The children’s section of the Decorah Public Library. (Photo by Nick Chill, with Decorah Public Library)

To some, the concept of brick-and-mortar public libraries is as dusty as an old book. If you need information, you use the search engine on your phone. Need a newspaper or magazine article? Same deal. Need a book? Buy it online. Right?

Wrong. Public libraries have prevailed against these perceived threats to their relevance by broadening the services they provide to their communities. Beyond intangible help such as guiding readers and researchers, they offer access to tax return forms, voter registration, computers, photocopiers, and places for children and families to read together after school. They offer social connection and a safe place to stave off loneliness. 

Everything on this list is important no matter where you live, but in small towns and rural areas, they could be much harder to find without the library. 

Take the public library in my new community of Decorah, Iowa, for example. This is a town of around 7,500 folks who embrace their mostly Norwegian ancestry. There is a Scandinavian heritage museum, a Nordic festival, and a trail system in which sections are named after figures in Norse mythology. There is a college, named for Martin Luther. Minnesota is on our northern border. We say “uffda” more than we should. And there are gnomes. Lots of gnomes. 

Kristin Torresdal is the director of the Decorah Public Library, where she has worked since 2005.

 “Libraries of today are much more than a repository for books,” she told me. “They’re also vibrant community hubs, and one of the few public spaces where one can spend a few hours without the expectation of spending money.” 

Storytime with children & young adult librarian Rachael Button. (Photo by Nick Chill, with Decorah Public Library)

She tells me that one of the most important goals for libraries today is to be “responsive to stated or perceived community needs and to be forward-thinking about what the community may want in the future.” 

To that end, the Decorah Public Library sends surveys to local library users and organizes a “Community Conversation” event. The goal is to dig into what the public wants and how those wants are prioritized. These events are well-attended, held in the meeting space of a popular coffee shop. I know this because I attended one with my husband. When there was a hiccup with the registration system, we were lucky to get a spot when someone else had canceled. That is a good problem to have. 

Maybe the library is so popular because staff routinely encourage users to recommend new titles for purchase. They also take program suggestions from individuals and community groups. Within hours of my signing up for a library card, I received an email inviting my input. 

Even before relocating here last summer, I’d homed in on the Decorah Public Library as the space where I’d be able to meet people who, like me, love to read and talk about books. It’s housed right in the center of town, in a large and light-filled former U.S. post office. Yet it’s hard to strike up conversations with strangers between its shelves, based on common admiration of the Dewey Decimal System. No, I’d need a way to actually talk to folks in a socially comfortable manner. I saw from the library’s website the wide range of programs and services on offer. For example, they partner with a local studio to offer a yoga class. They host onsite craft and creativity sessions, story time for kids, and more. None of these seemed quite right for me. But a book club—now, that would be perfect.

So many choices! A cookbook group. A speculative fiction group. A group for people who discuss contemporary literary fiction during Happy Hour. A group for people who meet on Fridays to discuss a mixed bag of titles. Then I spot it—a group devoted to reading history. Not “historical fiction.” Actual history.

We can’t discuss this much further without acknowledging the adaptations that Covid-19 forced us all to make. For the library’s book clubs, almost all groups went from meeting in person in the library’s lovely mezzanine to meeting in tiny poorly lit squares via Zoom. That technology was a great resource and a lifesaver. But by the time I moved to town, I was twice vaccinated and boosted and overjoyed to find that the history group still met in person, with a Zoom option and appropriate social distancing. True, the other groups each had dozens of members, while there was only a handful in the history group. Didn’t matter. Sign me up.

The first book I read as part of the group was Orlando Figes’ 600-plus page study about the Crimean War. We divided this one up over two months. I didn’t know much about that war except Florence Nightingale, Leo Tolstoy, and the Light Brigade. But because of that reading experience it seems not a week goes by without me hearing some reference to a name or event that I discovered in those pages, and from my extremely knowledgeable group mates. 

Then, we read Edward Ball’s Life of a Klansman. The author traces his roots back to his Civil War-era ancestry and discovers a family member who was undoubtedly part of what was then an early manifestation of the KKK. I’m reminded of one of my Missouri ancestors, who I learned through genealogical research had owned slaves. Now I plan to dig through that information again, to see if I can learn more about those enslaved persons.

Then, we read a World War II book called Rare Encounter by a writer from this region, John Hall. It was such a treat that he Zoomed in to our in-person meeting and talked about his work researching this true story. Noticing I was the only woman in the room, he asked me how I felt about being in a history group and reading about war. Being flustered by the question didn’t stop me from babbling an incoherent five-minute answer. But he was right – this was something I really did need to think about, from several angles. After all, I’d hadn’t lived through food rationing, or been subject to the military draft. I’d never lost a close family member to war. What was this book’s message for me?

Now we’re wrapping up the second and final installment of Herbert P. Bix’s 880-page Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan. All I can say is how humbling it is to realize how little I know about almost everything, including the Pacific Theater of World War II. Thanks to my generous and forthcoming group mates, I know I’m not alone in that feeling. I’ve discovered more in the past six months than I ever would have, without this group, and these authors. Important things. Like, how the world works, and what brought us to where we are today.

Decorah Public Library Annual Meeting and community input session, held at Impact Coffee. (Photo by Nick Chill, with Decorah Public Library)

Soon we’ll plan the book selections for the next several months. Group members suggest titles to Torresdal. Then she creates an online poll for the members to make their choices, without knowing who suggested them. I’m curious to see if any of my suggestions appealed to the other members. I won’t feel bad if they didn’t. Well, at least not too bad. After all, if it weren’t for the recommendations of my group mates, I never would have read the books listed above or thought about their subject matter in any careful way. 

In Iowa, some public libraries select book club “kits” from the State Library for their groups to read. This simplified process saves money from the book purchasing budget and makes logistics smoother for librarians. In Decorah, the Friends of the Library group devotes some of the funds it raises specifically to purchase books for the book group programs. After the group has finished reading the selection, the library then has several copies that which it can make available to others in the state, for their patrons to read as part of a book group, or individually.

Torresdal says that she always recommends book groups to people who are new to town, or entering a new life stage as recent college graduates, empty nesters or recent retirees. 

“Book groups are a fun, low-stress way to meet new people, to stay intellectually engaged, to discuss contemporary issues, and to maintain a sense of connection with others even during busy seasons of life,” she says. “Over the years, book group members have repeatedly shared that they’ve made friends through our groups, and that the relationships they’ve built over time through that one monthly meeting are meaningful. Book groups often bring people together who might not share a lot of other activities in common, and that’s valuable in a time where people are seemingly more divided than ever.”    

She is so right about that. All of it. Meanwhile, I see the library is offering a session on how to grow shitake mushrooms. Sounds good to me!

Julianne Couch lives in Decorah, Iowa, at the edge of an impact crater in the heart of the Driftless Area.

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