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Keeping Up With the Urbanites: The Importance of Popular Culture in Rural Libraries
by
Posted On June 26, 2018
Upon hearing the oft-repeated phrase “pop culture,” your mind likely conjures splashy images of flashbulbs and youth, urbanity and fast-paced change, money and maybe the Kardashians. None of those words relate to the place I live: Titusville, Pa., population about 5,600. The pace of life in rural Northwestern Pennsylvania is slow and generally has been since the decline of the oil boom in the late 1800s. There are no flashbulbs, and there is very little youth. I am one of only a handful of people in my generation who went away to college and came back to start a life in the place that built me. Almost 30% of people in my area younger than retirement age are living below the poverty line, almost twice the state average. (Statistics used in this article come from factfinder.census.gov/faces/nav/jsf/pages/index.xhtml). Libraries are being squeezed nationally with the unceasing growth of technology and widespread ignorance regarding the services we provide to those who desperately need them. Access to popular culture is not a luxury but a necessity many take for granted, and it is not equal for all people. Rural public libraries provide a direct line to national conversations that shape the way we function in the world.

What is popular culture? It is generally regarded as the beliefs, practices, and vernacular dominant in a society at a given point in time. Popular culture permeates our everyday life because it shapes every part of our behavior—how we get up in the morning (Did you set your alarm on your smartphone? Was the first thing you saw not your own face in the bathroom mirror but the glare of a smartphone screen?), what words we use to talk to those around us (“dumpster fire” and “snowflake” are certainly not as self-explanatory as they used to be), and how we go to sleep at night (Can you remember the last time you didn’t check social media before curling up under the covers?). All of these behaviors have been collectively learned and incorporated by society over time into the way the majority of people live their normal lives. Popular culture dictates what is in and what is out, how we should act, and what we should be thinking about.

Some of the biggest conversations in popular culture today are about diversity, intersectionality, feminism, equality, sexual harassment, identity, and justice. The debates surrounding these uniquely human issues are integral to shaping our society and moving it forward in a positive direction. These are conversations that need to be hashed out. But what if you live in a place that was last reported as being 97.5% white, where women’s median earnings were just over half those of men, and that has not supported a Democrat for president since 1964? Although these specific facts refer to one place in America (Titusville), the same can be said of many rural, homogenous communities. In communities that are isolated from diversity in race, money, and politics, popular culture is the lifeline to the greater world. It gives us a tether to the heartbeat of our nation and helps us understand where we fit into the dialogue. In areas that experience high levels of poverty and hardship, the community hub where people are able to make that greater connection is the public library.

Checkouts as Radical Acts

Public libraries are one of the only places where people can walk through the doors without expecting to leave with less. Libraries try to actively provide the kinds of materials their patrons want to interact with and experience. Not all communities are the same, and thus not all collections should be identical. In my rural library, Titusville’s Benson Memorial Library, one of the most in-demand collections is movies and television shows. We provide patrons with a wide selection of classic and modern movies, miniseries, long-running television series, documentaries, cartoons, and more. With almost 2,000 DVDs, we offer the second-largest entertainment collection in the county. Our DVD circulation over the past 3 years has skyrocketed from just more than 3,000 circulations in 2015 to more than 7,000 in 2017, as new staff members have been eagerly expanding this highly desired collection.

From the outside, it may not be immediately apparent why checking out Big Little Lies, Hidden Figures, or Moonlight from the local public library is such a radical action. But consider the distribution of the aforementioned titles. Big Little Lies is shown on HBO, a service that requires a subscription that is monetarily out-of-reach for many residents in rural areas. In my area, we have only one television provider, and an HBO subscription is an add-on cost that is prohibitive after the monopoly prices are taken into consideration. Furthermore, in order to watch the series on a non-TV platform, one must have high-speed internet. In rural areas, the internet is a luxury some cannot afford and rely on the library to provide. In the most remote areas, companies have not even bothered to set up the infrastructure to deliver high-speed internet, so streaming from home is impossible. While a great portion of the nation is wired into direct communication with the wider world through Wi-Fi, Ethernet, or data, there remains a marginalized segment that is denied access based on the assumption that the internet is not a necessary utility. While one would not consider access to heat, light, and running water a luxury in the 21st century, access to information is still considered a realm for the privileged.

New Ways of Thinking

Not only does the library provide access to media that is financially out of reach, but it also jump-starts important conversations that are already occurring on the national level. For example, Big Little Lies is based on a bestselling novel by Liane Moriarty, which is already quite popular among patrons. Both the novel and series present domestic abuse as one of the main storylines. Domestic abuse does not discriminate by race or income, and this book and series show the difficult realities of being a victim and dealing with the consequences of domestic violence and violence against women.

While Big Little Lies certainly did not create the discussion around abuse, harassment, and violence against women, it surged onto the scene at a flashpoint of women raising their voices and demanding to be heard. The #MeToo and TIME’S UP movements were spearheaded through social media and by Hollywood women, respectively, aiming to confront and eradicate the harassment that women in all stations of life endure. These movements have exposed and overthrown a large number of men who abused their positions of power and exploited women. While these movements and this expensively produced television series may seem to exist on a plane that does not include the majority of Americans, their permeating effect on popular culture makes its way into the lexicon and consciousness of the everyday American. While I cannot advocate that victims of domestic violence take such extreme measures as the ladies did in Big Little Lies, absorbing the message of women’s resilience and strength that the novel and series portray has the force to make a difference in the life of a woman who has never seen her experience reflected nor the power of women celebrated on screen.

The act of a rural public library providing access to diverse films such as Hidden Figures and Moonlight is important for a different reason. Hidden Figures, one my favorite films of the last 5 years, not only shows intelligent women fighting to be heard over the cacophony of men, but specifically women of color fighting both for their voices and for their racial equality. Moonlight gives voice to the experiences of gay men of color in a world that historically punishes both homosexuality and being born with nonwhite skin. In a nation that is finally being forced to grapple with its past and present injustices against people of color, it is important that rural communities devoid of people of color are exposed to not just the hardships of the black experience in America, but also examples of emotionality, sensitivity, and black excellence.

There is no shortage of people of color in this country who have achieved greatness while rarely seeing their experiences reflected in the media. Consequently, white people are not exposed to their stories either, and they internalize only negative connotations of people who do not look like them. By libraries offering and encouraging the viewing of films, such as Hidden Figures, that are inspired by true events and feature strong, emotionally raw performances, rural white communities are exposed to history and uncomfortable realities that they otherwise cannot see. My job is not to tell my patrons what to think, how to vote, or what to believe. But I feel that my job does entail helping expose patrons in my community to life experiences they do not see in their world. One copy of a film or TV show that people might not normally have the financial resources to watch circulated throughout a community makes an impact by shaping the way they view and understand the world.

An Equal Opportunity

In my area of Northwestern Pennsylvania, there are no movie theaters within walking distance, unless you are planning on walking the length of a literal marathon. If you do not have a car or a job to pay for that car and its gasoline, you have no way to be a part of the national conversation surrounding entertainment and popular culture. Furthermore, when it comes to indie films or awards movies, rural distribution markets are not given the same opportunity to view the films on the tip of the nation’s tongue. It can be argued that access to entertainment is a luxury and a privilege. But what about when that entertainment spurs and gives shape to discussions on important issues, such as race, gender, and equality, that impact the politics and consciousness of our nation? If people in marginalized areas do not know the conversation is occurring, how are they supposed to educate themselves, form an opinion (whether you agree with it or not), and have agency in shaping their future? While I cannot discuss the larger issue of privilege and how it impacts the power structure in this country in the limited scope of this article, my point is this: If marginalized people cannot even access pop culture on an equal playing field with those in more privileged stations, how can they ever be expected to exercise even a modicum of power in our supposed democratic society? Libraries help level this playing field.

The ability to enrich one’s life by contemplating the world through viewpoints different from one’s own is essential to empathy, justice, and creating a world that’s more equal for all who live in it. Libraries play a key role in encouraging enrichment and providing access to resources, especially in rural and impoverished communities. Our collective national ethos is mediated through mainstream popular culture. Participation in the discussion regarding those beliefs and behaviors should not be a privilege provided only to those who can monetarily afford it.

Rural libraries and librarians understand the political world in which we live and our responsibility to provide a wide range of resources to patrons who otherwise may never have the opportunity to use them. Access to popular culture should not be ignored by rural libraries; it should be a high-priority goal to encourage access to diversity in the human experience. In the last 2 years, my library has purchased 36 Academy Award-nominated films. Those films have been checked out more than 800 times. This is not a fluke. Rural communities hunger to experience popular culture that the wider world takes for granted. Interaction with and participation in national conversations rooted in popular culture are a privilege that rural libraries transform into an equalized right. While rural areas struggle to keep up with the Joneses, let alone the Kardashians, that does not mean they should be denied a voice in their own culture.


Jessica Hilburn is the historian and head of reference at Benson Memorial Library in Titusville, Pa. In addition, she manages year-round programming and outreach for adults. She enjoys popular culture, politics, true crime, YA, and advocating for rural communities and libraries. Follow her local history blog at nwpastories.com.

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