Banned Books Week may have ended weeks ago, but for one public library in Kansas, the spirit of the week lives on. This year, Lawrence Public Library celebrated the freedom to read with a unique project that engaged the local arts community, heightened awareness of intellectual freedom, and gave library patrons the chance to collect seven original pieces of art.

The Banned Books Trading Card project started with an idea. Susan Brown, Marketing Director at LPL, says the idea came to her a few years ago. She thought of it as a fun, funky, and fresh way to raise awareness of Banned Books Week. “Libraries usually have a display of banned books and maybe a Read Out or panel discussion about censorship.  I was thinking of new ways to get the message out.” Brown tried to get the project rolling for a two years, but there was no money behind it.

Things changed this year when the library was one of eight libraries nationwide to receive a Judith F. Krug Memorial Grant from the Freedom to Read Foundation.  The $1,000 grant was matched by the Friends of the Lawrence Public Library and the project was officially “green-lighted.”

Brown knew what she wanted the end result to be – seven trading cards featuring art inspired by a banned book or author, but she was not sure how that would happen.  She talked through as few different possibilities with the Lawrence Arts Center, one of the project partners.  While they discussed possibilities like commissioning seven artists or staging an invitational event where patrons could watch the art being created, Brown ultimately decided on an open Call for Artists.  The call was open to local artists of all backgrounds and asked for small-scale works on paper (5″ x 7″) that were in some way inspired by a banned book or author.

Forty-six pieces were submitted from artists all over Lawrence and Douglas County, with one high school teacher adopting it a class project for her advanced digital art studio, resulting in fourteen submissions.  A three person jury selected the seven winners, comprised of Brad Allen, Library Director, Ben Ahlvers, Exhibit Director at the Lawrence Arts Center, and Lucia Orth, a local author and library supporter.  Once they selected the seven pieces, Brown contacted a local scanning company, who donated high resolution scans of the pieces, and a local printing company, who printed the cards at a discount.  Brown also created backs for the cards – in the style of actual trading cards, with information about each book and artist, as well as logos from the project partners.  The winning cards were kept under wraps until Banned Books Week.

To launch the project, the library hosted a “big reveal” type of event in conjunction with the local Final Fridays Art Walk on September 28.  More than one hundred people came out to see the seven winning entries and view an exhibit of the other thirty nine entries.  Many of the artists were there to mingle with art lovers – and enjoy wine and cupcakes!

To create excitement, Brown gave away a dozen full sets of cards as door prizes at the reception.  After the reception, the seven winning original pieces were taken to the Lawrence Arts Center to be exhibited during the week.  The exhibit of all the entries remained in the library lobby for the week and were all on display via the library website as well.  In the lobby, there was also a “Cozy Up to a Banned Book” installation that featured a comfy chair, a reading lamp, and a side table with a stack of banned books, inviting people to dare to read a banned book in public.

The execution of the project was key to its success.  Beginning on Sunday, September 30, one card was released each day, with the others kept under wraps.  The cards could be collected at LPL and the Arts Center, and getting them all meant making a trip to either location every day that week.  Each day’s card was posted on the LPL website and promoted on Facebook and Twitter.  Additionally, the local newspaper agreed to print a full color image of each day’s cards on the front page of the paper all week, in addition to a full length feature article on Sunday, September 30.

The response to the project was huge, both locally and nationally.  Librarians at the Reference Desk, where the cards could be picked up, had fun passing them out each day, noting the many people who made a special trip just to come in and get them.  Many, many library patrons shared their delight in both collecting the cards and the exposure for Lawrence’s beloved arts community.

Brown says that within an hour of posting the first day’s card on Facebook and Twitter, she received an email from a librarian in Maine, asking how she could get her hands on a set.  Brown had held back a few sets to giveaway for promotional purposes, and at first was willing to send out a few copies to fill requests like the one from Maine.  By Monday afternoon, she knew she would have to come up with a better plan.  “We received emails, tweets, and phone calls all day Monday – the day of the Slaughterhouse Five card – from librarians, bookstores, and book lovers all over the country.  I actually had to stop answering emails for a day while I strategized.”

Within forty eight hours, Brown had established a PayPal account, drafted an artist’s agreement, ordered a second printing of the cards, and made them available for sale from the library website.  She also released an additional fifty sets to be given out at the library.  “I wanted to make sure Lawrence residents could get them, but I also saw the opportunity for the artist to get even more recognition and make a little money.”  Per the agreement, each artist gets five percent of each pack that is sold, with a pack of cards selling for $7 plus shipping.  The library covers the costs of production, distribution, and shipping and after paying the artists, keeps whatever profits remain.   So far, Brown has shipped nearly two dozen orders to Australia, a dozen to Canada, a few to the United Kingdom, and orders to every state in the US.

As the week progressed, the project started to get national media attention as well.  The story from the local paper, the Lawrence Journal World, was picked up by the Associated Press wire and appeared in the online versions of the Seattle Post Intelligencer, The San Francisco Chronicle, and others.  Brown created a strategic social media campaign to promote the project, resulting in features in GalleyCat, Vulture, Flavorwire, and more pop culture sites.  The biggest exposure came when two national book-related sites picked up the story – The Huffington Post Books page and BookRiot.

While a strategic social media and PR campaign helped get the word out, the success of the project was due to the amazing art created by local artists.  The project showcased the wide variety of artists working in one town, as well as some of their great connections and stories.

  • The Animal Farm card was created by a KU Professor of Design, the Slaughterhouse-Five card was created by one of his former students.
  • The Rabbit, Run card was made from literally burning a copy of the book that the artist picked up at the Friends of the Library book sale.
  • The Call of the Wild card was created by a local high school student, who was encouraged by her teacher to enter.
  • The Origin of Species card is dedicated to the artist’s high school science teacher, who fought a censorship efforts to remove that book from the curriculum at El Dorado High School in El Dorado, KS.
  •  The artist behind the Little Red Riding Hood card is a former library employee, a former student of the Animal Farm artist, and the fiancée of the Origin of Species artist!  This was a blind competition and no prize money was awarded, so current library employees were welcome to enter.
  • The 1984 card was created by a member of the library’s Technical Services Department, who also has a long standing web comic.

The project set out to achieve two goals:

  1. Raise awareness of banned Books Weeks, and therefore issues related to censorship and intellectual freedom.
  2. Bring attention to the amazing local artists in the Lawrence/Douglas County area.

The banned Books Trading Card project clearly achieved these two goals.  Brown says that now, she is faced with two questions – both of which she has ready answers for.  “Community members have asked if we are going to do this again next year and the answer is ‘Most Definitely!’  Also, many libraries have contacted us asking if they can steal the idea and do banned books trading cards at their library.

The answer is ‘Go for it!’  I can’t think of a better compliment or a cooler thing to happen.  Maybe then they could really be trading cards – I would love to see a library in Alaska trading their cards with a library in North Dakota!”

Learn more about the Lawrence Public Library and about Banned Books Week.

Special thanks to Susan Brown for supplying the text for this feature.

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