Yesterday, ably assisted by Jennifer Peters and Katherine Adelberg from our Library Development and Networking Division, I drove a 15-seat van from Austin to Little Rock Arkansas, picking up seven other librarian passengers along the way. The 11-hour journey started at 7:30 a.m. in Austin with stops in Hillsboro, De Soto, Longview and New Boston. By the time we arrived in Little Rock, we were ten tired, cramped, but happy library folks ready to participate in the annual conference of the Association of Rural and Small Libraries, ARSL.
This conference is a gathering of over 500 (a record attendance) people, most of whom are valiant and dedicated individuals responsible for running small libraries across the country. Some are well supported, but the majority struggle to survive against overwhelming odds. Many have only one or two staff members (sometimes leaving a volunteer behind to maintain service). Many get along on donations and by scrimping, saving, and stretching a dollar. Most have to continually justify their existence to decision makers in the communities they are trying to serve. Why do they do it? Because they believe that it is important that even people who live small towns and rural areas–perhaps especially those people–have access to the educational, informational, cultural, and technological resources they need to live productive, fulfilled lives.
These people are the true heroes of their communities. I heard today from a librarian in a small town in New York state that provides a full range of literacy from early childhood education to ESL to GED to adult literacy for her community, as do many small community libraries in Texas. One of our Texas community librarians–Patty Mayfield at the Bertha Voyer Library in Honey Grove–tirelessly pursues every grant and training opportunity she can to bring improved services to her community. We stopped in the tiny town of New Boston on the way to Little Rock where librarian Chris Woodrow provides a full range of library service from a storefront facility that might look modest from the sidewalk, but opens up into a clean, well-lighted space featuring a large collection of materials, an inviting children’s room, meeting rooms and quiet reading areas.
As one of the speakers today–a television newscaster from Little Rock–pointed out, we ought to let small community librarians run all of government. After all, he pointed out, who else could get so much value from such minimal investments of public support? Amen to that, brother.