Residents of a small Iowa town criticized their library’s LGBTQ staff and their displaying of LGBTQ-related books until most of the staff quit. Now, the town’s library is closed for the foreseeable future.
After having the same library director for 32 years, the Vinton Public Library can’t seem to keep the position filled anymore. Since summer 2021, the Vinton Public Library has gone through two permanent directors and an interim director who has served in that role twice.
Located about 40 miles northwest of Cedar Rapids, the doors of the Vinton Public Library—housed in a brick and stone Carnegie—have been open to the public since 1904, but were shuttered on Friday, July 8, while the Vinton Library Board tries to sort out staffing issues seemingly brought on by local dalliances with the national culture wars.
It comes after a handful of locals whipped up a controversy first over the library displaying books about prominent Democrats, and later about it displaying LGBTQ books and having LGBTQ people on staff.
Attacks on LGBTQ people and books—and those from other marginalized communities—have been part of a nationwide trend sparked by homophobic right-wing activists stoking fears by trying to lump those materials in with pedophilia and left-wing indoctrination.
According to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the library is set to reopen with limited hours and service on Monday, July 18, with members of the library board filling in as volunteers, but how did things get to this point in town?
‘We Couldn’t Function Correctly’
The issues in Vinton came to a head last summer.
According to the Cedar Rapids Gazette, the first resignation came in July 2021 when former director Janette McMahon resigned for a similar post in DeWitt. McMahon took over the Vinton job in May 2020 following Virginia Holsten who had worked for the library since 1988 and been director since 1990 before retiring.
McMahon, who has been a library director since 1995, told the Gazette some patrons informally complained about the library displaying books written by First Lady Jill Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
Rather than go through the official procedure to have the books reviewed and possibly removed, McMahon said people would just check those books out and never return them, which is theft of materials and forced the library to go through a process to get them back.
Another complaint was that the library didn’t have enough books about former President Donald Trump on display.
“The Kamala (Harris) book was given to the library when she spoke there, and the ‘Joey’ book was a purchase request” from a library patron,” McMahon told the Gazette. “It was not deliberate.”
Kamala Harris is reading her kids’ book, “Superheroes are Everywhere,” at a library in Vinton, Iowa. There are a couple of HS & college kids here too pic.twitter.com/iOcmQaYs0w
— Alexandra Jaffe (@ajjaffe) October 22, 2019
“I can’t buy what doesn’t exist, and there weren’t quality books about Trump,” she continued. “It’s a long process to choose materials typically. We pay attention to reviews and publishers and our collection needs as a whole. We don’t just say what looks good on Amazon.”
Still, none of the complaints were formalized and pretty soon McMahon said the attacks turned personal. After a while, she told the Gazette she no longer felt comfortable living in the community.
“When I had had enough, we couldn’t function correctly as a library, so I decided to find a community that better fit me as a librarian and my standards for library ethics,” she told the Gazette.
‘We Love Miss Renee’
Vinton Children’s Librarian Colton Neely was appointed interim director following McMahon’s resignation. This was his first stint as interim director. Renee Greenlee, formerly of the Marion Public Library, was hired as the new Vinton Public Library director in November 2021.
Greenlee came to Vinton highly regarded because of her involvement in the Marion community.
During her time at the Marion Public Library, Greenlee “helped facilitate Marion’s first Pride event, which featured a Pride parade around the library, a drag queen story time, a panel with local LGBTQIA+ agencies and more,” according to I Love Libraries.
For her efforts with the LGTBQ community and in helping Marion recover from the 2020 derecho, Greenlee was named a 2022 I Love My Librarian award winner. The national honor is bestowed by the American Library Association (ALA) and only 10 librarians in the country win the award each year.
One of the library patrons who nominated Greenlee wrote, “We love Miss Renee, she makes the world a better place.” When she accepted the award during a virtual ceremony in January, things appeared to be going well for her in Vinton.
“This is a brand new role for me and I’m having a wonderful time getting to know my new community,” Greenlee said.
Book Displays and LGBTQ Staff
Greenlee was a few months into her tenure before she and her staff became public targets.
According to the Vinton Eagle, rural Vinton resident Brooke Kruckernberg read a prepared statement during the March 9 Vinton Library Board meeting that accused the facility of having a “liberal agenda” because of book choices and due to the hiring of Greenlee and her staff, some of whom are LGBTQ.
“It appears that there is a slow, quiet agenda moving into our local library culture through the staff hiring decisions and the books that have crept in our children’s section of the library,” Kruckernberg’s statement read.
“I don’t believe the library is representing our town well with hiring a majority of staff who are openly a part of the LGBTQ community.”
Neely, who is an openly gay man, had been working at the Vinton Public Library since January 2021, which was well before Greenlee joined the staff.
During the April library board meeting, the Vinton Eagle reported that Kruckernberg’s mother, Deb Hesson, tried to walk back her daughter’s comments about the LGBTQ staff members, but also asked for balance in book displays.
“For each book promoting the LGBTQ lifestyle, there should be a book on display that discusses how God created and designed people as either male or female from birth, for life,” Hesson said.
According to Greenlee, the Vinton Public Library had nearly 5,800 materials in the children’s section. Of those, three books had a subject heading of “LGBT,” two had a heading of “gay,” two mentioned transgender, and none mentioned “binary,” “lesbian,” or “bisexual,” whereas there are 173 books with Christian themes.
During the April meeting, Greenlee defended her staff members and reiterated that the library serves all patrons. She also explained why a tit-for-tat display of Christian and LGBTQ books would create additional inequalities.
“If the library were to do as Ms. Kruckenberg asked regarding the 1:1 display of books about transgender people to God-approved cisgender people, this would result in biased displays,” Greenlee said.
“To be equitable, we would also need to display books with multiple religious and non-religious views of gender, including Christian denominations and other religions that are inclusive of transgender people.”
It was more of the same during the May Library Board meeting and Greenlee resigned later that month. When the Cedar Rapids Gazette asked Greenlee why she declined to comment.
‘I Wanted My Staff To Feel Welcome’
Neely was appointed as interim director for the second time while working for the Vinton library. He resigned last week to take a job in Burlington, leaving the library without any full-time staff which prompted the indefinite closing.
Last month, Greenlee shared an article about what’s happening in Vinton while elaborating that what’s taking place is about more than just books.
“A big part of this ‘controversy’ WAS because of personnel, people who are important to me who were discriminated against because they are LGBTQIA+. It’s not just about the books. Yes, the books are EXTREMELY important. EVERYONE should be able to choose for themselves what they read and see themselves reflected in books,” she wrote.
“But, I wanted my staff to feel welcome and accepted, just like I wanted every community member to feel. The public library is for EVERYONE, no qualifications, no questions asked. YOU JUST BELONG. “
Greenlee called Vinton a wonderful community and went on to note these types of things are happening in communities everywhere and people need to pay attention.
“Know what’s happening at your public library, who is challenging books, displays, and even staff. It’s real, it’s current, it’s dangerous and scary,” she wrote. “Remember, your public library supports everyone in the community regardless of race, ethnicity, economic status, home situation, gender, sexuality, etc. The fact that ALL ARE WELCOME should not be a controversy.”
Greenlee’s resignation drew concern in the community, even prompting Vinton City Councilwoman Tami Stark—in her capacity as a Vinton resident and not as an official—to read a statement at the May 26 city council meeting expressing her disappointment at the loss.
“She’s a gem and shame on us for losing this,” Stark said, according to the Vinton Eagle.
Stark told Starting Line she and the council have been advised not to discuss personnel issues. However, she noted the library board—which oversees the library and director—is working on getting the job posted.
“What I can tell you is that there are some unhappy citizens in Vinton—on both sides of the issue—so we’re working towards making it better however we can do that,” Stark said.
UPDATE (July 14, 2022, 1:48 p.m.): This story has been updated with the library’s projected reopening date.
by Ty Rushing
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