How Huntington Beach’s library became a culture war battleground

A mostly empty shelf of books with a sign reading "Youth restricted books"
A row of shelves in an upstairs corner of the Huntington Beach Central Library houses books deemed to contain “sexual content” based on a new city policy. Most of the books had been checked out by community activists. The few that remain include titles on female puberty and hygiene and a potty-training picture book.
(Ryan Fonseca / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning. It’s Friday, May 10. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

The book war intensifies in Huntington Beach

A passionate crowd spoke in support of the Huntington Beach Public Library at a five-hour City Council meeting this week. When the conservative-majority council voted to continue its exploration of privatizing the library, attendees shouted: “Shame!”

The conservative block, led by Mayor Gracey Van Der Mark, says they have a responsibility to find the cheapest way to run the library, and that includes considering the option of hiring an outside contractor to take over daily operations.

The large and vocal turnout of library supporters saw something else: the latest in a series of orchestrated and ideological efforts by the City Council’s conservative majority to censor books, remove librarians and dismantle a beloved public institution.


Van Der Mark has publicly accused city library workers of “infecting our children with obscenity or pornography” and has drafted policies that grant a politically appointed panel power to deem certain books inappropriate for the children’s section — and potentially block new books from the library altogether.

Van Der Mark did not respond to multiple requests to talk for this newsletter.

Librarians say they feel vilified by some community members, who have referred to them as pedophiles and groomers in public and online. One senior librarian resigned, citing a lack of support from city leaders.

The city in red-turned-purple Orange County has become California’s ground zero in the national culture war over access to books — and longtime residents and librarians I spoke with say the focus on the library is disheartening.

“Librarians and the library [are] under attack,” retired children’s librarian Barbara Richardson told me. “We’re part of a war we didn’t want any part of.”

Books removed from the children’s section

Carol Daus, a board member of Friends of the Huntington Beach Public Library, and Richardson, who worked as a city librarian for 32 years, pointed me to a small note on some empty shelves in the children’s section of the city’s renowned Central Library: “Books in this section of the Children’s non-fiction collection may have been relocated.”


Resolution No. 2023-41, authored by Van Der Mark and approved 4 to 3 by the council, directed library staff to remove books from the children’s section determined to contain “any content of sexual nature” and relocate them to the adult section.

That led to librarians reviewing and pulling books about puberty, feminine hygiene, potty training and even a books about ships. But after complaints, the reviews and relocations were put on pause.

Critics say conservative city leaders are conflating books meant to provide information to adolescents about puberty and human sexuality with obscene sexual content. The council members supporting the new policies say they want to ensure that parents know the content of books before they get checked out.

“We’re not banning books,” Mayor Pro Tem Pat Burns said during a meeting last June. “The real intent of this is to protect kids from — really — mind poison or unwanted viewing of material that they shouldn’t probably view.”

Carol Daus and other library advocates contend the argument of protecting kids is a “performative” cover for the book access battles playing out across the nation.


“If there’s so much dangerous material in this library, why haven’t they brought the police in here and removed it?” Daus said.

Daus and Richardson told me roughly 100 books had been relocated to a corner of the adult section section, but a community activist group called HB Banned Books Story Time had checked the majority out and was displaying the books in public to raise awareness of the city’s efforts to restrict access to books and explore privatization.

“Libraries are supposed to be neutral,” Richardson said. “Do we really want a library that’s just one point of view?”

How the so-called Fab Four turned Surf City into ground zero for the culture wars

After taking office in 2022, four conservative council members — called the “Fab Four” by their supporters — set their sights on new voter ID laws (drawing a state lawsuit) and state housing mandates (another lawsuit), changed rules that restricted which flags can fly on city property and altered the prayer policy in council chambers. Then they turned to books at the library.

The City Council approved a motion in June 2023 to make library books and materials considered “obscene and/or pornographic” inaccessible to minors.


Then in October came Resolution No. 2023-41, also authored by Van Der Mark and approved 4 to 3 by the council, which directed library staff to remove books from the children’s section determined to contain “any content of sexual nature” and relocate them to the adult section.

Six months later, in March, the council passed a motion to create a Community Parent/Guardian Review Board. Members of the 21-person panel will be able to nominate children’s books for review to determine if they meet “community standards.”

What exactly are those community standards? Whatever a majority of the politically appointed panel decides them to be, according to the ordinance.

That same month, the council majority approved a motion to request proposals from third-party contractors to take over operations of the library system after being approached by one such contractor earlier in the year.

People and children walk in front of a large sign for the children's section of the Huntington Beach library
Bruce Growth takes his grandchildren Logan and Juliana Weber to the Huntington Beach Public Library on May 1, 2023.
(Scott Smeltzer / Los Angeles Times)

After council members and supporters accuse library staff, a senior librarian resigned


For Melissa Ronning, the library is “probably the most inclusive place in any society.” She was the principal librarian for the city after previously serving as children’s librarian and senior librarian for youth services.

But her decade of work for Huntington Beach is over. Ronning announced her resignation in front of the City Council last month, which was met with cheers from some in the crowd. She said her decision was a result of the efforts by the council’s conservatives to undermine her work and that of her fellow librarians.

“It doesn’t feel good when somebody takes away the things that you’ve spent your career building,” she told me, adding that it was “disheartening” to see and hear people call city librarians pedophiles and groomers in public and on social media. Worse still, she said:

“Nobody came to protect us. … Nobody in our city management spoke out and said that these comments do not reflect what our librarians do and who they are. It made us feel very much alone.”

When rumors spread earlier this year that the city would explore privatizing the library, that was “the nail in the coffin” for her. Even if privatization doesn’t end up happening, Ronning expects a mass exodus of the city’s library staff, who she said have been increasingly stressed about the book restrictions and the possibility of losing their jobs.

“The damage has been done,” she said. “It really has been affecting their ability to feel good about working for the city of Huntington Beach.”


Public reaction has been swift and strong

Residents are gathering signatures in hopes of putting a citywide initiative to voters in November that would repeal the upcoming review panel.

On social media and in council meetings, residents have decried the initiative to privatize as a bad-faith effort to control the library system.

The sharp divide over the library extends to the City Council, as Councilmembers Natalie Moser, Rhonda Bolton and Dan Kalmick have consistently pushed back on efforts to restrict children’s and teens’ access to books and any steps toward privatizing the library.

Kalmick, who authored the failed motion that would have let city residents decide on privatization, said “morale is in the toilet at City Hall.” He says the “Fab Four” are using their power to push an ideological agenda and neglecting their core responsibilities as municipal leaders.

Mayor Pro Tem Burns and Councilmember Tony Strickland did not respond to interview requests.


“It’s really disappointing that in 2024, we have folks in California and in Orange County that are still trying to turn the clock back to 1965,” Kalmick said. “This is local government. This should be boring. But our meetings are not — they are gladiator matches … on national and social issues that local government is not designed to handle.”

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