Over the past two years, I have learned many things about libraries but one thing has stood out to me above all of the rest: focus on your community and ditch the hype out there in the rest of the world. I’m just not into an ideas that there’s a one size fits all approach to libraries. Heck, there’s even part of me that thinks that public/academic/special libraries should be called something different since we’re all doing such vastly different things but all use the word “library”.
With those things in mind, I tread carefully with a post like this where I’m going lay out a few things that small(ish) and (slightly) rural libraries should be doing. My thoughts and ideas are not the magic bullet that will be the best fit for your library. These are the things that have worked for me in my position, and my hope is that through sharing them they may work for you as well or inspire you to think a different way and/or try something else for your library and your community.
Before we jump in, here are the stats for my library so you can get a vibe of the community we serve and the work that we do:
- Service Population: 14,904
- Visits in 2016: 60,143
- Circulation in 2016: 66,529
- Total Registered Users in 2016: 5,575
The most important thing a person can do in a small/rural public library is to listen to their community. When you listen to your community in any setting you will succeed but you will especially succeed in a small/rural public library. Why is that? It has everything to do with the tight knit community that usually surrounds a small town. You know the phrases “everyone knows everyone around these parts” and “everyone is related to everyone else in this town”? There’s a reason why people say these things…it is because they are VERY TRUE. In small towns, everyone talks to each other. Everyone listens to everything that everyone says and watches everything that everyone does. It is just the way of life in these types of towns and nothing is going to change it.
That’s why it is so important for you to listen as a small/rural public library director. Keeping your ear to the ground allows you to better understand the community you serve. By listening, you will be able to develop better programs and collections for the people that surround you. When you do this, there is nothing for your library to do but SUCCEED.
WEED YOUR COLLECTION & DO NOT HOARD
Small/Rural libraries are often the most guilty of being intense library hoarders. There’s a deadly combination in every small/rural library where budgets are strapped mixed with every librarian’s “we may be able to use that someday” attitude. The end result of this is usually shelves overflowing with materials, out of date materials staying much longer than needed, and a basement/attic/weird room to the side full of things that, let’s face it, you are never going to use because you are never going to find them again.
Taking care of your library means getting rid of things. Yes, I understand how hard it may be to get rid of that book that you enjoyed reading 10 years ago that you remember buying. I’ve been through this myself. But having a messy collection and a messy storage space does nothing but drive patrons away by making it hard to find what they really want and it frustrates staff.
When you downsize everything, you’re also able to fill your library with the stuff that you actually need. One of the most brilliant things that I think the Chattanooga Public Library did during my time there (and it continues to this day!) is to have a collection policy that emphasized patron requests. When you get the stuff that people want, your circulation and visits will increase. When you have less clutter to wade through on a daily basis, your staff will be free from some stress. I truly believe that these things lead to a better public library which in turn lead to a better community.
TAKE CARE OF YOUR BUILDING
Your building is your lifeline to the community. It is where you will do most if not all of your library related business. I’m not saying that small/rural libraries don’t do outreach…they do…but for some libraries there just isn’t the staffing to get outside of the building.
Taking care of your space does two things: it makes people feel welcome when they come to the library and it also instills this feeling that the library is a special place. A well kept library will be remembered by anyone that visits it. A few months ago I had the chance to visit the Stone Memorial Library in Conneautville, PA. This library had a great location: a wonderful Main Street location, big windows, and a recently renovated space that used to be a store front. The library was small and very welcoming. It felt like the staff and the community loved the space. The other thing that it does is that it gives back to your community. Small towns are not doing so well as more people flock to urban/suburban areas. To keep these towns alive, we need to take care of them. We need to invest in the things that make these areas special. A library is a good place to start. Libraries can give back to the town by cleaning up and using a building instead of leaving that space unoccupied. When this happens, you drive through a small town and instead of seeing abandoned storefronts you see life. You see a community that cares about its surroundings. The public library does so much more than just loan out books: it can breathe life into an entire community.