Despite improvements in recent years, rural libraries tend to spend more per capita for fewer services and fewer open hours, according to a report from the American Library Association (ALA).

Technology challenges, access to high speed internet, and funding to pay for staff and facilities are the main challenges facing rural community libraries, the report says.

The services and technology offered by rural libraries have expanded in the past 20 years, the study’s authors said. “Although many of these libraries lag their peers in the depth and diversity of their public programming, the fact that each rural public library still provides a wide range of valuable and relevant services with limited staff, space, and funding is remarkable,” the report stated.

The study credited government programs with some of the gains in broadband access. “Although rural areas still trail more populated areas in terms of connection speeds and costs, this situation would be far worse without the direct intervention of the federal government,” wrote the authors. They note that 2009 Recovery Act provided for 109,137 miles of fiber infrastructure, connecting more than 21,000 community institutions such as schools and libraries in rural areas.

Despite these gain, rural libraries still trail their urban and suburban neighbors in internet speed.

Public computers in rural libraries tend to be less numerous and older than urban libraries’ equipment.

Teaching basic computer skills is a strength of rural libraries, the report says. But funding issues mean the libraries often lag in providing small business development support, career services and extended hours of operation necessary to conduct teaching activities.

Rural libraries are also smaller, and their buildings are less up-to-date when compared with urban and suburban counterparts. “The median physical size for rural libraries is 2,592 square feet, versus a median of 12,680 for city libraries, 12,578 for suburban outlets, and 9,300 for town locations,” the report said. Rural libraries “were the least likely to report renovations had taken place in the previous five years—about 15 percent compared with a national average of 21 percent or 33 percent of city libraries.”

The report used data from the Public Libraries in the United States Survey, conducted by the Institute of Museum and Library Service, and the Digital Inclusion Survey, conducted jointly by ALA and the University of Maryland’s Information Policy and Access Center. Researchers Brian Real and R. Norman Rose authored the report.

More than a third of America’s 16,695 public libraries are rural.

The report uses the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics definition of rural. (This is a finer grained definition than the county-level metropolitan statistical areas system, which is frequently cited in Daily Yonder articles.)

The Department of Education definition defines three different types of rural communities:

  • Rural fringe: Census-defined rural territory that is less than or equal to 5 miles from an urbanized area (a city or densely populated suburb), as well as rural territory that is less than or equal to 2.5 miles from an urban cluster (a town). There are 940 libraries in rural, fringe communities.
  • Rural distant: Census-defined rural territory that is more than 5 miles but less than or equal to 25 miles from an urbanized area, as well as rural territory that is more than 2.5 miles but less than or equal to 10 miles from an urban cluster. There 3,203 libraries within this category.
  • Rural remote: Census-defined rural territory that is more than 25 miles from an urbanized area and is also more than 10 miles from an urban cluster. Rural, remote communities contain 2,265 libraries.

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