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Iowa City librarian fighting for a place even for books that ‘hurt my feelings’
Sam Helmick is community and access services coordinator for the Iowa City Public Library
IOWA CITY — Sam Helmick, a librarian at the Iowa City Public Library, is fighting for a place for every book in the library — even those that “’rustle my jimmies, hurt my feelings, break my heart,” they said.
“A book for every reader and a reader for every book,” said Helmick, 36, the community and access services coordinator for the library. “We’re not making anybody read them, and neither should we, but we shouldn’t make that choice impossible.”
As Iowa lawmakers consider legislation that would prohibit school libraries from including books that are not “age-appropriate,” barring any books that contain sexual content, Helmick is advocating against banning books, even those they disagree with.
When any district removes a book, the state Education Department would add it to a “removal list,” and all of Iowa’s 326 other districts would have to deny access to the book unless parents gave approval, according to Senate File 496, passed by Iowa House Republicans Wednesday.
There are already processes in place for libraries — public and school — to reconsider a book on their shelves, Helmick said. The bill could prohibit books that have literary value and would remove books that parents may want their child to read.
Bypassing that process through legislation “is stealing their voice,” Helmick said.
“I trust parents to make decisions for their kids. As a person whose parents private schooled me until high school and then home-schooled me, I know what it’s like to make sacrifices and commitments to your child’s education,” they said.
The Iowa City Public Library has one of the largest circulating collection of books in the state, Helmick said, which means there isn’t room for books that people aren’t interested in reading.
“If you don’t circulate it, you’ve spoken. You’ve voted with your checkout. A reader for every book and a book for every reader,” Helmick said.
Helmick has spent a lot of time driving back and forth from Iowa City to Des Moines to make their voice heard at the Capitol this year.
“I’m not going to these meetings feeling like my voice is being heard,” Helmick said. “I don’t feel like the people speaking for children and folks in the (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) community are being heard or even entertained. It’s so painful.”
Helmick’s office is decorated floor to ceiling with Marvel Comics memorabilia, Lego figurines and posters, including a picture of actress Audrey Hepburn.
“It’s called job security,” they said jokingly. “It’s easier to let me stay at this point.”
More seriously, Helmick said the decor is “tools of the trade. ”You need something joyful and colorful, a space for folks to articulate their feelings or hammer out a dispute with Lego Foosball,“ a game that sits on their desk.
Helmick, who grew up in Burlington, didn’t see the value of libraries as a young adult. When they were growing up, there was only one shelf of teen books available to them. “I just wasn’t made to feel welcome,” they said.
They even voted against a levy that would provide funding for a new library. The levy passed and a new library was built.
“It was beautiful, with a teen department, teen advisory board and programming,“ Helmick said. ”There are people who don’t see the value of libraries until you put it right in their face.“
That’s what led Helmick to write books about marketing for libraries and speak internationally for library conferences on topics including intellectual freedom, social marketing, outreach and library fundraising.
“Our first impression is very important,” Helmick said. “You trust your library, your teacher, your firefighter. If I don’t make eye contact over that monolithic (welcome desk) and remind you you’re welcome here, acknowledge you in some way, remind you this is your space, that can be detrimental. You don’t vote for libraries you don’t value.”
Helmick has served on multiple committees for the American Library Association, as the Chapter Council and Intellectual Freedom chair for the Iowa Library Association, as chair of the Iowa Governor’s Commission of Libraries, and as a member of the third cohort of Library Freedom Project.
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