There Are No Lanes: Rural Libraries Do It ALL | Backtalk

Responses to the pandemic from rural librarians represent an opportunity to better understand how libraries that want to make social well-being impacts can do so. The recent Institute of Museum and Library Services’ “Empowering Readers, Empowering Citizens” convening highlighted a host of pressing challenges facing libraries in this late-pandemic period—and the variation in the responses from urban and rural libraries couldn’t have been starker.

Margo Gustina and Michael Norton head shots
Margo Gustina, Michael Norton

Responses to the pandemic from rural librarians represent an opportunity to better understand how libraries that want to make social well-being impacts can do so. The recent Institute of Museum and Library Services’ (IMLS) “Empowering Readers, Empowering Citizens” convening highlighted a host of pressing challenges facing libraries in this late-pandemic period: political and societal fragmentation at levels not seen in over a century, long run declines in library usage, the devastating impacts the pandemic has wrought in literacy development in young children, the creeping displacement of physical materials by digital content in libraries, and an urgent reminder of the critical role language acquisition and reading play in human development and participation in contemporary society. Amid a dizzying array of challenges facing libraries across the country, there were multiple calls to action issued by attendees emphasizing different approaches for where and how libraries should focus their efforts to meet the challenges of their communities and ensure the long-term viability of their institutions—and the variation in the responses from urban and rural libraries couldn’t have been starker.

Having recently completed two separate, and distinct, national studies examining the ways libraries can promote different dimensions of social well-being (Rural Libraries and Social Wellbeing and Understanding the Social Wellbeing Impacts of the Nation's Libraries and Museums), it was fascinating to see the variations within librarianship laid bare in the priorities identified by different attendees. What was on display, though virtually unspoken among the panelists on the dais, is the inherent privilege of large urban systems to “keep their eye on the ball” and “stay in their lane” with respect to the core services their institutions provide: access to books, information, and space. Reminders that programming potentially distracts library leaders and their staff from core service delivery resonated with those whose institutions operate within complex institutional networks, and where multiple organizations exist to meet the diverse range of community needs. But such exhortations fundamentally misunderstand the reality facing small towns.

Over the past three years we have visited or interviewed representatives from more than 28 rural and small-town libraries in 21 states, and spoken with more than 40 library staffers and more than 200 partners in their communities. One of the most striking findings from our studies was the Swiss Army knife bona fides of rural libraries. Typically unhampered by the layered bureaucracy that leaders in many cities have to contend with, rural library directors often behave in ways that reflect their own stake in promoting and maintaining community well-being. By necessity, rural and small-town library workers are of their community (regardless of their actual origin). behaving as though they have a direct and immediate stake in how their neighbors are doing. And very often they do; when libraries operate as one of—if not the only—public resources in their community, then the town’s success will be the institution’s success.



Mainstream institutions foster social inclusion by supporting access to community decision-making, political power, and reciprocity for all residents—from the well-to-do to historically marginalized individuals and groups. As a concept, social well-being extends the utility of social inclusion by recognizing the multiple facets of individuals’ lives that collectively inform the capacity of those individuals to live a good life, once they are securely included in society, and by extension their communities. (See also Frank M. Andrews and Stephen B. Withey’s Social Indicators of Well-Being; Robert D. Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community; and Jane Farmer, Tracy De Cotta, Jo Barraket, and Katharine McKinnon’s article “Social enterprise and wellbeing in community life” in Social Enterprise Journal.) Public libraries are well-positioned to create mutually reinforcing opportunities for individuals and groups to contribute to and belong in their communities. Historically, libraries’ contributions to social well-being was largely associated with core services related to literacy development, access to information, and space. Over the past 20 to 30 years they have begun to contribute to more diverse dimensions of social well-being. This is especially striking in small towns, where isolation from other amenities and support agencies make impacts from the work of the one or three library staff all the more obvious.



In rural areas, networks tended to be more informal and ad-hoc, and relied on interpersonal relationships, our research found. In Martinsville, VA, the Blue Ridge Regional Library offered health-related programming informed by community needs, including workshops on opioid awareness, nutrition, and diabetes care and prevention. Here, overlapping participation in organizations and personal relationships created and strengthened informal community networks, and became one of the driving forces for the library to organize its Health and Hope Initiative (a two-night resource fair) to enlarge that network.

Community networks are also critical in Yavapai County, AZ, where partners cited the library as a nexus for solving problems collectively, leveraging relationships, and collaborating on issues where there are very few public resources or solutions. One library partner related that when they needed a summer reading program in their area, the library hosted it, a local service organization funded a bus to transport kids from across the area to the program, and community members worked together to make it happen. With a service area the size of New Jersey, branches across the Yavapai Free Library Network occupy diverse positions in their communities, serving as school libraries for the public school systems and package collection locations for rural residents, hosting parenting workshops for new mothers, promulgating information regarding building codes, serving as disaster recovery staging grounds for flooding, and circulating books across vast distances—all of which are done in partnership with individuals, organizations, and even other libraries.

Working together is critical to building inclusion and well-being because it provides the pathway for community residents to belong—to feel included through contribution. As a resident from Marshfield, VT, put it, “We want to be part of a group that we can feel like we are heard, and we can make some difference.”



Libraries as “third places” carry important implications for supporting social inclusion and well-being. They operate in reciprocal relationships with their communities, creating a sense of place while also responding to the unique characteristics and needs of the surrounding area and its residents. Strengthening social connectedness and a sense of belonging is a key facet of this work.

The Jaquith Library in Marshfield, VT, demonstrates the ways library directors facilitate these exchanges. The Jaquith is a multistory library housed within a former public school, with programs that would be familiar to most library people: book clubs, music in the park, story times, and history talks. What makes the Jaquith is so successful at being a vibrant hub of civic life are the small changes made to these standard programs. For instance, story time is followed by playtime with toys, and refreshments for the parents—which spawned a parents’ group that organized to build the playground on the community building lot.

In another example of how the Jaquith’s program structure supports exchange and action, its history talks are invited presentations from different community members. One asked if they could host a weekly dinner, which became the Marshfield weekly spaghetti supper—not a fundraiser, just a gathering. A resident naturalist who was asked to give a presentation after the supper shared her discomfort with public speaking, and instead became the host of a monthly documentary film night. This kind of flexibility, openness to expansive ideas brought by the community itself, and willingness to try new things are all key to supports the community’s overall well-being.

In small towns and rural communities, libraries often find themselves one of the only institutions that offer the services they provide. While libraries are third places for a wide cross-section of community members, they are critical to some for whom they serve as a true home away from home. When we listened to rural community members we heard over and again that people who felt like outsiders elsewhere found home in the library. For instance, libraries can also be a place where students who have difficulty in a school setting can reconnect with learning. In Liberal, KS, school district staff sometimes use the library to work with children to reintegrate them into their education after a prior separation from a traditional school setting.



The differing views displayed at “Empowering Readers, Empowering Citizens” were reflected in what we heard from library workers. Some talked about mission creep and staying in their lane, and some noted resonance—helping their neighbors live a good life through the work of the library as the reason to do this work.

Through the Rural Libraries & Social Wellbeing project’s efforts, we heard from many rural library workers who chose to operationalize recent well-being research findings. In practice, the changes to service were small, leveraging resources in a targeted way to make significant social impacts.

A branch manager in Liberty, NC, was a library transplant after a career in museums and archives. As a new library worker, she applied for training from the American Library Association’s (ALA) Libraries Transforming Communities project and received funding from Rural Libraries & Social Wellbeing to do listening exercises with community members. In spring 2021, her design included outdoor pop-ups in parks around her small town, where she thought she would have an activity to entice kids, interview their parents. Ultimately her project grew into working on art with community residents as they shared their aspirations and frustrations. “Busy hands, open hearts” became her slogan, as she listened to stories of desegregation, loss of cultural landmarks and family histories, and a desire to capture the past before community elders passed on.

This outdoor exercise created a third space even when the building couldn't be available. From this came Liberty’s first Juneteenth celebration in partnership with local faith organizations, and a growing archive of never before institutionally preserved family stories of Liberty's Black residents.

Feeling included and part of a community is empowering—for individuals, families, and groups. Whether that comes from active participation in organizing “happenings” with others or from the ability to access the information needed to get something done, libraries in small towns facilitate the connections between individuals, organizations, and other institutions that empower them to live their lives together in the ways that make sense for them individually and collectively.

Margo Gustina is an economics student, public librarian, and researcher who currently works as principal investigator for the Libraries in Community Systems project with Northern New York Library Network and Partners Library Action Network, TX. Margo's work is about power, learning, and community across past and current projects, which can be viewed through Dr. Michael Norton serves as Chief Policy Analyst at Reinvestment Fund, a mission-driven financial institution that brings financial and analytical tools to partnerships to ensure that everyone has access to essential opportunities. Between 2015 and 2021 he led two exploratory studies in partnership with IMLS to examine the diverse ways the nation’s libraries and museums support and enhance the quality of life in their communities.

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