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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Cast as criminals, America’s librarians rally to their own defense

Inside the Pella Public Library, the book “Gender Queer,” a 2019 graphic-novel-style memoir by Maia Kobabe that is the most-banned book in the U.S., in Pella, Iowa, Jan. 16, 2024. As America’s libraries have become noisy and sometimes dangerous new battlegrounds in the nation’s culture wars, librarians and their allies have moved from the stacks to the front lines. (Maansi Srivastava/The New York Times)

By Elizabeth Williamson

During 12 years as a youth librarian in northern Idaho, Denise Neujahr read to and befriended children of many backgrounds. Devout or atheist, gay or straight, all were welcome until a November evening in 2021, when about two dozen teens arriving at the Post Falls library for a meeting of the “Rainbow Squad” encountered a commotion at the entrance.

Members of a local church waved signs with images of hellfire and used a bullhorn to shout Bible verses and accusations about sin and pedophile “groomers” in the library. Parents had to escort the teens inside that night, and the library beefed up security. But the next month, police arrested a protester outside the doors who was carrying a knife and a loaded gun.

In May, religious conservatives won a majority on the library board and named as its chair a member who had called the Rainbow Squad a “sex club.” Neujahr, who created the group as a program of crafts, snacks and conversation for LGBTQ youth and their parents, said she was told the group’s funding was in danger. But she refused to disband it.

“They’re really good kids,” Neujahr said. “It just makes me so sad that they have to go through all this hate. This is not what libraries stand for.”

As America’s libraries have become noisy and sometimes dangerous new battlegrounds in the nation’s culture wars, librarians like Neujahr and their allies have moved from the stacks to the front lines. People who normally preside over hushed sanctuaries are now battling groups that demand the mass removal of books and seek to control library governance. Last year, more than 150 bills in 35 states aimed to restrict access to library materials and to punish library workers who do not comply.

“We’re no longer seeing a parent have a conversation with a teacher or librarian about a book their child is reading,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “We’re seeing partisan groups demand the removal of books that they’re told are bad books, that they are not even reading, because they don’t meet the political or moral agenda.”

The battles are being waged in places like Clinton, Tennessee, where a reluctant library ally, the local sheriff, spoke out against censorship. In Pella, Iowa, two women organized a successful campaign against a proposal to force the town library under city control. And in Idaho, after Neujahr received an award for her work with the Rainbow Squad, people threatened her life and posted her family members’ personal information online.

Sheriff Russell Barker had a problem. As the chief law enforcement officer for Anderson County in the mountains of eastern Tennessee, he had handled narcotics, assault and other criminal investigations — not the review of children’s books about sex and gender identity.

But this past year, after residents found what they said were more than a dozen pornographic titles in the county’s four libraries, local officials asked the sheriff to determine whether two of the targeted titles violated Tennessee’s obscenity law. If so, librarians, staff or board members — the sheriff told officials he didn’t know who — might be subject to arrest.

The two books given the sheriff for review were “Let’s Talk About It: A Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships and Being a Human” by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan, and “Gender Queer,” a 2019 graphic-novel-style memoir by Maia Kobabe that is the most banned book in the United States.

“These books were brought to the county commission, and we had an obligation to act,” a county commissioner, Denise Palmer, said in a commission meeting last spring in the county seat, Clinton, a town of 10,000 about 15 miles from Knoxville.

In late March, more than 250 people packed the Clinton Community Center for a charged public meeting, recorded on video.

Jack Mansfield, a retired Oak Ridge police officer, shook his finger in fury at four county librarians at the front of the room. “You librarians, you’re providing this material; you can be arrested too!” he shouted.

Three weeks later, the county commissioners met to hear Barker’s findings.

He told the commissioners that he planned to follow library policy and file a request that the library restrict children’s access to the two books he had reviewed. He said that some of their content personally offended him, but neither violated state or federal law.

“For me, again, this is about freedom in the United States,” he added. “My caution would be, if we start removing those books, we could start an avalanche of everyone questioning anything that they disagree with. And we get into some censorship issues that would be really outside the bounds of what our country is about.”

A county commissioner, Anthony Allen, disagreed. “When we try to segregate books that are so explicit that we want them segregated, they should not be in the library,” he told the sheriff. “Can you address that?”

“That’s a fair argument,” the sheriff replied. But, he said, “what is explicit is subjective,” and “it is not government’s call to decide.”

The controversy in Pella, Iowa, began in the summer of 2021 when a youth identifying as male arrived at the aquatic center in trunks and a small covering over his torso, described as a chest binder by some and Band-Aids by others. A rumor spread that the teen was swimming topless around children, stirring local alarm and angry posts to a Facebook page.

Two women stunned by the vitriol stepped in.

Anne Petrie, a retired music professor at Central College in Pella, and her neighbor Anne McCullough Kelly, a local mental health counselor, formed a Facebook group called “Coalition for an Inclusive Pella” as a countermessage. The two women were heavily outnumbered at City Council meetings, including one in which Michael Shover, the pastor of Christ the Redeemer Church in Pella, said that “the corrupting effects of sexual immorality are now descending upon our town.”

The fracas spawned a new group, Protect My Innocence, which in late 2021 began objecting to about 100 books from the municipal public library that it said contained pornographic and sexually explicit content, including “Gender Queer.”

In 2022, the library board denied Protect My Innocence’s request to remove “Gender Queer” from the adult section and make it available only if patrons asked for it. The group complained to the City Council, then turned to collecting signatures for a 2023 ballot referendum to place the library under the control of the City Council. That prompted Petrie and McCullough Kelly to create Vote NO to Save Our Library, a political action committee, with the help of EveryLibrary, a national advocacy group that fights censorship.

On Nov. 7, the vote to strip the Pella Public Library of its independence was 1,954 in favor, and 2,041 against. Just 87 voters defeated the resolution, ending a two-year battle over a book.

“Would I have liked the margin to be a little bigger? Yeah,” Petrie said. “But I was really, really gratified that the people of Pella said, ‘No, we don’t need this.’”

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