Blogger Nina Lindsay

Doing it All: “Small”

I’ve always lived and worked in urban spaces. While nearly 81% of the US population live in urban areas according to the 2010 census, my visit to the Association for Rural and Small Libraries conference in St. George UT in September made it clear how myopic it is exclude rural perspectives “by default” from professional conversations.

I’ve since been thinking about how ALSC might better serve colleagues in rural communities, and all of us, by centering aspects of our work from a “small library” perspective, keeping in mind particular challenges that many of us work with:

Staff leaders without MLIS training.   Rural librarians don’t always have the MLIS, and access to professional networks and educational opportunities are geographically and financially dear. This is also a challenge for other libraries, whose “paraprofessional” leaders are often excluded from the leadership-opportunity pipeline because of status-quo bureaucracy.

Services must make sense for the whole community and for the whole family.  Larger libraries can be expert at services targeting populations, yet lose sight of synchronizing efforts in context of reaching families or cross-generational communities. Small libraries have to be community and family-focused first, because those relationships are heightened and at the front of interactions in a small community library.

Scarce resources.  Everyone can relate to lack of resources, but larger communities have readier access to outside-the-box solutions, and so, often, less practice in creatively approaching zero-sum situations.

Here are my takeaways from the conference for areas professional development that can support everyone by focusing on the strengths and needs of rural libraries.

Staff at rural and small libraries are experts in weeding and working in small spaces

I heard some great ideas on practicing continuous weeding, shifting, and display to activate and make the most of small collection budgets and space; decluttering, making do, and creating pop-up workspaces.

Staff at rural and small libraries are experts in passive and outdoor programming

For small teams, passive programs are great because they just keep going: one staff person can set them up and they are easily generative, and self-service.  My favorite: a Boggle wall. It’s just a grid on the wall, and you post letters in it, and change them each day.  So easy it dropped all 20 jaws at my children’s services meeting on my return.  Small libraries also know how to serve communities where they are: often, in the park or community square, leveraging partnerships.

Staff at rural and small libraries are experts in advocating from any position

Librarians at small libraries do everything.  Sound familiar? Yes, though it’s much more extreme in a rural community, where the Library Director is often the single staff with an MLIS and must be expert on everything, not the least of which is developing their capable staff and advocating for the library’s unique role in the community. This was a frequent topic of conversation at the conference meals, for instance: “My mayor told my staff to take the new Amy Schumer bio off the display [because of her bare back]. When they told me later, I said “oh, I’m going to have a conversation with my City Manager! Let me tell you…”  If I’d had the wherewithal to record what followed, we’d have an instant podcast on Advocating for the Library Bill of Rights 101.

Staff at rural and small libraries are experts in …. Isolation

Does all this sound a little exhausting? Isolating? I was certainly listening for this as I headed to ARSL, but it also stood out starkly to me in the very welcoming environment at the conference. I was impressed by just how much attendees made of their rare opportunity to be with a few hundred colleagues. Most people I spoke with were attending for the first time, often supported by their state library, and supported through that network to connect with others.

At the luncheon table where we got the run-down on schooling your City Manager, another attendee shared that she’d been coached by hers, in a similar situation: “Try not to create problems where there are none.”

I’ve been thinking about this statement a lot, as I think it really illustrates the isolation of being in a smaller community, or being otherwise marginalized in any.  Unpack that sentence for a moment.  What it is really saying is “Stop illuminating existing problems that the hegemony is trying very hard to keep obscured under systems of oppression.”

It’s so important to have organized access to colleagues for backup when you need to stir the pot or take a stand.  It is so much easier to get that access in a larger community, where resources like physical proximity, broadband access, salary scales that put professional memberships within reach, etc., provide pathways to supportive networks.

I encourage you all to mine #ARSL2017 for some great ideas, and welcome members from small and rural communities to correct and expand upon what I’ve shared.



  1. Shari Taylor

    Dear Nina,
    Thank you so much for bringing to light a situation I have long felt. Basically excluded by the library organizations, (except ARSL) due to the lack of MLIS. WE DO ALL THE SAME STUFF! I hope that your thoughts will spread to others and there will be a change in mindset.
    Thanks again

    1. Nina Lindsay

      Shari, thanks for sharing. *Anyone* can be an active member of ALA and its divisions, you don’t even have to work in a library. However, I do think that the necessary work ALA does to support professional standards has a side effect of creating invisible barriers for library colleagues who don’t have the degree.

  2. Vicki Bartz

    In a truly rural and small library, we work together as a community on projects. We all invest the time as we all want the project to succeed, especially when it comes to the children of the community.

    1. Nina Lindsay

      Vicki, this is certainly something that I heard alot, and I don’t think I fully fleshed out in the post above. Another angle on this….someone said in conversation at the conference “Don’t think you’re ‘all that’ coming into a new community with your MLIS. It’s their community, and their library.” This is of course true anywhere, but again just stood out more starkly: that to be a successful librarian you will have to be a successful community member first…because the library succeeds on the community pulling together for it. It just requires tighter orchestration and synchronicity than in a larger community.

  3. Don Reynolds

    As Harper Lee put it so well in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” when Atticus says, “First of all, if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view […] until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
    Many thanks to Nina for her insightful walk around in rural and small libraries.
    In turn, one of the basic precepts for rural/small community librarians to understand about being an effective community leader is best described by Lyle Schaller in his book, “The Small Church is Different!” (1982): “In the small-town church, the minister often brings a world-view that is not native to that community, but frequently the congregation socializes the new minister to local values, traditions, and customs. In general, the more the minister accepts, affirms, endorses, and supports the values, traditions and background of the congregation, the lower the level of institutional vulnerability of the congregation. By contrast, the more successful the minister is in socializing the long-established congregation to accept that pastor’s values, standards, criteria for self-evaluation, and goals, the less likely that congregation will be in existence twenty years hence. … The church that functions in a strongly supportive community context can often survive the efforts of the pastor to socialize the congregation to the minister’s world-view, values and goals. If, however, the community setting is on the hostile side of neutral, those efforts may prove fatal to the congregation.”
    We librarians need to take note of this “socializing” behavior Schaller identifies and how it could prove fatal to the public’s library services that we manage. Rather, we should focus on walking around in the skin of the community we serve, especially if we do not come from that community.

  4. Pingback: What makes rural services to school-age children different? - ALSC Blog

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