What makes rural services to school-age children different?

I live and work in Nevada County, which is actually in California, to the great confusion of search engines and non-Californians (and many Californians). Our county has just under 100,000 people and 68% of people live in unincorporated areas, and 93.6% of the population is white (according to 2016 numbers from the US census). This county also skews older, with just 21% of the population under 18. Every rural county is incredibly different, so I cannot pretend to represent what working in a rural county is like everywhere, but here is my experience.

I was born in San Francisco and lived there until I moved across the bridge to suburban Marin, worked in Oakland, and then in suburban Connecticut before landing here. Living in rural California has me understanding my own lens as urban. I expect excellent services that are easy to access. Patrons up here know that services exist, but you just have to travel to get to them, and travel is not easy if you don’t have a car. This includes libraries.

However, across the country, rural library engagement is lower than in urban environments. Our county library is well-funded by a recent tax bond, but had been struggling deeply after the recession, and so we do not rely on donations and volunteers as much as we used to and are increasing our staff. However, all of our shelving is still done by volunteers.

About Nevada County

People know each other in this county, which makes outreach easier. I can ask someone who’s lived here for a long time for a tip and get a good one. People know each other’s kids and don’t hesitate to watch them while a parent runs an errand. Like many urban environments, students struggle with hunger and poverty and lack of opportunity. Children who are people of color struggle with racism. The people indigenous to this area, the Nisenan, struggle with visibility and recognition. Housing is a big issue in our county – a lot of Bay Area folks sell their houses and move up here to the “bargains” which are more and more often out of reach for locals, who are paid local wages; the rural version of gentrification. Students also have access to beautiful outdoors and many students in this county end up going to college.

Politically speaking…

Our county has pro-gun Libertarians (have you heard of the State of Jefferson?) to woo-woo liberals (this town has two crystal shops). This plays out in our school districts. In Western Nevada County (the part on the western side of Donner Pass), we have twelve school districts across a wide geographic range (outreach challenge for sure). They range from public to private to charter to homeschool. When we approached the Superintendent’s office about doing Student Success cards, they told us that even with an opt-out, they thought parents would be against sharing student data. However, when we entered into a partnership with the high school district, we only got two opt-outs, so who knows if it’s just a stereotype.

Geographic challenges

This geographic distance also makes it difficult to collaborate with one of our branches, which is across a mountain pass and 50 miles away. They have a different Friends group and funding structure, and have typically been independent. As our system works to centralize, we often realize how much the distance plays a part in collaborating. Not to mention getting our floating collection between branches! To deal with geographic distance in outreach, I’ve tried things like radio storytime, Facebook and online engagement, visits to the Farmer’s Market and local organizations, and getting cozy with other county departments and youth serving organizations so they can share with the people they reach.

Youth Services within rural communities

There’s the patrons, and then there is the job. The Association of Rural and Small Libraries conference showed me the wide variety of types of children’s librarian’s jobs across rural counties. One librarian traveled to seven branches across a hundred miles as the sole Youth Librarian in her county. Another county didn’t have a youth librarian at all. Another librarian ran her branch alone without support staff and couldn’t leave to go to the bathroom during open hours. Nina Lindsay’s excellent post after her visit to ARSL highlights rural libraries and their challenges and successes and shows how rural library staff have to cover a lot of bases and advocate from where they are. It’s a lot harder to get to trainings and meetings up here, and there’s not a lot of money for professional development. It is also hard to move up in Youth Services without moving out into branch managing, and recruitment of quality staff can be hard as well. We rely on grants to do innovative projects, which has its benefits and its problems, as many of you know – grants are exciting, but sometimes they are short-sighted or miss the basics.

School-age children specifically…

As far as services to school-age children, we have to really get in our car and drive to do outreach. There are schools where kids are far away from a library branch and our visit to that school is their only connection to the library (so we better make it good). We are far enough away from museums and other educational centers that getting performers or programs to come up the hill is difficult (and expensive!). Kids are fascinated by the same things as they are anywhere: animals, robots, trucks, contests. Parents and caregivers are looking for support and a safe space. Kids don’t have access to the internet or computers at home as often, so our space becomes more important. There aren’t as many organizations serving youth as there are in urban areas, so we can be a focal point for programming over the holes. We truly get to be a community center, and that is a joy.

What are some examples of how you serve school-age children in your rural community?


Lisa Nowlain is the Youth Librarian at Madelyn Helling Library in the Nevada County Communty Library system in California. She is also an artist type.

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