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Libraries as Vibrant Community Hubs: A Report From the ARSL Conference

by on October 20, 2017

In a presentation titled “Destination: Your Library,” Jean Bosch and Tiffany Rohe from the Winterset (Iowa) Public Library said in small towns like theirs “the library is the one-stop shop all year round … there is no rec center in town … the library is it.” During four days in September, more than 550 librarians from rural areas and small towns throughout the nation gathered in St. George, Utah, for the tenth conference of the modern iteration of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL).

Much of the conference was organized around the unique concerns of library staff in sparsely populated areas. At breakfast on the morning of the first full day of the conference “solo librarians” could gather together to discuss the challenges associated with being a staff of one. At least one session was led by a volunteer librarian, Dianne Connery, who runs the Pottsboro Area Public Library in Texas with an annual budget from the city of $60,000 (supplemented heavily by donations and grants). The library was a finalist for Library Journal’s Best Small Library in America 2017.

Results from a Collaborative Brainstorming Session on “How might the library rebuild mainstreet?” led by Betha Gutsche during a session on how Small Libraries Create Smart Spaces at the Association for Rural and Small Libraries 2017 Conference. Photo Courtesy of Noah Lenstra.

The ARSL embraces this hands-on ethos. The website urges members (the most expensive individual membership is $49 a year) to “Get Involved: ARSL is a volunteer driven organization! With the exception of some administrative functions, ARSL’s work is a result of volunteers who roll up their sleeves and make it happen!” The association’s Twitter (@RuralLibAssoc) asks “Did you know ARSL’s Annual Conference is staffed, planned and organized by volunteers?”

The sessions of the conference itself covered the gamut of public library functions. A common theme centered on rural and small libraries transforming themselves to become vibrant community hubs. Vanessa Adams (Batesville, AR) spoke on how her library went from “virtually no programs and little community support to a thriving hub of activity.” Anna Yount (Brevard, NC) discussed how her library developed  “a dynamic new road map for community success.” Hope Decker (Canandaigua, NY) discussed how to “make the most” of a small library space. Betha Gutsche from OCLC/WebJunction presented preliminary results from the ongoing Small Libraries Create Smart Spaces initiative. She highlighted the public library in Bellingham, WA, which removed two book shelves to create a SkillShare space in the library, in which community members share their skills to offer everything from Tai Chi to Baby Sign Language classes.

Librarians in other sessions discussed taking their services outside through things like library community gardens and partnerships with parks. Still other sessions focused on advocacy and marketing, preparing librarians to tell the stories of the successes they are experiencing, as well as the social and economic issues they are helping to address, such as rural poverty, digital literacy, and multiculturalism.

Work is already underway to plan next year’s conference, which will be in Springfield, Illinois, September 13-15, 2018. Conference attendance rose from 503 in 2016 (Fargo, ND) to over 550 in 2017. Check ARSL out on Facebook and Twitter to stay in-the-loop with this dynamic and growing group of rural and small town librarians.






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