Wisconsin Locals Rally Around Small Town Library

Bayfield County residents stand up to a shadow book banning group in support of the Iron River public library

Susanna Carroll December 4, 2023

You might have heard that the book banning group Moms for Liberty suffered big electoral setbacks in November in their attempts to take over school boards. Maybe that’s the case, but up here in Wisconsin’s Northwoods it looks like the book banners are still on the move.

Over the past few months, a group called Concerned Citizens of Iron River, a mostly anonymous group on Facebook, have started calling for books to be removed from my local library, the Evelyn Goldberg Briggs Memorial Library in Iron River, Wisconsin (population 1,100). Most of these books being challenged are about LGBTQ+, and specifically trans, folks.

Soon after I started hearing rumors about an effort to challenge books at our local library, my husband, David, saw a flyer on the bulletin board of Iron River Foods, the local co-op grocery store, announcing a meeting would be held on September 14 at the Iron River Community Center to discuss the library. In recent weeks, the library board had refused to remove books that the group was concerned about. The notice said no one from the library board or staff would be admitted, only taxpayers—and you would need to show ID.

For the past 14 years my husband and I have lived in Delta, Wisconsin, about seven miles from Iron River, near the southern shore of Lake Superior. Iron River’s library serves many of the surrounding towns in Bayfield County—Oulu, Tripp, Hughes, Port Wing, Herbster and Delta—and I feel like the Iron River library is my library.

Iron River was founded in 1892. Like many of the towns in Northern Wisconsin, what brought people here was the logging boom. Today, the population is mostly local families that have lived here for generations, some retirees and a few new families who like the beauty and peace of the Northwoods.

On the day of the meeting, we arrived at the Community Center a half-hour late. Already, a convivial exchange of opinions was underway, even though the event organizers had not arrived.

Iron River’s public library has been the target of recent book challenges. The library board has refused to remove the books under question.

One older woman spoke of growing up on a farm and knowing nothing about sex except what she saw the chickens do in the yard. When she read Let’s Talk About It, one of the controversial books under discussion, she said she was shocked, but that she learned a lot and didn’t think learning about sex was a bad thing.

But soon the organizers of the meeting arrived with an Iron River police officer in tow and started kicking people out—including a young man who was filming the meeting on his phone and a reporter from the Ashland Daily Press, saying that because they had rented the community center, they could do so.

They brought with them the offending LGBTQ+ library books—Let’s Talk About It, The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish, and Jack and Jacki along with about 10 others—and laid them out on a table.

When my husband went to look at the books under examination, a young woman immediately thrust Let’s Talk About It in his face and asked him, “Would you put something up your butt?” David, a reserved Finnish-American, replied, “I beg your pardon!”

A woman who identified herself only as Barbara, said books about LGBTQ+ relationships don’t belong in a library open to children, and she called on residents to force the library to close. But not everyone in the crowd agreed with that proposal or with the Concerned Citizens and their push to ban books.

As Tom Stankard, the reporter from the Ashland Daily Press kicked out of the meeting, later reported, one person responded to Barbara’s accusations, saying, “I want to tell you what’s immoral: restricting freedom of speech and freedom of the press.” But Barbara and others with the Concerned Citizens group did not back down. At one point, Barbara advocated shutting down the library entirely.

As Stankard quotes her, she said, “You can disassociate from the ALA and the Northern Waters Library. You can circulate a 300-person petition, make a resolution, shut the library down.” She added, “A lot of towns are doing this. Many libraries are being closed. You don’t need to have a library that uses taxpayer money however they wish without parental consent. I think that’s the issue with most people here.”

The next week, on September 19, at a “special” town board meeting—hastily called by the Town Chairman David Clembronowicz (Iron River does not have a mayor)—the board voted to dismiss the four library board members who did not live in the town. According to Wisconsin State Statute 43.54, not more than 2 library board members who live in other municipalities may serve on the up to seven-member town library board. A library board member with a trans child was one of the first to be kicked off.

No one in the audience objected because Clembronowicz told those present that they would be ejected from the meeting if they spoke. There was a huge police presence for this little community meeting. I counted four Bayfield County sheriff’s deputies and one city police officer. It was alarming to me.

Clembronowicz is a book banner. A month earlier, on August 15, he wrote a memo to the library board and management objecting to books in the library that “could be deemed pornography,” including books that “focused on LGBQT+ lifestyle,” and on ”transgenderism” that “used children’s storybooks as a means of promotion of that lifestyle.” He wrote:

I have seen information forwarded to this board about the American Library Association and its emphasis on how to “fight against book banning” and promotion of “intellectual freedom,” neither of which includes value or morality as a foundation. Instead, they focus on promoting … an agenda that today is “Marxist” in nature, their President is an avowed Marxist that supplants value and morality of a community with “diversity, equity and inclusiveness” at the expense of community belief and culture.

Susanna Carroll, the present writer, dressed as a character from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, with her husband, David, at the the Open Doors / Open Books party that she helped organize.

On October 4, the library board had its next meeting. It was standing room only. Everyone attending was given time to give their opinions in favor or against banning the books in question.

The Concerned Citizens claimed they didn’t wish to ban books. But that is semantics. Banning means forbidding—this group wants to forbid any of these books being shelved. They want the books removed to a spot where they can’t be seen, where no person needing information could find them and doubtlessly would have a hard time asking. There were no police present at this meeting.

I found the differences between the two meetings compelling. Police presence and controlled speech at the town “special” meeting versus free speech and democratic engagement at the library board meeting.

To me, public libraries are a bastion of our democracy—we need to protect the books that are held within it, but more importantly we need to defend what they represent: the freedom to explore new ideas, engage challenging perspectives and encourage critical inquiry.  

Libraries are a kind of church, a place of quiet contemplation, a place for every member of the human race. We can all go into a public library and be accepted, no questions asked. Libraries contain the collected works of “us.” It appalls me that anyone would want to remove one of these works.

In the following days, I decided I had to do something. I thought we might throw a party for the library, and I put out the call to anyone who might be interested. The response was heartening.

A book cake donated as a door prize at the Open Doors / Open Books party held on November 4 to celebrate and show gratitude for the Iron River public library. (Susanna Carroll)

On Saturday, November 4, the “Open Doors/Open Books” event happened at the White Winter Winery, a local business with a large meeting hall. Once again, it was a packed crowd, with entertainment provided by Bob and Trish, an incredible juggling and acrobatic team, and Steve Solkela, a talented and hilarious one-man band. We invited people to come dressed as a literary figure, if they wanted to.

There were donated door prizes, including a huge “book cake” inscribed with the book title Let’s Talk About It that was donated by the Ashland Baking Company. A message of support from Gov. Tony Evers was aired on a large TV screen. Without a murmur of an appeal, over $1,100 was also donated to the library. It was the best time I ever had in Iron River, and I encourage people in other small towns that are plagued by book banners to throw a party for their library and bring the community together.

We still have work to do. Following our party on November 9, the town board appointed four new members, including two women who are book banners, both of whom live in nearby Lake Nebagamon, which has its own library. One of them is Barbara Resheske—the Barbara quoted above who advocated for closing the library. The other is Helena Jamison, who has submitted a form to have Let’s Talk About It removed from the Iron River Library.

As it stands now, by my reckoning, based on the November 30 library board meeting I attended, the seven-member library board includes three members who support book banning and four who do not. Intellectual freedom survives in Iron River … for now.

Susanna Carroll

Susanna Carroll is a retired sexual assault counselor who lives in Delta, Wisconsin, and is a proud holder of a card from the Evelyn Goldberg Briggs Memorial Library in Iron River.

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