Rural Library Roundup: Small Size, Big Impact

Rural libraries serve a wide variety of roles in their communities.

From grain bins to lighthouses, rural libraries tend to serve many functions in addition to their traditional purposes: community centers, local history museums, or internet cafes.

Rural libraries, which serve about 30 million Americans through 4,000 libraries in towns with fewer than 2,500 residents, tend to face the same challenges as other public libraries around the world: inadequate funding, too few staff, and the occasional book-banning controversy. However, many of these stubborn institutions have long since learned to do more with less, curating collections, programs, and services that meet the needs of their unique communities. 

They might be the only place to borrow a DVD for miles around, the only place residents can go to access required tax forms, and the only location parents can access an early literacy program. Whether these small libraries are in the shadow of the tall grain bins that dot the Midwest or in a coastal hamlet with a great view of the local lighthouse, they’ve likely adopted the qualities of the quintessential American: resilience, innovation, and how to stretch a dollar, all the while embracing their diverse clientele with professionalism and acceptance.

Hubs for Healthcare

Rural residents are not only isolated from entertainment and shopping but often live miles from a clinic or hospital and may have to travel several hours to see a specialist. About 77% of rural communities have a shortage of professional healthcare, with 60% of rural residents living in a mental health care shortage area. To help combat these shortages, rural libraries can collaborate with nonprofits or healthcare facilities to offer screenings and other important health-related resources to their patrons.

These eight libraries in Central Texas collaborate with a nonprofit to provide crucial mental health care access and resources to their rural patrons as part of their Libraries4Health program. In the United States, the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates almost 53 million adults experienced mental illness in 2020, yet less than half of them received treatment. Programs like Libraries4Health aim to improve those numbers by making mental health care more accessible to their communities but also less stigmatized by normalizing care. 

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The George Coon Public Library in Princeton, Kentucky, collaborated with their local medical center to offer a variety of health screenings completely free of charge. Patrons were able to get their glucose tested, have a bone density exam, have their blood pressure taken, and more with an APRN. Even with better access to more affordable healthcare, the cost of a single appointment or getting time off work during business hours can still be a barrier for far too many Americans. Free screenings like these can help people monitor their health when they might otherwise forgo screenings altogether. 

In Ritzville, Washington, the East Adams Library District has offered a program on National Drug Take Back Day and monthly health literacy programs featuring topics such as genetics, Medicare enrollment, LGBTQ health awareness, and mental health. These programs are led by speakers knowledgeable on their topics, who are compensated with funds from a grant provided by the National Network of Libraries of Medicine.

Social and Infrastructure Safety Nets

Some rural communities may not have much beyond a public library: a church, a post office, and maybe a bar. The libraries in these towns, though they may only be open fewer than 40 hours a week, shoulder the bulk of the social role that would be spread among the cafes, restaurants, and clubs of a larger community. They are often the only source of free, reliable internet and may offer the only public restroom in town. 

Even though the St. John Library is only open 16 hours a week, staff make a point to read off-site to young students and residents of the area's assisted living facility in this small eastern Washington town and is always aware of what else is happening. When there isn’t a lot going on in the community, it’s vital to schedule library programs around other events in order not to compete. 

In communities like Stanley, Idaho, libraries are adding benches and power outlets outside to make it easier to access wifi, regardless if the library is open or not. In contrast to the 2% of urban Americans without access to broadband internet, a quarter of rural Americans and a third of Americans living on tribal lands do not have access to reliable broadband internet, meaning the local public library may be the only place nearby with free, high-speed internet access. 

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Quality over Quantity

Pitting rural libraries up against their urban counterpoints in a contest of numbers will always result in a resounding defeat. Unfortunately, many of the metrics that decision-makers use only focus on the bottom line; they don’t necessarily realize the life-changing impact a library can provide. They might see that only a handful of teens made use of an after-school program but fail to realize that the program provided one of them with a much-needed safe space or another one with the resources to apply to the college of their choice.

Rural libraries serve small communities. The librarians within almost always get to know their patrons and their regulars, attending the funerals of those who pass away and celebrating a baby’s first library card right along with their parents. Whether it’s the town living room or the heart of the community, rural libraries have one thing in common: Though they may be small in size, their impact on their community is invaluable.

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