Small, Rural Libraries Struggle and Shine in Pandemic | ALA Midwinter 2021

The session “Small and Rural Libraries: A Candid Discussion,” held at the American Library Association (ALA) 2021 virtual Midwinter Meeting, began—as one might expect, during a year of pandemic, budget cuts, and major disruptions—by looking at the challenges small libraries face. But it quickly turned into a celebration of how they are meeting the needs of patrons, communities, and staff with imaginative, humane solutions.

ARSL logo with tree imageThe session “Small and Rural Libraries: A Candid Discussion,” held at the American Library Association (ALA) 2021 virtual Midwinter Meeting, began—as one might expect, during a year of pandemic, budget cuts, and major disruptions—by looking at the challenges small libraries face. But it quickly turned into a celebration of how they are meeting the needs of patrons, communities, and staff with imaginative, humane solutions. Panelists Kate Laughlin, executive director of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL); Kathy Zappitello, ARSL president and executive director of the Conneaut Public Library, OH; Bailee Hutchinson, ARSL vice president and branch manager, Altus Public Library, OK; and Jennifer Pearson, ARSL past president and director of Marshall County Memorial Library, Lewisburg, TN; brought humor and compassion to the spirited discussion.

 

STAFF STRESS

Before any mention of fiscal constraints, panelists pointed to stress as the biggest issue they and their staff had to contend with. “The stress that we’re under now that will most likely manifest itself as trauma later,” said Zappitello. “We talk about trauma-informed care—now I feel like I’m living that.” She wonders how colleagues are functioning, how staff are managing, and noted that it was up to them as leaders to take care of their own mental health and check on others, which includes bringing in outside support.

That pressure is compounded in states like Tennessee, added Pearson, where there is are no clear guidelines from state or county officials on whether to close or stay open. “Not only do we have the stress of staff and doing the right thing for patrons, but as director I’m also facing ongoing stress of being out there on my own trying to figure out what’s right, and I don’t have any backup.” Two staff members have come down with COVID, and open hours have been changing week to week, causing confusion for patrons. Hutchinson’s library had to shut down, she said, because at times there weren’t enough unquarantined staff members to keep it running.

Much of that stress, said Laughlin, is fear of the unknown—“We don’t know what’s coming, how long this is going to last, what normal even looks like anymore.”

 

DIGITAL DILEMMAS

Digital equity issues in rural communities are coming to the forefront as well, said Hutchinson. When digital programming is what the library has to offer, what happens when patrons don’t have the resources to connect at home? The panelists all noted that much of the grant money they received in 2020 went toward hotspots and iPads for home checkout—but the hardware doesn’t help if there is no internet connectivity, and that goes for staff working from home as well.

Even for those with connectivity, the switch to virtual programming presented challenges, both around mastering the technology and dealing with “Zoom burnout.” But employees have been game to master the curve, panelists added. “My staff turned on a freaking dime and it was amazing to see,” said Pearson. Her crew of 11, most of them “accidental librarians,” took the pivot to online services as an opportunity to master the format.

 

COVID CONTROVERSIES

Misinformation is rampant among some communities, and poses yet another problem. In Lewisburg, said Pearson, there has never been a mask mandate—not even in the schools. She requires her staff to wear masks in the building, which they do gladly, but she won’t require patrons to do the same unless the county mandates doing so. Instead, posted signage says that the library would like people to wear masks. “That’s how we handle it. We try to lead by example.”

As for people in the community who are COVID deniers, one attendee, a programming coordinator in an Iowa library, volunteered that “I will typically say, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way, but I’m choosing to protect myself and those around me.’” She added that staff often get “dirty looks” for wearing masks—and pushback from the mayor and city council, despite the fact that one council member died from the coronavirus early in the pandemic.

Zappitello prints out articles with accurate information and has them available throughout the library, and makes a point of inviting patrons to come back to talk about what they read, and to read some more. “This is not one and done,” she said. “If you want real news I have it for you, and will have updated information the next week. It’s an educational path, a journey you’re going on, and it’s not just one source.”

 

PANDEMIC WINS

One opportunity, added Zappitello, was the chance to strengthen ties among community partners. As library services slowed down, she took the time to write letters of support for other local organizations that were applying for grants—and in the process, secured a $19.5 million grant for the library to help support city infrastructure on workforce education. “I would have never known that was a need to be filled until we reached out,” she said, adding that libraries should apply for ALA’s Libraries Transforming Communities: Focus on Small and Rural Libraries grants, which will be entering a second phase of funding in 2021.

The Lac La Biche County Libraries, in Alberta, Canada, recently got a $5,000 grant the library for starting a musical instrument lending library, and is lending out not only wireless hubs but monthly internet packages in the local Indigenous communities.

The Hiawatha Public Library, IA, gave away cocoa packets over the holidays, and the Coplay Public Library, PA, collected warm winter accessories and clothes for the local food pantry. In Astoria, OR, the library did outreach at the food pantry and lunch giveaway sites, handing out books to kids and teens. The Alfred H. Baumann Free Public Library in Woodland Park, NJ, has partnered with a local grocery store and dietician for online family cooking classes. Tunbridge Public Library, VT, has drawn new patrons thanks to its online presence, including outdoor science experiments, and “tons of raffles—we give away things constantly.”

Pearson convinced her board to go fine-free in 2020 by showing them examples of other libraries that did the same—and pointing out that fine money goes to the county general fund rather than directly to the library. Patrons who always returned materials on time will keep doing so, and those who always returned them late will still do that, she said—but eliminating fines has also brought people with outstanding fines back to the library.

Zappitello encouraged her staff to get creative when it came to the library’s cable access show: “You watch TV, right? You know what’s entertaining.” And she encourages compassion, both inside and outside the library, particularly in the face of hard times.

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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