Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Keep It Rural, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Like what you see? Join the mailing list for more rural news, thoughts, and analysis in your inbox each week.

Thank Your Rural Librarian

Hello from Western North Carolina! Some of you may know me, but some of you may not. I’m Sarah Melotte, the Yonder’s data reporter, and Claire Carlson is taking the week off, so I’m here to share what’s been going on in my neck of the woods. 

Last week, county commissioners in Yancey County, North Carolina held two public meetings to discuss withdrawing from the regional library system and wresting control over the local branch amidst public debate about a Pride Month book display. 

On July 10, hundreds of people packed the courtroom in Burnsville (the seat of Yancey County) to plead with the commissioners about the value of queer book selections and regional library systems. Fortunately, the board of commissioners listened to patrons’ concerns and ultimately decided not to withdraw from the regional system. 

But when my girlfriend, Hannah-Marie, and I arrived at the courtroom for the meeting, I wasn’t sure if the crowd had gathered to support or protest the LGBTQ displays. We’ve lived in the area for less than a year, so we’re still learning about the community and the wonderful people who call it home.

When we’re not sure if people will be comfortable with our relationship, we joke to each other that we’ll just pretend to be sisters because someone will inevitably ask us if we are. (I’m working up the nerve to reply with, “I hope not!”) It’s a common enough occurrence in our hometown in South Carolina, so we’re used to either dodging the question entirely or playing along. I walked into that courtroom ready to play the sister card. 

That’s why I sighed with relief when the first person who stood up during the public comment period expressed support for the queer community and the regional library system. And I felt even more relieved when the second person got up to share the same sentiment. And then the third person agreed, and then the fourth, and then the fifth. During the public comments period, sixteen people shared their thoughts, only four of whom were against the pride displays. 

It would be misleading if I made this story sound unique to North Carolina. Pressure to ban books, censor selections, and pull library funding is happening all over the nation right now, and not just in rural communities. It’s happening in big cities, too. 

Public libraries faced more demands to ban books last year than any other year since they began tracking numbers over 20 years ago. Queer books aren’t the only targets. Books that discuss racism or Black Lives Matter are also targets for censorship

But when this happens in a rural community, there’s more at stake. Because fewer rural people have access to high speed internet, rural libraries serve as places where patrons can check emails, look for jobs, and apply for public benefits like disability or SNAP. In Yancey County, the local branch regularly helps patrons access health insurance information, find legal help, and file their taxes, among other things. To add to this burden, rural libraries receive less funding than their urban peers, so they’re essentially doing more with less. That’s why I admire my local librarians. 

Without further ado, thank you, Yancey County librarians, for serving your community and for making my partner and I feel welcomed. Thank you, Yancey County residents, for bravely addressing your commissioners. And last (but certainly not least), thank you, county commissioners, for listening to your constituents. 

If you’re reading this and you work in a rural library, this newsletter is a thank you to you, too. 

Go thank your rural librarian. They deserve it.

Rural Reading List

A Rural Western North Carolina County Will Keep Its Public Library in the Regional System, but Not Without Debate

More reporting on my experience at the Yancey County courtroom, where commissioners considered withdrawing their library from the regional system amidst public debate about a Pride Month book display.

Can Libraries Help Hold Our Information Landscape Together?

Whatcom County’s library system is one of six in rural Washington hoping to fight the spread of false information and build digital literacy skills in communities like theirs. They’re joined by one library system in rural Texas.

‘Prove It or Lose It.’ How Tribes are Forced to Fight to Secure Senior Water Rights.

A 1908 Supreme Court ruling requires Congress to reserve enough water for Indian reservations, but tribes are now having to fight for this right as climate change fuels water scarcity throughout the American West.

Gillibrand Promotes $50B Rebuild Rural America Bill in Lake Placid

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand visited the Mirror Lake Beach House to promote her recently introduced legislation — the Rebuild Rural America Act of 2023 — to invest $50 billion in rural economic development, infrastructure, schools, hospitals and small businesses.

One More Thing: SNAP Benefits and the Farm Bill

New data from the Urban Institute found that SNAP benefits don’t cover the rising costs of meals for most families. And the gap between meal cost and SNAP benefits is the highest in rural areas, leaving many families scrambling to cope with the rising cost of living. 

But lawmakers are looking to expand benefits through the 2023 farm bill, which has a chunk of funding directed toward hunger and nutrition specifically. The current law expires on September 30, so stay tuned.

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