How Two Iowa Librarians Are Standing Up for Readers

Rural libraries build community and push back against censorship

Joel Bleifuss June 2, 2023

“Libraries are one of the very few places, rural or urban, where you can just go somewhere and be,” says Kate Laughlin, the executive director of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL). “You can be there for as long as you want. There’s no admission price. It’s warm and dry and there’s entertainment and a comfortable place to sit. You’d be hard pressed to think of any place in our country where that is the case besides one’s own home and the occasional community center. That is a very important part of a library, when you’re talking about rural areas.”

Rural libraries are also outposts of intellectual freedom, providing community members with books, movies and magazines that represent a diverse range of political, social and cultural perspectives. And for that reason, in red states and in red counties across the nation, rural libraries are ground zero in a culture war being waged by an unholy alliance of evangelical Christian nationalists, Donald Trump’s MAGA Republicans, and Moms for Liberty, the book banning group aligned with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. In 2022, American Library Association members reported 1,271 book challenges, many of which involved multiple books, adding up to 2,571 unique titles targeted last year.  

Barn Raiser spoke with the directors of two Iowa libraries, who are active members of the 2,600-member strong ARSL, about the role libraries play the life of their communities.

Tyler Hahn, 31, is the director of the Cherokee Public Library in Cherokee, Iowa, a town of 5,199 in Cherokee County, in the northwest corner of the state. Cherokee is a red town in a red county that is 90 percent white. Hahn is a member of the Advocacy Committee of the ARSL, which these days is busy supporting rural librarians confronted by book banners through the group’s Advocacy Center.

Jennie Garner, 55, is the director of the North Liberty Library, North Liberty, a town of 20,875 in Johnson County, in eastern Iowa. Garner, who describes her county as “a little blue bubble,” is the president of the ARSL board of directors.

Bleifuss: As rural librarians, what services do you provide patrons besides checking out books?

Hahn: We are one of three places in Cherokee where you have access to free 24-hour Wi-Fi.

Our community demographics are getting older, so one of our biggest services is called Tech Tuesday, where you can work with me or one of the other librarians on developing one skill for navigating one piece of technology. We’ve tried to rein it in because in the early days somebody would bring in their TV and an Amazon fire stick and say, “I want to cut the cord to cable. Get this to work and teach me how to work it.” It was bonkers to deal with something like that.

We also circulate things like puzzles and cake pans. We’re the nucleus of the community where you come to get information about garbage collection and other events and organizations within the community. We also house a nonprofit that’s called the Cherokee Area Archives, which preserves Cherokee County’s history. So, if somebody is wanting to do some research on a local grave or their house, they can come to our facility to find that information.

Garner: Programming is our biggest draw. We are in a building that is a community center, with a recreation department and two swimming pools along with our library. It’s a hopping community hub.

Technology is definitely something that we also address. We meet one-on-one with folks not only for technology, but navigating community social services, filling out forms and writing resumes.

We have a Family Services librarian who works with our 0-to-5-year-olds and their families. We have two youth services folks who work up through high school. And then we have adult services librarians as well. So we cover the gamut from birth to death. What I love about libraries is that we’re a place where people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can gather in the same shared space and we can meet their needs.

Bleifuss: Where do you see library services expanding or changing in the future?

Tyler Hahn on the steps of the Cherokee Public LIbrary in Cherokee, Iowa. Hahn is the director of the library and serves on the Advocacy Committe of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries.

Hahn: They’re going to expand as far as community needs expand. I’ve seen libraries that have “libraries of things” like power washers, lawnmowers and bicycles. Ten years ago, you would what have thought, “That’s a little bit strange.” As more things become digitized, libraries will nucleate themselves within the digital metaverse as well.

Garner: We’re just starting what we call our “library of things,” like CPR mannequins, tools and other things that people want to use once or twice a year and don’t have the funds to purchase or the place to store, like gardening equipment.

Lifelong learning, that’s going to continue.

The equitable access piece is huge. As librarians we have a part to play in social justice—a responsibility to be a part of that conversation and connecting with people as allies in our communities.

One of our public services staff is dedicated to working with entrepreneurs. She’s an ambassador with our Chamber of Commerce. Her latest project is setting up a mixer for immigrant entrepreneurs in our area to come and meet each other and support each other.

Libraries across the country are hiring social workers. Here in North Liberty, we’re involved in our summer lunch program.

It’s important for folks to know that when they think of libraries as only about books or reading, it is not that way anymore. People want to be active and have a place where they can come in and interact with each other and make those connections that we’ve kind of lost in recent years.

Bleifuss: What challenges face rural libraries today?

Hahn: Number one, budgetary restrictions. Inflation has gone up exponentially, but it feels like the first thing cut within city services is culture and recreation. Within my city structure, we’re the only department that’s not considered to be essential. Meanwhile, we worked clear through the pandemic, keeping people connected to the Internet, keeping people learning during a time where our schools weren’t doing online school or anything like that. The library was the only place for parents to check out books and materials to keep their kids with reading and learning, to avoid the giant slides in learning we’re seeing now. Some local politics are difficult as well.

Bleifuss: Difficult in what way?

Garner: As far as legislation goes, our state library budget has been pretty much flatlined. Then of course, there’s the the book banning.

Bleifuss: Why do you think these books are being banned across the country?

Jennie Garner, the director of the North Liberty LIbrary in North Liberty, Iowa, has decorated the windows of her library with images of books that Moms for Lilberty wants banned from public libraries across the nation.

Garner: Fear. And no matter how they want to spin it, the books that are being challenged are books on marginalized groups. My response is that what you read is a decision that should be made in the home. The beauty of a book is you can open it and explore a new world. If you don’t find a world you like, you can close it and put it back. But you leave it for someone else to explore.

We don’t all live in the same world, and books allow us to see ourselves and others. And if kids, especially, or anyone comes into the library and they don’t find themselves or find the history of others, then we’re doing a disservice to our communities. The more lifelong learning and the more exploration that people do, the better they are able to critically think, the better they are able to make decisions, and the better they are able to prepare themselves for the working world.

If you think about it, libraries are a place where anyone can go and nobody says, “Where are you from? What are you doing here? What do you need from us?”

At our library, we don’t even ask for an ID to get a library card. We do this crazy thing called the “radical trust,” where we assume people are good and they’re telling the truth when they come in. And we don’t really have any issues with that.

Bleifuss: Tyler, how do requests for books to be banned play out in Cherokee County?

Hahn: We have had one book challenged in the last three years and luckily I was able to sit down with that patron and show them that the decisions about the materials we purchase are open to the public, as are all of our board meetings, as well as all documentation to reconsider material. It’s all 100% accessible. We are able to show that other libraries in the county as well as other communities here in northwest Iowa are purchasing these same materials and putting them in these same sections of the library.

Bleifuss: Do you have a Moms for Liberty chapter in Cherokee County?

Hahn: No, nothing like that.

Garner: And we have not, fortunately, either. We’ve been able to have frank conversations with a few people in the community. Mostly people want to be heard  and to understand the process. We call our reconsideration form used to voice objections to a given book a “statement of concern” rather than a reconsideration form, and people can fill that out once they go through the process of talking with me so I can have a chance to explain that we try to purchase materials that reflect as many opinions as possible.

Often marginalized groups are very underrepresented in the library. It’s really about educating people so that they understand and so that they don’t fear that we’re putting books out and making their children take them home. We really do ultimately look to parents to make those decisions at home for their children.

Bleifuss: How do you garner support for what you do within your communities?

Garner: We want to be proactive, not reactive. Our library board put a statement of inclusivity on our website that says we want to be a place that’s equitable, inclusive and where people from all walks of life feel they belong and are welcome.

When I started in libraries years ago, I remember being told make the statement for the reconsideration policy really hard for people to fill out. That’s not what we want. We want fair and equal for everyone. If someone has a concern, we want to hear it. But we also want to help people understand why we represent all sides, as many sides as possible. Our policy is pretty clear that any person who lives in North Liberty can make a statement of reconsideration, but it can’t be a group effort.

Bleifuss: How does the advocacy committee of ARSL work and what is its mission?

Garner: Our Advocacy Committee doesn’t provide legal advice, but we will pair a librarian up with the advocacy committee if they need help. The committee provides information that guides members through what it could look like if they have a book challenged. We have decided to make that part of our website accessible to anyone so that is not a member perk.

Hahn: One of our Advocacy Center projects right now is a short video series with some advocacy tips and tricks and that supplement the blocks of text, along with toolkits and resources that will soon be available, like a challenge response check list.

Bleifuss: What is the biggest challenge facing the ARSL these days?

Garner: Making sure that people know exactly what libraries do and the depth and breadth of what we do beyond literacy in books.

Hahn: The Advocacy Committee hears from teeny, tiny one-person libraries all the way to larger systems, and their problems are unique. Having a silver bullet to address everybody’s challenges isn’t possible. However, we can create tools and resources that you can adapt to your situation to inform your practices.

If a librarian needs support, they can reach the Advocacy Committee on the ARSL website. We can then touch base with them and though we are not lawyers, we can inform them of resources and best practices. It’s nice just to have somebody to be a sounding board against as well.

A lot of times, being a librarian is a lonely profession. The next library is often a county away. It’s often hard to find somebody who can both be a consultant and an advocate. That’s where the ARSL Advocacy Committee does shine. We are librarians just like you. So, while I might have a handle on what’s going on in Iowa, in the Midwest, I’m not as up to date with what’s going on in the South. But I do know librarians who work in Texas and Louisiana who have a wealth of resources and other connections as well. And with that, we can build the momentum to solve some of these bigger problems or concerns as well.

Bleifuss: Do you all feel positive about the future, or a bit under the gun?

Garner: It changes day to day. I feel positive when I think about when I went to the Capitol in Dea Moines in February. I saw far more people standing against censorship than the people standing for censorship and banning books. What we’re seeing is a loud minority that is galvanized, working as a group with dark money behind them, and their intentions are not great. They want to keep marginalized groups marginalized, and they are trying to defund public programs. But I think our supporters far outnumber them and we need to figure out ways to talk to them because they are not hearing us.

Hahn: I have cautious optimism. Unfortunately with changes the Iowa legislature has made this year limiting the amount of property taxes local governments can charge, some of these smaller libraries might not make it over the next couple of years. What can we do to help support those smaller libraries that provide access to not just books, but access to the internet and high-quality programing?

You know, if the concept of a public library came up today in 2023, I’m not sure that necessarily everybody would be on board.

But I see rays of hope where people in the community are advocating for freedom to information and for services that libraries provide. Seeing how supportive people are of libraries as a whole does me a lot of good professionally and personally.

Intellectual Freedom Resources

The Association for Rural & Small Libraries can be reached at PO Box 33731, Seattle, WA 98133, by calling or texting (206) 453-3579, or through the association’s website. The ARSL invites any member of the public to submit an “advocacy support request” to the group’s Advocacy Center.

The American Library Association’s Fight Censorship is a clearinghouse of resources to assist library workers and advocates in responding to and supporting others facing the unprecedented surge in local and statewide book challenges.

Joel Bleifuss

Joel Bleifuss is Barn Raiser Editor & Publisher and Board President of Barn Raising Media Inc. He is a descendent of German and Scottish farmers who immigrated to the Upper Midwest in the 19th Century to become farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas. His grandmother was born in the Scottish Highlands to parents listed in the Census of Great Britain, 1881 as “farm servants” on land owned by the Duke of Fife. Joel himself was born and raised in Fulton, Mo., a small town on the edge of the Ozark Highlands. He got his start in journalism in 1983 as a feature writer and Saturday reporter/photographer for his hometown daily, the Fulton Sun. Bleifuss joined the staff of In These Times magazine in October 1986, stepping down as Editor & Publisher in April 2022, to join his fellow barn raisers in getting Barn Raiser off the ground.

Have thoughts or reactions to this or any other piece that you’d like to share? Send us a note with the Letter to the Editor form.

Want to republish this story? Check out our guide.