Starting in 2024, Sarasota County will no longer pay annual dues of $1,300 to the American Library Association (ALA) and $2,673 to the Florida Library Association (FLA). The Sarasota County Commission voted 4-1 on Nov. 14 to stop funding the county’s public library memberships in the ALA and FLA over perceived political ideology advocacy by ALA president Emily Drabinksi. Sarasota has now joined three other counties in Florida that have ended membership in the 150-year-old ALA—the world’s largest and oldest library association that provides funding, training and tools to most of the country’s 123,000 public libraries.
Drabinksi was elected as ALA president in June 2022. Following her appointment, she described herself as a “Marxist lesbian” in a since deleted tweet. Now, legislators have used the tweet as justification to call for the defunding of the ALA because of the president’s Marxist leanings.
At the meeting, which took place in Venice, commissioners voiced concerns over the “infiltration and influence” of marxism and facism. Sarasota County Commission Vice Chairman Mike Moran said his concern was that the ALA and its leadership is following a political agenda and backing social justice initiatives.
“We’re drifting into areas where these associations are acting like political action committees,” Moran said, “My fingerprints will not be on a penny that goes to them, if I have a say in the matter.”
Since January 2023, DeSantis and Florida Republicans have reshaped K-12 and higher education in the state by passing policies that ban critical race theory in public schools and prohibit teachers from leading classroom discussions about gender identity or sexual orientation for young students.
The governor has also previously signed a bill into law that requires school libraries to pull books from shelves if a text has drawn a complaint over its content. The books remain out of circulation while educators decide if they are suitable for students.
The vote to defund came after almost 60 public commenters spoke out for roughly two hours on concerns over book banning and what the future looks like for Florida libraries. A majority of the residents who spoke in favor of maintaining membership in both professional development organizations linked the issue to book banning and a rise of authoritarian government.
Several speakers drew parallels to the thought police in George Orwell’s 1984 and the book burners in Ray Bradburry’s Fahrenheit 451.
Speaker Donna Cubit-Swoyer noted “When children come to the library they should be supervised by their parents at the library,” and presented the board with a petition signed by more than 400 residents in support of the libraries and association membership. Another petition was later presented containing more than 600 signatures.
Conni Brunni, president of the Sarasota County Republican Assembly Chapter, as well as leader of Sarasota’s Moms for Liberty Chapter, had previously said that the push for the commission to defund the two library associations is part of an effort supported by the Christian Family Coalition through the Assembly Chapter.
Sally Nista, who resides in Venice and is publicly involved with the Republican party spoke out against the ALA for their ‘promotion’ on “Your Drag Queen Story Hour” in Florida public libraries and claimed that the ALA also provided resources to public libraries to stop a Christian book author from having a story hour that shared “wholesome family books with children.” Nista was referencing Kirk Cameron’s Pride Comes before the Fall, a children’s book he released during Pride month. As Cameron told The Washington Times, the story involves a tiger learning a “lesson in kindness and humility and acts as a reminder that pride is also one of the seven deadly sins – in fact, the deadliest sin, according to Christian tradition.”
Cameron added, “When you have an entire nation setting aside a month to celebrate something as dangerous as pride, I feel it’s my responsibility to hold up the truth of humility so kids can have a chance. They deserve the chance to have a life of blessing, not a life of misery and destruction that comes from being focused on yourself.”
Nista further criticized the ALA for having an admitted Marxist as its director. “Are those the kinds of influences that we want pushed onto our librarians and staff?” she asked.
“Mrs. Drabinski has made herself known in various speeches as to her ideology and her strategies through her Marxist beliefs,” public commenter Clayton Taylor said. “So, we need to protect the kids nationally, defund this organization from Florida dollars and taxpayers.”
Sarasota County Democratic Party Chair Daniel Kuether condemned the vote in a public statement, calling out commissioners Mike Moran, Neil Rainford, Joe Neunder and Ron Cutsinger, whom he noted were neither librarians nor educators, for their decision that the ALA and FLA threaten public librarians. He urged the board to concentrate on more pressing issues, citing Sarasota County’s lack of affordable housing, the impact of development on the quality of life and skyrocketing home and auto insurance rates.
Commissioner Neunder said that clearly some misinformation spread like wildfire.
“We are not banning books, this has nothing to do about banning books,” he said. “In my opinion, this is everything to do about keeping books, into the sections of age appropriate materials for those children.” He reiterated multiple times that he “immensely believes” at the end of the day parents always have the last call.
“Nobody that I know, except people on the liberal left, are talking about banning books – that’s not what this meeting is about,” Sarasota resident Barbara Vaughn said. “This meeting is about whether to pay for membership in a group that claims libraries need to be a site of socialist organizing.”
Board members did not address the misconception that the ALA and FLA influence whether children have access to inappropriate materials. Books displayed and how they are organized in each public library are not associated with either organization; those decisions are made on a local level.
Fees paid to the ALA go towards net discounted rates for library staffers to attend conferences and seminars, and receive reduced costs on some library materials. Participation in committees, webinars and ongoing training is encouraged to bolster expertise in a field where adaptability to evolving technology remains crucial. At the commission’s meeting, Neal Draznin emphasized the ALA’s role as a pivotal professional association for Sarasota County librarians, enabling them to stay afloat with evolving technology trends and developments. The association also provides grants and upholds safeguarding intellectual freedom and supporting libraries amid the challenges of censorship. The ALA advocates for state-level funding from the federal government through the institute of Museum and Library Services grant. But local library systems such as Manatee and Sarasota rely on institutional memberships rather than direct funding—although low salaries, which according to the Florida Department of State average at $39,998 for starting librarians, make it difficult for staffers to afford individual memberships in the library associations.
The FLA clarified in a statement that, although it is affiliated with the ALA, it has full authority over its own affairs. This was after the Florida Department of State issued a new rule that says it will “not allow grant project activities” associated with the ALA and its affiliates.
“FLA and all libraries in the Sunshine State share a commitment to provide library service and resources that represent the needs and values of Florida’s citizens,” FLA President Douglas Crane wrote. “This includes representing views that some might deem controversial or unpopular; and to make materials freely available to those who want them. We willingly share and defend the values of intellectual freedom and freedom to read.”