Libraries do a lot of the heavy lifting for society. They not only circulate books, but also provide crucial Internet access for job seekers and students and entertain with videos and music. They offer a place where people can find shelter from the weather and while away lonely hours.
The work of libraries is doubly important in small towns and rural areas, where miles of distance and the lack of reliable Internet connections can make learning hard and make life seem very isolated.
All the good works of libraries have been even more important during the time of Covid.
More than 4,000 rural and small-town libraries serve at least 30 million Americans, the Institute of Museum and Library Services says. Four out of 10 libraries in the United States are located in rural communities and rural Americans visited their libraries 117 million times in 2017.
My own experiences with libraries big and small have been invaluable to me. When I was young, I regularly checked out books of all kinds from my school library, which acted as sort of a community library for the small town of Cowan and surrounding Monroe Township here in Indiana. (Thank you, Lois Jeffers, who oversaw the library of my youth.)
While it’s unlikely that any libraries could be said to be rolling in the dough, small-town and rural libraries don’t have the access to funds that some “big city” libraries have. They often make do without any property tax revenue. They often draw their operating revenue from gifts, grants, and memberships that are hit by downturns in charitable giving. They sometimes operate out of old, small, makeshift buildings and can struggle to add to their circulating materials.
Increasingly, libraries have become a lightning rod for complaints and criticism for their role in supporting some of the most-transgressed-upon in our society.
Yet they continue to provide important services to their patrons, and the work of libraries is nowhere more important than in rural areas and small towns.
Absorbing Books Like a Sponge
When I was in school, in the 1960s, I devoured everything in our little school library at Cowan. I had books at home, but I couldn’t hope to find as many books anywhere, especially living on a farm and going to a small school (fewer than 60 in my graduating class).
I read Hardy Boys books, of course, but I read everything else, from hardback collections of old comic strips to Bullfinch’s Mythology to “Yes I Can!” by Sammy Davis Jr. to books about horseracing champion Man 0’ War. I wasn’t a great student – “Doesn’t apply himself” was written on several report cards – but I absorbed books like a sponge.
This was before the days when small-town and township libraries were even as common as they are now and, as students, we relied on our school libraries to get us voracious readers not only through the school year but the summer months. Within a couple of decades, several small towns in my county had formed their own libraries. They were often in old buildings that had non-library origins, unlike the beautiful Andrew Carnegie library in Muncie, the city that was the county seat and the heart of our shopping, moviegoing, and, eventually, library-going existence.
As a young newspaper reporter in the 1980s, I wrote movie, music, book, and live theater reviews and, in those pre-Internet days, depended on books for history and facts about entertainment, and magazines and newspapers like Variety for the latest news. I spent many hours in the periodical room at Carnegie. Often, I was the only person there, enjoying a cool respite from the heat of the day. Sometimes there was an old man there, reading newspapers and, in retrospect, I wonder if he was younger than I am now.
But as wonderful as Carnegie was, the small-town libraries were the heart of the library experience for me, and for many of us.
“Oh my goodness, as a reader, they mean everything,” author Steph Post said in an interview for this article. “To this day, I have moments when I’m in a library and I realize, ‘All these books can be mine.’ Growing up poor, I remember that feeling SO clearly and I still feel it. Just the absolute wealth that is all within reach and all free.”
Post, the award-winning author of “Miraculum” and other novels, said that small-town and rural libraries are still a lifeline for readers. A West Central Florida resident, Post lives near a town of about 8,000 people and makes a 20-minute drive to one of the two libraries closest to her.
“I lived in St. Pete, Florida, for a few years, which has a gigantic library system with the main branch close to my house,” Post said. “I was so spoiled! When we moved out to the country here in Brooksville, I realized how far away everything was. I grew up way out in the country in North Florida but had gotten used to ‘city life.’ When I moved to Brooksville, I realized that there would be more driving to Barnes and Noble for coffee and a book! The closest bookstore is about an hour away! One of the first things I did when we moved here, then, was to get a library card, because at least it was only an hour or so round-trip drive. A week can go by with my only ‘outing’ being the library/post office trip.”
The weekly appointment of a trip to the library, post office, and store is a ritual for millions of us who live in rural areas.
The Miraculous Library Card
Thanks to the ongoing Covid pandemic and protesters targeting of library functions like children’s story time, libraries increasingly find themselves tasked with maintaining society – sometimes at their own risk.
“Nothing about 2020 was business as usual in any part of American society, and libraries and their workers, users, and services were all deeply impacted by the pandemic,” according to the State of America’s Libraries 2021 report from the American Library Association.
In June, right-wing Proud Boys members interrupted children’s storytime events at libraries in South Bend, Indiana, and the Wilmington, North Carolina area.
“We are not going to allow this show today in front of children,” a protestor in a Proud Boys-shot video says as the group interrupts a Rainbow Story Time during a Pride Month event. “This is perversion and it can’t be taught to children.”
Adding to the discord felt by libraries big and small are “challenges” to books. The American Library Association site includes a list of the most challenged books, most of which touch on themes of support and rights for LGBTQ+ people and people of color. The challenged books list is a mix of modern books like Angie Thomas’ “The Hate U Give” and perennially challenged works like “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The impact of rural libraries is immense. They provide their patrons with 100 million books, 154 million e-books, 65 million downloaded audio materials, and 11 million DVDs, VHS tapes, and streaming videos, reported the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Author James D.F. Hannah, after reading a tweet including Post’s comment above about the wealth of knowledge and entertainment available through libraries, responded with a tweet that summed up how most of us feel about rural libraries.
“God but I get this,” Hannah tweeted. “Because money got tighter as I aged out of Scholastic book fairs, and when you’re living in the middle of nowhere, a library opens the world up in ways nothing else can. A library card becomes a miracle then.”
Keith Roysdon is an Indiana writer who retired after 40 years in the newspaper business but still writes for news and pop culture publications. He has co-authored three true crime books published by History Press with a fourth due in 2023. The third book, “The Westside Park Murders,” was named the Best Nonfiction Book of 2021 by the Indiana Society of Professional Journalists.