By Marcel LaFlamme
What I remember about the summer before my senior year of high school are the hours I spent at the Monson Free Library. I grew up in small-town western Massachusetts, and when, at sixteen, I started to wonder whether maybe, possibly, I might be gay, I wasn’t sure who to talk to or where to turn. I remember spending part of that summer reading Chastity Bono’s memoirs, concealing the cover of the book behind an issue of Time or Newsweek so that no one else could see what I was reading.
As a young gay man in rural America, my local library was a lifeline. It connected me to a world that lay beyond the borders of my hometown, and it reassured me that, somewhere out there, there were other people like me. Today, of course, the Internet can connect rural kids to the outside world as never before, but I became a librarian because I continue to believe that public libraries are a critical part of the infrastructure needed to sustain healthy rural communities.
In 2007, the Urban Libraries Council released a report that described a shift in the role of public libraries “from passive, recreational reading and research institutions to active economic development agents.” The report, which focused on large metropolitan library systems, zeroed in on four distinctive ways that libraries contribute to economic development: early literacy programs, workforce development, small business support, and anchoring physical development.
There isn’t as much research on the economic impact of rural public libraries, although a 2008 report by the Illinois Institute of Rural Affairs does document a number of strategies that smaller library systems have used to support local development efforts and level the playing field for small businesses.
Now, I wish I could tell you that all rural libraries are wonderful, but it isn’t true. Too many of them are locked in a holding pattern of checking out the same dog-eared romance novels year after year, while the young, up-and-coming librarians who would be in a position to challenge the status quo at these libraries are all too often wooed away by resource-rich urban and suburban libraries.
Meanwhile, there is still a very real debate in the library public policy world about whether each and every small community needs to have an independently operated library system of its own. States like Ohio and Indiana have said no, encouraging rural communities to form county-level library systems with multiple branches. Yet a 2006 study in western Massachusetts concluded that such a proposal would be unlikely to gain public support, and that there were other ways of improving library service to rural communities without mandating wider units of service.
As for me, I’m on the fence. If we want our public libraries to develop literacy programs and small business information centers and workshops for technology training, then it may make sense to centralize some of these initiatives at the county level. After all, it’s often all that a solo librarian in a small community can do to keep the doors open.
Yet as soon as I start thinking about some gleaming new regional library facility, humming with the self-importance of the technocratic mind, there’s another image that flashes into my brain. It’s the photograph that appears up at the top of this post, which was taken at the Wales (Mass.) Public Library in the spring of 2007. The sign in the foreground of the image reads “Homework help: just ask,” and it points directly into the office of Library Director Nancy Baer. Is it efficient, from an organizational perspective, to have the director of the library helping a third-grader with his science homework? Probably not.
But it does speak volumes about the value that this community places on its kids, and about the sense of responsibility that I know Nancy feels toward the rural community that she serves. Those, I think, are some of the values that make a small town a good place to be. Those are values that can’t be outsourced.