Keeping rural libraries vital requires keeping them free of charge and pushing for open access to materials. Libraries are people-centers, not warehouses for books.
In 2009, voters in communities of fewer than 10,000 people approved 85% of the library operating referenda that came up for a vote, as well as 55% of the building referenda. Meanwhile, rural communities like Seldovia, Alaska, (pop. 241) and Capitan, New Mexico, (pop. 1510) are operating municipal libraries staffed entirely by volunteers. The fact that rural communities across the country continue to support their libraries, even in these grim economic times, speaks to the esteem rural communities hold for these places. But for libraries to maintain this kind of loyalty, they have to be truly relevant. They must position themselves as platforms for the civic activism and engagement that are needed to revitalize rural America. Here are five ways they can do it.
Creating public space. When the residents of Moab, Utah, were asked to describe their vision for a new local library, they said they wanted it to serve as the town’s living room. Even in an era where e-books and streaming video can be downloaded anywhere, library users continue to emphasize the importance of libraries as places to gather and interact. Here in Independence, Kansas, where I’ve been the community college librarian, we started hosting the college literary guild’s open mic nights in the library, which brought in upwards of thirty students and community members on any given Friday. I still think of the ear-splitting set played by local hardcore band Texas Instruments as one of the highlights of my directorship.
Promoting information literacy. In days of yore, you went to the library to find information on a topic; today, you type a few keywords into Google and you’re faced with a billion results. So research instruction, at both public and academic libraries, has focused in on teaching patrons how to sift through and evaluate information, whether it’s from the Encyclopaedia Britannica or somebody’s MySpace page. Librarians call this information literacy, a set of skills that employers increasingly consider essential. A 2003 study from the University of Maryland found that perceptions (and misperceptions) about the Iraq War varied significantly according to the respondent’s primary news source. For rural libraries, promoting information literacy also means promoting reasoned political investigation.
Embracing open access. The basic business model for scholarly publishing is crazy: professors write journal articles and review the work of other scholars (gratis, mind you), and then academic libraries buy those same articles back from publishers for thousands of dollars in subscription fees. The open access movement aims to do things differently. Trinity University’s Diane Graves does a nice job explaining why that’s important. Most rural community college libraries can’t afford a subscription to science journals like Nature, but we can connect our students and faculty members to scholarly content through open access initiatives like the Public Library of Science. Open access assumes that you shouldn’t need a Harvard-sized library budget to read the work of Harvard researchers.
Toeing the line on “free.” About a year ago, the Dallas Public Library raised eyebrows across the library world by launching a (now-defunct) program called StreetSmart Express, in which patrons could pay $5 for premium access to high-demand titles with long waiting lists. You can’t fault Dallas for wanting to be entrepreneurial, especially in the face of extreme budget cuts proposed by Mayor Tom Leppert. But public libraries must not dilute their public service by offering preferential service to patrons with extra money. As blogger Alison Circle observed, “The basic premise of libraries is carved in stone over many Carnegie public libraries: open to all. Do you get more openness for $5?”
Remembering that it’s the people, not the stuff. One of the candidates to replace me as Independence Community College’s library director said it better than I could have: “Without the human factor, all we are is warehouses for books.” Of course, the content of our collections is important, but it is with flexible, imaginative, and locally relevant service that libraries truly make their mark. We need young, highly trained information professionals who are drawn to the challenges of rural librarianship. We also need forward-thinking library boards and community college trustees who can balance the demands of fiscal discipline with a willingness to dream and dream big.
There’s no one way for rural libraries to fulfill their promise. Some will consolidate services at the county or regional level, while others will continue to maintain a footprint on Main Street. Some libraries will actively position themselves as agents of social and economic development, while others will hew to a more traditional definition of library service. And that’s a good thing. In fact, it is precisely this obstinate localism, this exuberant, country-fried messiness that makes rural America strong.
Marcel LaFlamme has been the library director of Independence Community College, Independence, Kansas since 2008. This fall he begins a doctoral program in anthropology at Rice University in Houston.