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Over 'Marxist infiltration' fears, Sarasota to stop paying library group dues

A blonde woman in a gray suit speaks at a podium with wood paneled walls and greenery behind her
Sarasota County Commission
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Screenshot
Renee Di Pilato heads Sarasota's libraries and urged commissioners to keep the county's affiliation with the American Library Association.

The cuts amount to several thousand dollars in savings for Sarasota County, where libraries are well-regarded and funded with a $17 million annual budget.

Sarasota County commissioners voted 4-1 on Tuesday to cease paying membership fees in the American Library Association, citing concerns over the national group’s president, who has described herself as a Marxist lesbian.

The move came despite a swell of public support for keeping Sarasota County’s membership in the ALA. Sixty people signed up to speak at a commission meeting. Most were in favor, and only a handful spoke against it.

“What the heck are you doing?” speaker Louise Machinist asked the commission ahead of the vote.

“It's appalling that a very few right-wing radical extremists are being given support and encouragement by our governing officials here on the board. Please stop right now. Come to the sane, sensible middle of the road,” she said.

Linda Taylor, who said she worked as a reading specialist for 30 years, also spoke in support of the ALA.

“It's made up of professionals that defend the right of library users to read, seek information and speak clearly as guaranteed by the First Amendment,” Taylor said.

“Our free public library system is what makes America great. Don't take it away. If you don't want your child to read inappropriate material, make sure you are with them when they choose their materials,” she said.

An ad on a sidewalk for a literary festival called Off The Page
Kerry Sheridan
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WUSF
Sarasota County Libraries held a series of author talks this month, including Neil Gaiman and Raina Telgemeier.

Opponents insisted they were not talking about book banning, but instead took issue with Emily Drabinski, who was elected to a one-year post last year as head of the American Library Association.

Drabinski has described herself as a Marxist lesbian, in a tweet posted in 2022, which she later deleted.

“I just cannot believe that a Marxist lesbian who believes that collective power is possible to build and can be wielded for a better world is the president-elect of @ALALibrary,” Drabinski wrote.

That, along with her comments about encouraging LGBTQ books in libraries and describing those opposed as “angry, white mob parents,” have sparked a backlash in some conservative circles.

Sarasota County Commission Vice Chair Mike Moran made the motion to suspend the paying of dues in the ALA and Florida Library Association, after several residents raised the issue at a commission meeting in late October.

“The leadership of the American Library Association has taken some very aggressive positions. And they're pushing, in my opinion, political agendas. And in the words of these associations, these social justice initiatives,” said Moran at the Tuesday meeting.

Commission member Neil Rainford agreed.

“When we look back at history, do we want to say that we put a stop to funding Marxist ideology, and kept it from infiltrating our county and our country?” Rainford asked.

“Or do we knowingly fund organizations that have said themselves, they support that that ideology?”

As groans erupted from the audience, Rainford said: “I see a lot of eye-rolling in the audience. I’ve seen it all morning.”

A shelf lined with books at the Alachua County Public Library in Gainesville.
Katalina Enriquez
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Fresh Take Florida
Children's books line the shelves at the Alachua County Public Library in Gainesville.

For his part, Commissioner Joe Neunder blamed political ideology.

“In my mind, in there lies the problem because political ideologies, whether it's Marxism or fascism, they try to infiltrate, and in some cases, insidiously, try to get into our communities,” he said.

Several other Florida counties have taken similar steps, including Collier, Hernando and Citrus. The state of Florida has also ended all grant activities with the nation’s oldest library group, which largely provides discounts on training and continuing education to librarians.

Sarasota County’s director of libraries and historical resources, Renee Di Pilato, said membership in ALA provided “numerous benefits” including discounts on continuing education, webinars and events.

“We are members of ALA, but we don't march in lockstep with any organization,” Di Pilato told the commission.

“I think it's important to remember that the president of the ALA is a one-year term, it will end in June of 2024. The organization is run by a staff, day-to-day.”

Dues for the ALA are $1,300 per year, and the Florida Library Association costs $2,673 annually. The Sarasota County government’s budget for all its libraries amounts to more than $17 million.

Chair Ron Cutsinger voted with the majority to stop paying dues to both the ALA and the FLA, despite his wife being a longtime employee of libraries and a current volunteer.

“I think we need to be very clear. No one has said anything about banning books in our libraries,” said Cutsinger.

“No one has said anything about defunding our libraries. We've proven just the opposite. We have expanded our funding and not one thought is about taking a penny away from the support we have for our libraries,” Cutsinger said.

“If this organization comes full circle and back to being a nonpolitical organization, nonpartisan organization, then we need to look back at it again,” he concluded.

Only one commissioner, Mark Smith, voted against the motion.

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.