Aug 16, 2023 - Education

Iowa library has uptick in banned books checkouts

Illustration of a library due date card with the names of queer authors and activists written in rainbow colors.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

As Iowa school libraries remove books from their shelves to comply with a new state law, municipal libraries are becoming safe havens for students wishing to access banned materials.

Why it matters: School districts are releasing the lists of books they're pulling to comply with Senate File 496, which passed last spring and prohibits books with "sex acts" in them.

  • Administrators have said the language is too broad, resulting in schools removing a large swath of books like "The Color Purple" to avoid penalization.
  • The Mason City school district recently announced it's removing 19 books after using ChatGPT to review them for sexual content.

Yes, but: Even as schools remove books, students can rely on city libraries to have them on hand, says Des Moines Public Library (DMPL) director Susan Woody.

Zoom in: DMPL does not have ratings for their books or a special controversial sections, Woody tells Axios.

  • If a child or teen has their own library card, they can privately check out books.
  • It's parents' responsibility to know what their kids are reading and watching, Woody says. She encourages parents to read books of concern first and then have a conversation with their kids.

What they're saying: "Reading promotes empathy," Woody says. "We learn tolerance and we learn understanding of people who are different than we are."

Zoom out: When Urbandale schools announced its book removal list, the local library saw an uptick in people checking out banned books, library director Nicholas Janning tells Axios.

  • The library has almost all of the 65 books the school district has banned. Newer titles like "Gender Queer" and "Lawn Boy" are frequently checked out and sometimes have wait lists, Janning says.

Of note: Other metro libraries that Axios reached out to, including Des Moines, West Des Moines, Ankeny, Johnston and Waukee, say they haven't experienced recent upticks.

The intrigue: Challenging book censorship has long been in Des Moines' history.

  • Forrest Spaulding, DMPL's director from 1927 to 1952, wrote the "Library Bill of Rights,"which is still in use today. Its policies discourages censorship and was adopted by the American Library Association in 1939.

The other side: Republican House education chair Skyler Wheeler previously said the purpose of the law is to give parents more transparency into their children's schools.

  • He said its intention is to remove "graphic descriptions or images of sex acts" as defined by Iowa Code.

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