The Great Rural Heart of the community

Scrappy rural librarians find the gaps and fill them

Roughly 4,000 rural library systems in the U.S. supply a varied lifeline of services for their patrons, from broadband internet connections and coding camps to bicycle repair stations.

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Kentucky has 75 bookmobiles, the most of any state. Source: American Libraries Magazine

When an Arkansas-based meat processing plant expanded operations in an Ozark Mountain region, a local librarian seized the opportunity to educate the rural community about the sudden influx of Marshallese workers and their families.

Expecting maybe 25 people at a library-sponsored workshop focused on the cultural traditions of the Marshall Islands, about “55 came from the school, from the health department and several different nonprofit organizations. We learned so much that day,” said Julie Hall, director of the Berryville Public Library, which services about 10,000 people in a rural region nestled between the Missouri and Oklahoma state lines. 

Rural libraries “really do provide some resources that aren’t readily available anywhere else, and certainly not for free,” said Hall. “I’ve come to realize that (we) are basically filling the gaps that exist, whatever those gaps are.”

Cultural workshops. Community gardens. Bilingual storytimes. Coding camps. Movie clubs. These are just some of the services that 30 million Americans seek at rural libraries. In communities that often have limited access to resources, librarians in thousands of small towns are finding ways to fulfill needs and often doing so with scant resources and limited staffing.

Fleeing high unemployment and climate change in the North Pacific archipelago, Marshallese immigrants have been resettling in Northwest Arkansas since the 1980s, mainly to work for Tysons Foods’ poultry processing plants. The company’s headquarters is in Springdale, which is about 51 miles from Berryville, (population 5,300) in Carroll County. In turn, the county’s largest employer is Tyson Foods. 

Today, Arkansas has the largest concentration of Marshallese people in the continental United States. 

Children and parents listen to a story on Feb. 27, 2020, during a weekly program for preschoolers at Berryville Public Library in Arkansas. (Photo courtesy of Berryville Public Library)

Nearly 500 miles from Berryville is Princeville, Illinois. Beth Duttlinger, director of the Lillie M. Evans Library District, wanted to promote healthy habits and lifelong learning while helping her small town, located 25 miles from Peoria, become “an attractive place to live, visit or work.”

Noticing a lack of services on a local bike trail, Duttlinger recruited businesses to sponsor bike repair stations at her library and four others along the 38-mile trail built on the old Rock Island Trail railroad line. The librarian’s goals: Offer services the cyclists need, welcome them to the library, and promote local businesses.

“Smaller communities don’t have anybody to fill those gaps,” said Duttlinger, whose library district serves more than 4,000 people within a 121-square-mile region. “So a lot of times, I’m trying to find out what needs to be done.” 

If the needs in a rural community are numerous and ever changing, then the small town librarian’s job is, too. Consider some of the items rural libraries loan or supply, depending on community need, funding and the librarian’s imagination: Craft kits. Science kits. Tax forms. Wi-Fi hotspots. Laptops. Scooters. Bicycles. Food. Fishing poles. Tackle boxes. Museum passes.   

“Go to any rural library, and they’re doing something innovative and smart for their community,” said Brian Real, an assistant professor of Information and Library Science at Southern Connecticut State University. He co-wrote a 2017 report for the American Library Association about the challenges rural libraries are tackling and facing. 

Real describes a scrappy, resilient network of librarians who might operate out of a bookmobile or a traditional structure, belong to a regional library system or operate on their own, receive funds through local property taxes or a statewide mechanism. What they all have in common: Tight connections with their communities and the ability to focus on specific needs.

“Rural libraries are almost terra incognita (unknown territory),” said Noah Lenstra, an assistant professor of Library and Information Science at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “There’s an extreme lack of understanding of what they actually encompass and what they do.” 

Lenstra has firsthand experience. He’s the founder and director of Let’s Move in Libraries, an initiative to support health and wellness programs at public libraries.

From larger calls to action, such as Lenstra’s initiative, to the more mundane, small town libraries are connection points for many community members.

At the Ak-Chin Indian Community Library, located in Maricopa, Arizona, the Movie Club is a popular draw for many tribal members who lack internet service and phone lines. 

The club teaches children to make videos, said Melanie Toledo, manager of the library. Each of the club’s groups create a storyboard and a script, then acts, edits and posts a short video on the library’s YouTube channel.  

A preschooler uses an “AWE machine,” an early-learning tool, at the Ak-Chin Indian Community Library in Maricopa, Ariz., in February of 2020. Photo courtesy of Ak-Chin Indian Community Library

Toledo has seen children from the Movie Club grow older and drift away, only to reemerge in a school theatrical production or as tribal youth council members. “Native people, we’re kind of shy,” she said. “This helps them with self-esteem.”

Rural librarians, said Lenstra, illustrate the “thousand different stories to tell about how rural libraries function and the roles they have in their communities.” 

One critical gap is broadband access. The computers, laptops and Wi-Fi service that patrons access at libraries are a critical lifeline. Only 77.7% of rural Americans and 72.3% of Tribal Americans have access to fixed broadband internet, the benchmark level set by the Federal Communications Commission. That compares to 98.5% of urban-dwelling Americans. 

For many people in rural America, libraries are the only way to fill out an online job application, take an interest-based course, or have a telehealth video session.  

But perhaps even more important than a broadband connection is that libraries, but especially rural ones, are safe gathering spaces. Everyone is welcome. You don’t have to buy anything. 

“They can be the one place in the community where everyone goes,” said Hall. “It’s a uniquely American thing that we have these public libraries. The library is still a melting pot.”

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