November 25, 2019; Star Tribune

In rural communities, as in cities, libraries provide “vital social infrastructure that shape the way people interact,” as a New York Times op-ed put it last year. But to do so, some rural libraries are dramatically changing how they work, what they provide, and how they measure success. The reason, as Callie Jarvie, director of the Rock County Community Library in Luverne, Minnesota (population 4,587), tells Rachel Hutton of the Star Tribune, is simple: “Libraries are changing to do our best to fit our community instead of making the community fit us.”

Examples of these changes are not hard to find. Some cases in point:

  • Willmar, Minnesota’s library is the leading purveyor of fun in this town two hours west of Minneapolis. It hosts escape rooms, teen lock-ins, an Iron Chef competition, karaoke singing, and a dance party, as well as offsite events like Bad Art Night.
  • One librarian in Trinidad, Colorado (three hours from Denver) spends most of her time getting food and services for the town’s homeless population. She uses volunteers to create toiletry packs, and in a town where the local McDonald’s turned off its Wi-Fi and taped over its electrical sockets to dissuade homeless people from plugging in, this library opens its doors early on cold mornings.
  • A library in Stanley, Idaho installed a router outside and offers benches and power outlets so residents can get online when the library is closed. And the La Veta Public Library in rural Colorado is sending out a “pop-up computer lab” with high-speed public Internet access and training resources to every corner of the county—at hours beyond the regular work week.
  • The library in Show Low, Arizona, runs “adulting” classes to teach teenagers “skills they don’t get at home or in high school anymore.”
  • The Southern Adirondack Farm 2 Library program brings fresh produce from local farms to three small libraries in update New York, addressing issues of food access and insecurity.
  • The Dade County Public Library in rural Georgia, where locally-housed inmates make up nine percent of the county’s population, is hoping to reduce recidivism by partnering with the local jail to give inmates the training to use a computer, create a résumé, navigate the internet, care for a car, and open a bank account—all skills needed to secure and keep a post-release job.

As NPQ and others have reported, predictions about the demise of the public library with the advent of the Internet and smartphones were dead wrong. Rather, material circulation, program attendance, and average hours spent visiting are up. Clearly, libraries are relevant. Beyond books, they provide a social lifeline for seniors, actual childcare for busy parents, ESL [English as a second language] programs for immigrants, and hospitable spaces for young, poor, and homeless people. They work better than Starbucks as common ground for people of different backgrounds and beliefs, and certainly more welcoming for those who don’t meet the color and income tests.

Libraries in rural America have their own particular set of challenges. The typical rural library (serving areas with populations of 2,500 or less) is staffed by 1.9 full-time staff in a 2,600-square-foot space (a bit bigger than the average American house). Only 40 percent of these 6,000 libraries are connected to a broader library system with access to significant resources and economies of scale.

And like most libraries, rural ones get the vast majority of their revenues from local government. Think about what this means for a community like Bayfield, Colorado, where library revenues (mostly from property taxes) fell from $1.2 million in 2010 to $635,218 in 2018, the result of declining oil and gas revenues. Just four years earlier, its Pine River Library, with the tagline of “connecting people to possibilities,” was named the 2014 Best Small Library in America by Library Journal for its community leadership, local support, critical partnerships, and programs like its Veterans Stories Project, late-start and teacher workday activities, and technology training with 50 devices to loan. Plus, next door is a 12,000-square-foot Community Garden—or “living library”—with garden beds, classes and bounty to feed the hungry.

What’s a library with a significant budget deficit to do? In 2018, this library went to the people and asked voters for a 2-mill (0.2 percent) increase, projected to cost a household with a $300,000 home an additional $3.60/month, to maintain operating hours, staff positions and key programs. It lost by nine votes. But the library and its supporters tried again, and just last month a smaller property tax increase for the library district passed with 59 percent voting yes. The battle was won, but the war for a vital institution’s long-term sustainability drags on.

Rural libraries clearly have many roles to play in the 21st century: bridging the digital divide (access to free high-capacity broadband and technology training programs); supporting job searchers and entrepreneurs (job search and securing resources, work spaces for mobile residents, online small business resources); supplementing educational opportunities (homework help, STEAM [science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics] events, GED and ESL classes); improving health and wellness (subscription health databases and health insurance resources); replacing the lost locally owned newspapers and radio stations (promoting local events, residents’ accomplishments and local history); and serving as neutral and welcoming community convening spaces.

The Libraries Transforming Communities team from Red Hook, New York, a town of 1,960 about 100 miles north of New York City, went out and listened to residents. They learned that people were frustrated that in-your-face problems like the town’s malfunctioning stoplight—the only one it had—that went ignored. The library convened a group, the group met with officials, and the light was fixed. This seemingly small action sent a signal that change is possible, that people’s concerns mattered and that other needs, like a community center, could be tackled.

Some even see the rural library as community disrupter and organizer responsible for “the purposeful and active deconstruction of current barriers to access and agency for community members marginalized by current systems of domination.”

It is especially important for rural librarians to mitigate these systems as there are few or no other institutions around to do it.

These indeed are fighting words for places once seen as stuffy and bookish.

Yes, rural libraries do have a continuing and critical role to play in transforming the trajectory of rural communities. As increasingly rare public and place-based institutions, they need to be both cherished and challenged.—Debby Warren

Correction: This article has been altered to reflect the amount of tax increase requested by the the Pine River library.