Banned Book Week Ideas for Rural Libraries

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By Heather D. Hutto, guest blogger

While book banning is a growing trend nationwide, the majority of successful book bans right now seem to be happening in rural areas (both fringe and remote rural) as well as some suburban areas. The initiatives and toolkits currently available to all librarians are excellent, but they are created by urban LIS professionals and best suited to urban and suburban audiences. The current rhetoric used in these unique size toolkits may not be effective in rural areas.

Yet, where there is weakness or threat, there is almost always opportunity. Perhaps by confronting recent banning attempts, there is also a chance to foster understanding and reduce the gaps between the challenges faced by rural and urban librarians, as well as the gaps between the communities that they serve.

Low technology and information literacy is more common in rural areas than in urban areas; Nonetheless, rural areas are less likely to have home broadband and cellular access. Rural counties also often tend to have higher illiteracy rates and lower educational attainment compared to urban and suburban areas. The civic-aligned rhetoric used in widely available book banning toolkits is likely to be lost on rural audiences with education, information and literacy gaps.

Many of the current book ban collectives have extremist religious affiliations. It’s one thing to tell your own children not to read a book because it conflicts with a family’s chosen belief system; it’s something quite different to ban resources in community-owned, taxpayer-funded collections because one’s religious faith doesn’t align with them. Rural areas are more likely to harbor people leaning towards religious extremism; therefore, getting this point across at home tends to be a much greater challenge in rural areas than in urban areas.

Factors such as low digital readiness, low information literacy, and extremist-leaning religious beliefs all intersect in rural areas. Much like giving running shoes to a paraplegic, the rhetoric used and insights available in current anti-censorship initiatives currently available to all SIB professionals can be largely ignored by rural book-banning communities. Essentially, messages will be ignored in the places where they most need to be brought home.

While developing a comprehensive anti-censorship campaign strategy for Banned Books Week that would be effective in the community my library serves, I reached out to the Association of Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL) mailing list and among my own communities of practice in Oklahoma to find solutions. The majority of Oklahoma’s libraries and 90% of Oklahoma’s schools are rural; these statistics are similar in other rural states. Our local school district has already made headlines for attempted book bans, so I wanted my library to have a toolkit that would empower us to take action. List contributors so far include ARSL leaders, ARSL members (via Listserver), Southeast Oklahoma Library System, and Bristow Public Library . The list has been reviewed by legal professionals, leaders of organizations and journalists who have a more accurate understanding of rural audiences. Here are some of the ideas we’ve compiled from rural America:

  1. Use ARSL’s freedom of information statement.
  2. Display the Librarian’s Code of Professional Ethics and/or the Statement of Freedom to Read, the Library’s Bill of Rights.
  3. Use books that circulate well in the community.
  4. Same as number three, but place the books in cages.
  5. Keep the message simple and get the message out about them (more religiously inclined community members) personally as much as it is about others (alternately aligned community members and those who read mostly banned LGBTQ+ books) . Examples may include the use of the Bible in posters stating: “Read what you want and let others read what they want“, and, “You can choose what you want to read, so let everyone else choose too”.
  6. Create a display with a banner that says “Other people want to stop you from reading these books”. Under the banner, use banned mainstream, usually non-controversial books (i.e. Beatrice Potterthe Bible) and cover book titles with a post-it note. Encourage customers to lift Post-It notes; many may be shocked to see what the titles are.
  7. Incredibly patriotic display that reads “fREADom” and features the First Amendment in the center.
  8. Partner with local and state affiliates to become a voter registration site. Since it’s National Voter Registration Month AND Civic Awareness Month, combine Civil Liberties, Voting Rights, First Amendment Awareness (Anti-Censorship & Banned Books Week) into one rather patriotic display.
  9. For rural-tribal libraries (rural libraries serving Native American populations), repeat number 8, but be sure to use resources and texts relating to First Nations influence on the Constitution and Bill of Rights (see also: “Retained by the People: A History of the American Indians and the Bill of Rights by John R. Wunder).
  10. Create a display alluding to the Gadsden flag: display a slogan “Don’t Tread on Books” on a yellow banner (Southeastern Oklahoma Library System, 2022).
  11. Partner with a local newspaper: On social media, ask readers of a one-day forum if they could think of any reason why a book should be banned.
  12. Start a library-sponsored banned book club.
  13. Draft a Prohibition Week Proclamation for the County Board of Supervisors (or other local governing bodies such as County Commissioners, Alderman or Alderman).
  14. Write an article for a local newspaper either as a library or as a library manager.
  15. Educate library staff on how to communicate exactly what Banned Book Week is, as library staff often focus on controversial books of the year and do not discuss or post the scope historical and contextual banning, challenges and other censorship issues.
  16. Informative display showing the step-by-step book selection process alongside a step-by-step display of the book review form and process.
  17. Use the resources available at The Center for Freedom of Expression: a Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) website that offers basic explanations of the First Amendment, including: “7 things you need to know about the First Amendment.”

During an internship in San Francisco, Heather D. Hutto noticed several significant gaps between the levels of technology and information literacy of Bay Area residents compared to those back home in Oklahoma. After a decade of service in northeast Oklahoma tribal-rural schools and libraries, she is now the executive director of a northeast Oklahoma tribal-rural library serving 12,000 people. In this role, she tries to fill the gaps in digital inclusiveness and foster awareness about it and the intersecting issues.

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