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Voters in Iowa community to decide whether to give City Council more control over library books

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PELLA, Iowa (AP) — Voters in a small Iowa city will decide in November whether to give their City Council more say over what books the public library can and can’t offer.

A ballot proposition in Pella, a community of about 10,500 residents in central Iowa, asks voters if they support changing the structure of the Pella Public Library Board of Trustees. The change would limit the board’s authority over the library and give the City Council more control over library policies and decisions, the Des Moines Register reported Tuesday.

The effort follows attempts by some community members two years ago to ban or restrict access to Maia Kobabe’s LGBTQ+ memoir “Gender Queer” at the library. The library board eventually voted to keep the book.

Like many Iowa communities, Pella’s board holds independent control over how money is spent, who is hired as director and other key issues. It also decides whether to keep books if community members challenge them. The City Council appoints the board’s members and approves the library’s budget.

The referendum would make the library board an advisory committee that makes recommendations to the City Council, with no formal authority. Even with voter approval, the council could still decide not to change the current system and to allow the board to maintain direct control over library decisions.

The referendum comes amid a push in conservative-led states and communities to ban books, the American Library Association said last month. Such efforts have largely focused on keeping certain types of books out of school libraries, but the ALA said they now extend just as much to public libraries.

Through the first eight months of 2023, the ALA tracked 695 challenges to library materials and services, compared to 681 during the same time period last year, and a 20% jump in the number of “unique titles” involved, to 1,915.

Opponents of the Pella referendum say the changes would erode a necessary independence that ensures libraries can offer diverse materials, free from political interference. They say the changes would amount to censorship and erase stories about underrepresented groups.

“There isn’t pornography in the library,” said Anne McCullough Kelly of Vote No to Save Our Library. “There are books that people might personally object to because it’s not aligned with their values, books whose content might make them uncomfortable for different reasons. But there isn’t any actual pornography in the library.”

Referendum supporters say the changes would give taxpayers more say in how public money is spent. They frame the proposal as a way to keep material they view as pornographic and harmful away from children.

“None of this prevents parents from getting ahold of what they want,” said state Rep. Helena Hayes, a Republican who chairs Protect My Innocence, a group that supports the referendum. “All they have to do is go on Amazon and click buy.”

In late 2021, the library board heard concerns from residents who believed “Gender Queer” — an illustrated memoir of the author’s real-life journey with sexuality and gender that includes frank sexual images — should be removed or placed behind the checkout counter.

A Register review has found that parents have challenged the book eight times in Iowa school districts since August 2020.

When a Virginia school system removed “Gender Queer” in 2021, publisher Oni Press issued a statement saying that limiting the book’s availability was “short-sighted and reactionary.”

“The fact is, GENDER QUEER is an important, timely piece of work that serves as an invaluable resource for not only those that identity as nonbinary or genderqueer, but for people looking to understand what that means,” the publisher said in a statement.

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