There's trouble in the city of refuge

Bruce Lear lives in Sioux City and has been connected to Iowa’s public schools for 38 years. He taught for eleven years and represented educators as an Iowa State Education Association regional director for 27 years until retiring. 

As a Central College student, I learned Pella has two Hebrew definitions: “City of Refuge” and “Marvel of God.” But neither of these definitions captures the storm raging in this small college town around book banning. This time it’s not about books in the public school’s curriculum or library. This controversy centers on books in the public library.

The Pella storm began long before this year, when Iowa Republican lawmakers and Governor Kim Reynolds enacted Senate File 496. Among other things, the new law states that school libraries and classrooms may only contain “age-appropriate” materials, and further says age-appropriate “does not include any material with descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act” as defined in a separate code section.

The current Pella conflict began nearly two years ago, when a parent complained the public library had Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe on the adult shelves. That award-winning book “recounts Kobabe’s journey from adolescence to adulthood and the author’s exploration of gender identity and sexuality.”

But it’s not just about this book. 

Like Senate File 496, it’s a battle to censor ideas a few people find offensive.

A few community members challenged Gender Queer in November 2021. The Pella library board met, reviewed the material, and unanimously voted to keep the book in the adult section of the library.

The following month, a group of citizens took the complaint one step further and appealed to the Pella City Council, which scheduled public meetings in early 2022. During one of those meetings, local resident John Butler said, “If I got my way, I’d get rid of the book and all the rated R videos, or at least control access.”

Pella Public Library director Maria Strickler explained,

This is not about me as a person or individual. This is about meeting the needs of the entire community as a public library, and that is what I and my staff and the library board are committed to do.

But it wasn’t the end.

It was the beginning.

Under the Pella City Code Chapter 22, “The Board of Trustees is responsible for the library which includes policy and collection of materials. The Council’s primary role with the library is to only appoint the board members and approve financial allocations.” 

The citizens who wanted the book removed forced a city-wide vote for November 7, 2023.

If voters approve the change, the library board will no longer have exclusive control of library affairs. The board could continue to adopt policies, but those policies would be subject to change by the city council.  

Both sides are campaigning. Those wanting a “Yes vote” have invoked Dominie Hendrix Scholte, a minister and founder of Pella. One flyer says, “Dominie would want a Yes vote to save our kids.”  

Another flyer uses the slogan, “Time to plug the dike and save our kids now!”


The committee campaigning for a no vote created a flyer explaining that the library board doesn’t push an agenda on children. There’s no taxation without representation, since the library board is appointed by the city council. The mailing pointed out that nearly all of Iowa’s 500+ public libraries are governed by a board of trustees.

Here’s why allowing a city council to overrule the library board is a bad idea:

  • Local boards work because they are comprised of people who love the library, are familiar with the collection, and understand the process for adoption and appeal.
  • During the next legislative session, GOP lawmakers may use this local controversy to go a step further by forcing this change statewide and destroying library board local control. 
  • Senate File 496 is vague and has school officials scrambling on how to comply. Public libraries will have the same problem if legislators meddle and try to write a one size fits all law.
  • Once book banning starts, it’s difficult to stop.
  • Public libraries are to serve the whole community. For that reason, they have adult and children’s sections. Librarians are trained on what’s “age appropriate.” Politicians are not.

Let’s keep our public libraries refuges for learning. People who try to banning ideas have never been on the right side of history, and they’re wrong now.

All images of mailings for or against the Pella ballot initiative were provided by Bruce Lear and published with permission.

About the Author(s)

Bruce Lear

  • Books yes.

    Bruce sums up an issue of public good outrage that, as he says, could become fodder for a legislature willing to put a wet blanket over all libraries in the state. Prompted by similar movements in other states, Gov. Reynolds and her Mothers for Liberty allies cherry-picked pages and paragraphs from books whose authors tell their “coming of age” stories using graphic illustrations and clear language to say what they’ve experienced,, some as members of the LBGTQ community which presents difficulties of its own. What drives the outrage? A single instance of concern can be latched unto and inflated into a wedge issue for political organizing. As Bruce says, the voices of reason need to shout. For too long the organized minority who want their bewized values to reign have controlled Iowa while the unorganized majority is in disarray and defeated in to polls. Let Pella be a turning point in the struggle for democracy.

  • Protect our kids the right way

    Reading is an active process that requires consent. At any time, a reader is free to drop a book or stop reading.

    If politicians want to protect innocent young souls, they would hit on Pornhub and co, who feed pornography (some sadistic and illegal) straight into the hearts of our kids. Contrary to the library, those websites don’t check ID for age.