A Small Library with Big Ideas

Although it only has 632 square feet of space, the Myrtle, Missouri, library leaves a big imprint on its patrons. Librarian Rachel Reynolds Luster shows how libraries create access and opportunity in rural communities.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Librarian Rachel Reynolds Luster is one of the presenters in Friday’s day-long webinar “Big Talk from Small Libraries.” The event, sponsored by the Nebraska Library Commission, is open for registration until midnight Wednesday, February 26. See the webinar’s website for more information.

I didn’t even hear the story when it aired.

I always listen to National Public Radio in the morning but, for some reason, I had the radio off on my 15-mile commute from home to my little library in Myrtle, Missouri.

When I opened the door, the phone was ringing, and it continued to ring for the next two months. It still rings every once in a while.

The calls were the result of a story by Jennifer Davidson, a regional reporter for the NPR station out of West Plains, Missouri. She produced a piece on my library for the national series on Libraries in the 21st Century.

Jennifer found me two weeks after I started working for Myrtle Library. She saw a post I made on Facebook saying we needed a variety of materials. Her initial story aired in several towns and cities in Missouri. Shortly after, books started rolling in – hundreds of books and lots of letters and phone calls, and that was just from the regionally distributed story.

When I took position of librarian, I realized we needed a broader collection. About one third of our holdings were Harlequin paperback romance serials. We had 15 years’ worth. I now refer to this period of culling and processing as “training for the marathon.” I would not have had the wherewithal to handle what would come after the national story aired had it not been for this first regional run.  In the last eight months, I’ve processed nearly 4,000 new library holdings. The overwhelming majority of those came from donations from locals, urbanites and other libraries.

The window display at the library in Myrtle, Missouri, features a seasonal theme.

Along the way, there have been many interesting conversations with folks from around the world, not only about our little library in a sleepy town of 100 or so, but about the larger issue of the importance of rural libraries in our cultural landscape. We’ve had people so moved by the stories that aired that they drove across the country in their RV to visit and bring us books or checks. I found myself setting up lodging and meal arrangements for those who wanted to visit. The first story had highlighted the fact that I was really bothered that our library, in fact none of the libraries in our county system, had a copy of Homer’s The Odyssey. I can’t tell you how many copies of The Odyssey and The Iliad I received, along with boxes of books in Greek and Latin. Unfortunately, we didn’t have room for all the Greek and Latin books, because our library is only 632 square feet.

I had a wonderful conversation with an attorney in New Jersey who had grown up in a small town, where he spent hours dreaming and reading in the library as a child. Over the phone, he called out all the titles on his book shelf that he thought I might need or want for our library, willing to ship them to us. Some wonderful ladies in Kansas City, Missouri, organized a book drive on our behalf. The Dallas Public Library sent us, literally, a truckload of brand new books. We’ve been able to use most of the donations; extras are distributed to the other libraries in our system, the local school library or sold in book sales to help increase our budget.

Public libraries are important anywhere, but in places like ours, they are critical to community life. Along with books, we also have a selection of films and music, however limited (Myrtle is about 25 miles from the nearest RedBox and two hours away from the nearest Barnes and Noble). We have public-access computers with broadband available in our library. We’re the only publicly accessible broadband within about 25 miles. Many places in our county either do not have broadband access at all or the options available cost too much for our population – a story all too common in rural America. We live near a beautiful wild river, the Eleven Point, but otherwise there are few businesses or public spaces for recreation and gathering. The library, along with the post office and the gas station, are where people come together to talk about everything from the weather to local elections, news and where to get hay. We’re lucky to share a building with the post office, so we’re a community hub and are able to offer activities for our young people.

Local donations to the library helped improve the local and regional literature and history section.

We serve several unincorporated communities in Oregon County, Missouri, plus communities across the state line in Arkansas. We do all this with one employee, in 20 hours a week, with about a $200 a month allowance for acquisitions and an hourly pay scale slightly above minimum wage.

Still, we’re crafty. My patrons work with me to think about free programming activities and, luckily for me, I have a network of friends across the country who dream with me about what we can achieve through strengthening this library as a hub of community and culture. I’ve got a shop window that I love to create displays in. For Christmas, I had a tree made entirely of books, a lit-up reindeer, some quilt batting for snow, a disco ball and laser light show. You can imagine that made for some fun local conversation. Most recently, I added a puppet theater for the kids, and we’re working with our regional office of the Missouri Department of Conservation to start a fishing pole and tackle loaner program next month. The patrons are instrumental in helping to shape the library and how it is used. It’s a pleasure to work in a library so small that I know all my patrons by name and what they like to read, for the most part. Our library board has also been very supportive and enthusiastic about all the energy, giving us the money to paint and get new furniture, creating a welcoming environment for all that use the library.

I received another phone call a couple of months back, this one from Nebraska. Their state library commission was hosting a web conference, and they asked me to participate and share some of the stories from my experiences with the library since all the attention. Big Talk from Small Libraries was established to counterbalance the urban-focused content of most library conferences by offering examples and ideas presented by those working at small libraries across the country, “the smaller the better,” they say. This Friday, they will present the one-day online conference. Registration is free.

In addition to hilarious and thought provoking stories about the Myrtle Library, there are a range of topics including innovative programming ideas such as lending knitting needles and cookie cutters as a strategy for increasing non-fiction circulation, a graphic-novel-based approach to reaching young and struggling readers, creating teen advisory boards to get youth involved in their local libraries, buying used books to fill out a library’s collection, local history and culture-ephemera sharing days and something called “You Can Have The Coolest Library Cards in Your State…For Free!” among others. A full schedule, list of presenters, and registration site can be found here.

Besides serving as librarian of the Myrtle, Missouri, Library, Rachel Reynolds Luster is a folklorist, fiddler and community organizer.

 

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