Last week, the American Library Association released its annual list of the top 10 most challenged books. Once again, it was dominated by books by LGBTQ authors or about the LGBTQ community. PW caught up with Sam Helmick, community and access coordinator at the Iowa City Public Library, to discuss the necessity of advocacy, the importance of allies, and how the library community is handling such an unprecedented challenge.

What was it like for you when Iowa’s book-banning law, SF 496, was enacted in 2023?

It was difficult. I was president of the Iowa Library Association at that time, ILA’s first nonbinary, aromantic, asexual president. And there was a wonderful book called Gender Queer that was quite a bit about people like me. And it was the most banned book in the state. At the same time, I was thinking about how we in Iowa are the founders of the Library Bill of Rights. Forrest Spaulding, then director of the Des Moines Public Library, wrote it in 1938.

So these two things were on my mind as I was being asked questions like what my favorite banned book is. And my answer became: my favorite banned book is yours. My favorite banned book is the one that you’re going to check out of my bookmobile today. My favorite banned book has yet to be written. Because the only way books like Gender Queer—which I needed as a teen but didn’t get until my 30s—are written is because library workers before me have defended a process, and invited the public to ruminate on books and to recognize that we as a free people should read freely.

What that was meant to impress was the importance of gently holding people accountable to the process, because library workers cannot single-handedly paint themselves out of the corners that pernicious policy puts them in. When I think about the Freedom Riders, when I think about Stonewall, I think about the brave folks who are part of those communities but also of the allies that came together to support them. It’s going to require the public—the public that resources us by policy, goodwill, and funding—to paint us out of this corner.

Last December, freedom to read advocates scored a victory when a federal court blocked SF 496, but the censorship onslaught continues. How are librarians in the state managing?

We are pulling for each other more than we might have in the past. I’m very pleased that we now have built an affinity coalition inside and outside of library circles, and that we’re much tighter with the school library and college and research library associations than we ever were before. But it’s also complicated and stressful.

I think the solace that I take is that if what we did was irrelevant, the book banners would leave us be. They obviously believe we have the power to support people reading and thinking freely, and there’s something heady about that, even during the hard days. I get to stand up for something important.

On April 2, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which critics say will legitimize discrimination against the LGBTQ community. Did that feel like déjà vu after fighting SF 496?

I would love to say it’s déjà vu, but it’s been more of a deluge. Iowa had the second-most library-averse bills in the nation last year. Library workers have had two full-time jobs for a very long time: the first is to be incubators of access, opportunity, and hope. The second is to constantly fight for the ability to be that.

Critics often describe the organized book banning efforts of today as an attack on the freedom to read, but also it’s an attack on people, isn’t it?

I think we would be remiss if we didn’t note that this is an attack on all our marginalized communities. We are fighting a two-front war here, one of which is a culture war and the other is a class war. When you dehumanize institutions that uplift and provide access, opportunity, and hope to our most marginalized, it’s much easier to dismantle those public institutions.

It should be no surprise that SF 496 was coupled with House File 718, which dismantled all 97 library levies that had been petitioned and voted into place in Iowa. That’s not a coincidence. It is important to recognize that censorship is a hammer looking for a nail, that it always goes after our most marginalized and vulnerable first, and that library funding is an intellectual freedom issue, too, because if I can’t purchase the materials, we can’t debate or discuss them. It’s game over.