Failed 'Gender Queer' challenge prompts ballot measure to strip library of its independence

The political battle over what books should be on library shelves, usually focused on schools, has spread to the city level in a central Iowa town.

Voters in Pella, a town of about 10,500 residents 45 miles east of Des Moines, will be asked in a ballot proposition whether they support changing the structure of the Pella Public Library Board of Trustees to limit the board's authority over the library and give the City Council more control over policies and decisions.

The question comes after some community members attempted to restrict access to Maia Kobabe's controversial LGBTQ memoir "Gender Queer" at the Pella Public Library nearly two years ago. The library board ultimately voted to keep the book on the library's shelves.

Pella's library board, like most in Iowa, holds independent control of the library: While the Pella City Council appoints members to the board and approves the library's budget, the board has exclusive control over the library's affairs, how the money is spent and who is hired as its director. It also decides whether to keep books if community members challenge them.

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If voters approve the referendum, the library board could become an advisory committee that makes recommendations to the City Council and has no formal authority to approve policies or spending or make decisions on hiring and books. Such changes would give the library a similar status to other city departments.

Even if voters approve the change, however, the City Council is not required to implement the new rules under Iowa law.

Supporters and opponents believe the principles at stake resonate far beyond Pella's borders, involving such fundamental issues as potential censorship, the interests of underrepresented communities, taxpayers' control of how their money is spent and the need to protect children from harmful material.

Here's what you need to know about the proposition in Pella, known as Resolution 6442, before the election Nov. 7.

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What do supporters and opponents of the Pella library referendum say?

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

"There isn't pornography in the library," said Anne McCullough Kelly of Vote No to Save Our Library, a group that opposes the referendum. "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."

Opponents say that parents should decide what books are appropriate for their children, including books they might check out from the library, and that book restrictions could run into murky constitutional waters.

"Our library’s role is to provide opportunities that will allow individuals to freely examine subjects and make their own decisions," a statement from the seven-member board, posted on the city's website, says. "The Library does not endorse particular ideas, beliefs, or views. While individuals are free to reject for themselves materials of which they do not approve, they cannot exercise this right of censorship to restrict the freedom of others."

But supporters of the referendum say the changes would give Pella taxpayers more say in how their dollars are being spent at the library and give the City Council more power to address potential issues. They also frame the proposal not as a ban on books, but as a way to keep material they view as pornographic and harmful away from children's eyes to protect them.

"None of this prevents parents from getting a hold of what they want," said state Rep. Helena Hayes, R-New Sharon, and chair of Protect My Innocence, a group that supports the referendum. "All they have to do is go on Amazon and click buy."

But, Hayes said, there's a question of "taxpayer-funded dollars being spent on material that is very sexually explicit, for minors. For children." She said she believes voters should have more of a say.

Why is the Pella library referendum on the ballot?

In late 2021, the library board considered formal concerns from residents who believed Kobabe's "Gender Queer" — a coming-of-age illustrated memoir that explores the author's real-life journey with sexuality and gender that includes frank sexual images — should be removed or placed behind the checkout counter.

Parents have challenged the award-winning book eight times in school districts across the state from August 2020 to May 2023, according to a Des Moines Register review of book challenges. Most have said they believe the book is pornographic.

More: Books challenged in Iowa schools frequently tell stories of LGBTQ, Black and brown people

In Pella, "Gender Queer" was housed in the adult section, according to city documents. The library bought the book after a patron requested it.

The library board ultimately voted to keep "Gender Queer" on the shelf. Because of the library board's independence under city code, that decision was final.

Under Iowa law, making changes to a library board's structure requires voter approval. Either the City Council can put a proposal on the ballot, which it declined to do in April 2022, or organizers can gather signatures and petition for a referendum.

A petition circulated that summer, and the library referendum was set for the November 2023 city election.

What would happen if residents vote yes on the Pella library referendum?

If a majority of voters vote yes on the referendum, that would mean they authorize a change in city code to make the library board less independent. The City Council could alter or repeal library policies, and the city administrator would oversee staff. The board also would lose control over its funds.

However, the referendum is not binding. While voters are required to authorize the proposed changes to city code under Iowa law, the City Council is not required to make them.

What would happen if residents vote no on the Pella library referendum?

If voters don't authorize changing the structure of the Pella Library Board of Trustees, the board will continue to operate as is.

The proposed changes could not go before voters again for at least four more years, under Iowa law.

More: In 3 years, 60 books have been challenged in Iowa schools. A new law could ban far more.

Have there been other book challenges in local city libraries?

While the Register has tracked book challenges in Iowa's 327 school districts, it has not undertaken a similar project for challenges at city libraries, though they appear to be relatively rare.

The Register is aware of a small number of book challenges at city libraries in the Des Moines metro in recent years, including one over "Let's Talk About It" by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan at the Ankeny Kirkendall Public Library in October 2022, and one over "The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish" by Lil Miss Hot Mess at the Altoona Public Library in February 2022.

Chris Higgins covers the eastern suburbs for the Register. Reach him at or 515-423-5146 and follow him on Twitter @chris_higgins_.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: 'Gender Queer' dispute could lead to Iowa library losing independence