librarians are doing here to make sure that in those diverse schools, there’s a book about everybody’s culture and experience, that there are books in multiple languages. You’ve got a school with 100 languages spoken, and you’ve got librarians trying to work with a tiny amount of resources that could not possibly be sufficient to what they’re asked to do, being attacked for the work they’re doing to put a book in a kid’s hand to read.

For listeners looking for a good read, Drabinski says the last great book she read was “Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets” by Svetlana Alexievich.

Wesley Early covers Anchorage life and city politics for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at and follow him on X at @wesley_early. Read more about Wesley here.

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