A Big Gathering of Small and Rural Libraries

September 13, 2011

“All of you represent assets in your communities that truly make a difference,” Texas State Librarian Peggy Rudd told more than 320 librarians gathered in Frisco, Texas, September 8–11, for the 2011 Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL) Annual Conference. An affiliate of the American Library Association, ARSL is a nationwide network of library practitioners dedicated to the positive growth and development of libraries. ARSL believes in the value of rural and small libraries and strives to create resources and services that address national, state, and local priorities for libraries situated in rural communities.

Evident throughout the conference was the attendees’ firm belief that rural and small libraries make essential contributions to their communities, no matter how big the state in which they are located. “In Texas, over 400 public libraries serve populations under 10,000,” Rudd noted while welcoming conference-goers.

Regardless of how essential small libraries are to their communities, this difficult economic environment makes advocacy and funding a central concern for ARSL attendees. Pat Tuohy of the Central Texas Library System acknowledged and applauded rural librarians’ ability to “run a small, unfunded, shoestring operation that can take a dime and squeeze it to a dollar because they know how important library services are to a community and how powerful they are in changing lives.”

Several speakers, including Texas Library Association President Jerilynn Williams, noted the significant impact that the loss of regional library systems will have on small and rural libraries.  The hardship is near to TLA, where Texas regional library systems are facing significant cuts in 2012.  With an eye towards funding  sources and advocacy, conference programs included grant writing, endowment building, and working with boards and trustees. 

Technology took center stage during the second day of the conference.  Larry Grieco introduced the National Science Foundation’s “Pushing the Limits” project. Working in partnership with ARSL, the NSF is seeking to bring math and science programming and discussion to over 100 small libraries across the country.  Keynote speaker Linda Braun, technology consultant and past president of ALA’s Young Adult Library Services Association, used her keynote presentation to ask “What is the library?”  Using Starbucks, Apple Stores, college campuses, and social networking sites as examples, Braun pointed to spaces where people come together in all different collections and do many different types of things with many different resources and equipment. “Connecting people with information and—so much more than that—connecting people to each other, is what is going to save libraries. We have always, always, always been about connections.”

ARSL’s members often share a common mantra: Being small is advantageous. Small and rural libraries enjoy a unique role as the center of their communities with close connections to users and decision-makers. While conference presentations addressed a broad range of topics, nearly every program emphasized the close connection rural and small libraries have to their patrons. 

In her program, “Developing Community Partnerships,” Barbara Blake, outreach coordinator for the PEARL Project at the University of North Texas, encouraged attendees to develop community-centered libraries by building partnerships. “Use your library skills—information seeking and management—to bring people together,” she recommended. Through examples of working with schools, workforce commissions, and local organizations, Blake showed how libraries can simply but effectively establish relationships to meet the unique needs of the community.  

Acknowledging the unique situations of small and rural libraries, which must do more with less, she went on to caution, “Life does not have to be perfect and we shouldn’t let the perfect stop us. We can make things simple and just get it done.” 

Many attendees come to the ARSL conference for best practices that can be easily implemented in their own libraries. In “Library Signage: What Message Are We Sending Our Patrons?” the basic best practices included laminating signage before adhering it to foam board to make materials reusable and easily transferrable when shifting collections or reorganizing the library. Giving a simple and clear message, presenter Gail Santy of the Central Kansas Library System said, “If I accomplish one thing in my library career, it will be the banning of visible tape from library signage.” For the more creative who still want easy, Santy suggested using the word-mapping software Wordle to create end-cap shelf signs with subject headings that are colorful and playful. “Shabby signs send a message that we just don’t care about our library.”

After three days of programming and plenty of demonstrations of just how much they do care about their libraries and communities, attendees parted ways, excited for the opportunity to gather again in 2012 in North Carolina.

For more information on the Association for Rural and Small Libraries, please visit www.arsl.info.

MIGUEL FIGUEROA is director of ALA’s Office for Diversity.


2011 Emerging Leaders

Members of ALA's 2011 class of Emerging Leaders discuss their projects, including video game collection development, promoting Preservation Week, a survey of Money Smart Week, a visual tool of ALA deadlines, Librarians Build Communities, and usability issues in library web sites.