Two Wins for Public Libraries This Week at The Polls

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

This week’s election had democracy on the ballot, including hundreds of school board elections across swing states. These school board elections put the fate of equity and access on the line and for the most part, there was no right-wing swing. But two important ballot measures last night put public libraries in the spotlight and the outcome in both was positive–if not also deeply concerning they were up for vote at all.

In August 2022, a campaign by Jamestown Conservatives in a small Michigan community successfully ensured that the Patmos Library lost its millage. The group flooded the library with book removal requests and when the library did not capitulate by eliminating its minuscule LGBTG+ collections–they amounted to .015% of the entire number of materials in the library. Following the vote, mega bestselling romance author Nora Roberts donated $50,000 to keep the library open, as part of a GoFundMe, which raised an additional $200,000. Unfortunately, the library could not continue to operate on that alone.

Patmos put the measure on the ballot again in November of last year, and once again, voters decided to deny the request for funding. In the meantime, the library and its board continued to discussion where and how they could pass the millage necessary for its operation. In August, they came to a decision: they would paste content descriptions of books inside the covers of 90,000 books. As Bridge Michigan described:

The labels would be copied from book descriptions from the Library of Congress or book-selling websites like Amazon. The labels won’t include anything written by the staff or the library board.

How this differed from the very descriptions included on books from the publishers is unclear–those descriptions are copied between Amazon and the Library of Congress in the publishing process–but it seems to have worked.

Last night on its third try, Patmos Public Library successfully passed their millage measure with 63% of electors voting in favor. The library will be funded through 2025.

Another high-stakes public library ballot measure also happened in the midwest, this time in Pella, Iowa, a community of 10,000 about an hour southeast of Des Moines. In November 2021, the public library denied the request to ban Gender Queer. The book had been located in the adult section of the library, but several residents continued to claim the mere presence of the book on shelves in the public library would cause irreversible damage to children in the community. The rhetoric mirrored the same talking points heard in board room after board room, but in Pella’s case, the battleground was the public library–most of the concerns at that point stemmed from the book being in public school libraries.

In April 2022, the residents angry about the library’s decision not to ban a book led them to demand that Pella’s City Council put a referendum on the ballot which would allow elected officials to have more say in all of the materials available in the public library. Indeed, the very people who insist they do not coparent with the government wanted the government to do as much of the parenting as possible.

City Council would not put the measure on the ballot, but the group continued their demands. They won the argument in the summer, and the measure was put up for public vote last night. The measure would put the library entirely under the control of the city, meaning that the Pella city administrator could determine policies within the library, including the materials that could or could not be on shelves. In other words, it would eliminate the library’s independence from the city, take away power from its board to act autonomously, and, ultimately, disallow library workers from doing their jobs to serve the whole of their community.

It did not pass, but the victory for the library and its independence was slim at 51%–87 whole votes.

The Pella story is crucial to understand during this historical moment for censorship. It undermines the professional skills and knowledge of trained and educated library workers and their board of directors. But equally important is how it showcases the amount of money and right-wing power beneath these measures which used to have little or no attention paid to them. The Des Moines Register noted that the group working to put the power of the library under the city’s control raised $10,5000 for their cause and that half of that money came from the host of a local Christian radio program. The group advocating for the library’s continued independence raised $9,000.

Though the close results are worthy of analysis in and of themselves–there is a lot of education to be done when it comes to how libraries operate and why it is putting the power of an entire public library under a city government is not a good move (not to mention how right-wing connection, money, and Moms for Liberty who are cozy with Iowa’s right-wing governor Kim Reynolds, all feed into this)–there is another big silver lining. This measure cannot be put back on the ballot for four more years.