A Love Letter to Alabama Libraries

I have loved many libraries in my lifetime. They’ve always felt like a refuge for me: the intoxicating smell of old books, the quiet, the sense of community. I even like that humbling, disorienting feeling of being lost in the stacks, surrounded by knowledge. It’s overwhelming, but in a good way, like being on the beach at night under the stars.

It’s only fitting that I got married at a library. It was the perfect setting for the union of two book-loving teacher nerds, but we didn’t plan it that way. 

When my husband and I decided to elope, we actually went to the courthouse first. We forgot that Alabama had gotten “out of the business of marriage” in 2019 when a few probate judges decided to throw homophobic temper tantrums instead of doing their jobs. What they meant was that they would no longer provide the service, but probate courts still gladly collect the money to record the marriage and make it valid. So we left the courthouse, annoyed at the pettiness of it all, in search of a place where we could print a marriage certificate and get it notarized. 

Luckily, the Birmingham Public Library was nearby. Everyone there was so kind and helpful. When they realized we were printing a marriage certificate, they waived the 15-cent fee to print it. Down the hall, we paid a notary $10 to marry us. She didn’t even charge extra for taking our picture in front of the trees in the lobby. On our way to the car, we ran into a former student of mine, who was going to the library to get his passport for a school trip to Namibia.

When we consider libraries, we have to consider that they’re more than just books. They provide services that other governmental entities may not. They’re safe spaces. They’re collections of knowledge that anyone can access.

And that scares some people.

I mean, as a mom, I get it. No one wants their kid stumbling across content that they aren’t ready for. As a teenager, I got into a really salacious book series about an emotionally unavailable pilot who was trying to cheat on his wife with a hot flight attendant when the apocalypse happened. The flight attendant later went on to sleep with this evil dictator who was born as the result of a devil worshiping cult. 

It’s amazing that I was able to just walk into the library as a minor and check out such adult-themed books without parental consent. As you can tell, I remain traumatized. They should really find that librarian and arrest them.

Except there was no librarian. I got these books from the church library on the honor system. And the obscene book series I’m referring to is, of course, the Left Behind series. And there may or may not still be a Left Behind book that I never returned in the closet of my childhood bedroom. (If that church library still exists, please send all fines to Kirk Cameron.)

Plenty of books can seem scary to parents when described out of context, and that’s what groups like Moms For Liberty are doing. Much of the anti-library push in Alabama comes from Moms For Liberty and adjacent groups like Clean Up Alabama. These groups have accused multiple libraries in the state of having pornography in their children’s sections. The thing is, they don’t, and a group called Read Freely Alabama is working on exposing these lies. They are in the process of publishing all of the challenge forms from across the state on their website, and the ones they have posted so far from Prattville are illuminating. None of these books listed are, in fact, pornographic, but most of them do have LGBTQIA+ characters just existing. 

These people are out here acting like a kid is going to walk into the children’s section and a librarian is just going to hand them a dildo. No, seriously! They tweeted that! It would be laughable if it didn’t have such awful consequences.

Moms For Liberty, which started in response to mask mandates in schools in Florida and has been propped up by far right politicians, doesn’t seem to know what moms are supposed to do or what liberty is. If you, as a parent, want to shelter your children from the fact that certain people exist, that certain people have been treated unfairly, and that consent is important, that’s your business. It’s stupid and harmful and not realistically preparing kids for the world around them, but it’s still your business. You have the liberty to choose not to take your children to the library. You have the liberty to take your children to the library and look at their books before they read them or check them out. You have the liberty to parent your kids in such a way that if they come across content that goes against your values, they can talk to you about it. Moms For Liberty claims to be against government overreach, but they’re really out here trying to make libraries do a parent’s job, and the government that they allegedly don’t trust is eating it up.

I wonder how many of these people actually use libraries? I wonder how many of them actually read?

Alabama has one of the lowest literacy rates in the country. Libraries provide not only free books but also a myriad of other great community resources. What’s really behind the recent push to demonize, criminalize, and defund them?

Well, for one thing, you can’t profit from a library. No one is getting rich from late fines and 15-cent copies. But libraries do contribute to the economic wellbeing of the communities they serve. I’ve seen it firsthand. The Tuscaloosa Public Library was the center of operations for the short-lived tutoring business I ran while I was in graduate school. One of my students who had been out of the job market for a while wanted someone to teach her how to use Microsoft Office and social media, so we used the computers at TPL for our lessons. After our lessons were over, my student went on to get a higher paying job. What she paid me for our lessons helped make ends meet during grad school. Everyone can benefit from public libraries, but no one really profits from them, and I think that’s another part of the problem. 

The Alabama Education Trust Fund, which funds both K-12 public education and public libraries, has a budget of $9.3 billion. Public libraries account for about $15 million of that budget. Our state recently cut library budgets by 18 percent, but our governor, apparently influenced by these censorship groups, has also threatened to cut funding even more for libraries that have “inappropriate” content on their shelves.

If you’ve been wondering why schools and libraries have been the battlegrounds of the culture war, I want you to think about the power that comes with controlling a $9.3 billion budget.

Our governor may be threatening libraries, but she has at least acknowledged that something needs to be done about our literacy problem. Libraries aren’t making anyone rich, but there is plenty of money to be made from Alabama’s 2019 Literacy Act. Because of this law, students are required to take the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program, or ACAP, a test created by a company called Data Recognition Program. All students in grades K-3 are also required by law to take Renaissance’s STAR Reading test. These programs cost the state millions of dollars, but they make plenty of people plenty of money. Blackstone, an investment company that has been condemned by the United Nations for unethical practices, is a major investor in Renaissance. I wonder what it is about them that they like so much?

Alabama politicians have a history of exploiting people’s fears and prejudices for money and power. When will we stop falling for it?

If you’re a parent who’s worried about what’s in the library, I’d encourage you to walk into one and see for yourself. You might see a seed library in an old card catalog, local artwork, or a group of moms sitting with their kids and listening to someone read a story. You might even see two nerdy teachers getting married.

Librarians are not out to get your kids. They’re usually very nice! They might be a little frazzled from budget cuts and extra paperwork due to all of these ridiculous book challenges, but I promise they will help you find what you need. Maybe they can help you find a book about critical thinking. But get it while you can, because I’m pretty sure that’s next on the chopping block.

I think libraries are wonderful, but, in the words of the great LeVar Burton, “you don’t have to take my word for it.” Go see what your local library has to offer you. Read with your kids, and talk to them about what they’re reading. I promise it’s not as scary as these grifters have led you to believe.