I set out on this project, in part, to promote small libraries and celebrate what makes them special to their communities. In most cases I have been successful. However, I have noticed a disturbing trend. While moving west, I repeatedly kept on missing out on the opportunity to speak on many small libraries’ behalf, mostly because they were closed at the time. Small communities struggle with many municipal funding issues and small libraries suffer the consequences. Communities with populations everywhere from 50 to 5000 are lucky to have a library, usually the storefront model, and I am glad they are around. However, I don’t understand how they survive. Many of them can only afford one to two people working for them, so they suffer from erratic hours: Closed Mondays. Open Tuesdays 9-1. Open Wednesdays 5-9. Open Thursdays 1-6….you get the idea. This does not build community cohesion and promotes library indifference. I can hear the patrons asking themselves (especially if they’re not usual customers): “When is that library open? Should I call? Look it up online? Nah, I’ll just watch a movie tonight.” I also noticed that in many small towns these are the only places where someone can obtain freely available wifi and/or any internet access. When I say freely, I mean they don’t have to sit in a coffee shop and buy coffee or a muffin in order to utilize the proprietor’s for-profit wifi, which I noticed was the only alternative in some of these communities. Internet service is not cheap, even more so in places without a competitive marketplace, and many people in these communities have tight budgets, so having their own access is a luxury that sometimes these families can’t afford.
As I moved towards other states, most notably South Dakota, I became aware that libraries weren’t even on the map. Literally. You know those blue signs that feature an icon of a person reading a book with an arrow pointing to where a library is?
As far as I can tell, they don’t exist in South Dakota. I would do my due diligence and tool around the main streets of towns big and small and only in rare occasions would I find the library, which, naturally, was closed. I drove around Rapid City’s downtown and finally gave up after a good half-hour. Why didn’t I look this stuff up before I drove in? Well, honestly, I would have loved to. But…I didn’t have wifi! (Oh, and yes, I did try the Chamber of Commerce thing too, to ask them where the library was…but they were closed in most cases as well. Furthermore, my crappy cell service *I’m looking at you CREDO/Sprint* hasn’t had LTE internet service since I left the suburbs of Chicago.) I am writing this to you from a hotel room which I had to pay for because I hadn’t had access to the internet for 48 hours straight. (That, and it was in the 30’s last night…)
Do I have a quick answer for this problem? No, I don’t. I can whine all I like about the lack of wifi on the road, but that’s not going to put money into the budgets of small libraries. Small communities aren’t going to put any more money into their libraries. It’s up to the states and federal government in most cases, and unfortunately we, as librarians, are losing those battles too. I have one idea, not a new one mind you, but it’s an idea….
More to come.