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This library director resigned after continuous dramatics over featured books


Vinton is a town of about 5,000 in East Central Iowa, halfway between Cedar Rapids and Waterloo. The public library there spent this past week shuttered after its latest director, the third over the past two years, left amid ongoing fights over what books are on display, which means Vinton is another battlefield in America's library wars. Janette McMahon served as director of the Vinton Public Library for more than a year until resigning last July, and she joins us now from DeWitt, Iowa. Thank you for being with us.

JANETTE MCMAHON: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: What books were the subjects of complaints under your tenure? And, like, what were people complaining about when it came to the books?

MCMAHON: There were five books that we had complaints. They were not formal complaints. They never went through our reconsideration process. One of them was "Joey" by Jill Biden, "Superheroes" by - the Kamala Harris book, "Sometimes People March," which is a wonderful children's book about different ways people will march, whether it's marching in a band or marching down the street for an idea.

RASCOE: What was the complaints about those sorts of books?

MCMAHON: That we were not being fair to President Trump because we didn't have books that were equal, which there aren't children's books necessarily written. And that in the marching book, there was a lack of marches such as pro-life.

RASCOE: When you were picking out books, were you making political choices and making certain ones prominent? Did that come into your mind?

MCMAHON: Kamala Harris spoke at Vinton Public Library. That book was donated to the library. The - "Joey" by Jill Biden was a patron request, and we displayed all our new books. Like in a lot of small towns, gossip and conjecture and the side conversations just kind of take over. And at that point, you become unable to really do your job well. You know, people start either - they don't use the library, or materials get checked out and not returned.

RASCOE: And so was that the issue with some of these books that people didn't like? Were people checking them out and not returning them?

MCMAHON: They had checked out, and then, you know, there's a fine line between are they not returning them for a reason, or are they just not returning their books because they haven't returned the books yet? When I work on collection development, I look at what are our patrons looking for, what are what I consider, quote, "holes in my collection" that were lacking. And OK, maybe we don't have a high population of African Americans. That doesn't mean we don't buy books that have African American characters. Part of our job as librarians is to literally bring in things you would not look for yourself or don't even know that's out there. Whether you want to choose to check it out, that is entirely up to you. But do I want to recognize LBGTQ+ communities? Absolutely. If we don't have materials, we need some.

RASCOE: The library in Vinton is due to reopen tomorrow with limited hours as the town looks for a new director. You're out at another library in DeWitt, Iowa. That's another small town. Do you think the same thing that happened to you in Vinton is going to happen in DeWitt?

MCMAHON: Yes. You know, you think small-town libraries - oh, they don't get the controversy of New York or the big cities. Well, actually, I think the controversies, it's in small towns, I think, even worse simply because you know everyone in small towns. And change is very hard. And when change comes, these things happen.

RASCOE: That's Janette McMahon, former director of the Vinton Public Library in Vinton, Iowa. Thank you so much for joining us.

MCMAHON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.