Academic Libraries on Rural Campuses

Public libraries are well known as vital institutions of rural life and meeting information needs, but I haven’t seen a lot of commentary on what an academic library can mean to a rural college campus.

My college is very proud of its legacy of community involvement – as they should be. The college is the epicenter of learning for the whole region, and the only institution of higher education in a county that is larger than the entire state of Connecticut. There are many challenges associated with these kinds of logistics, namely:

  • People may be very far away from each other. I commute 30 miles each way to the library everyday, and I know many people who come from even greater distances.
  • Public transportation to and from the library may exist, but it is not typically very convenient, and most people must maintain the cost and condition of a private vehicle.
  • Internet connections may not be fantastic. When I first started working at the college, we had about 2 weeks with no internet whatsoever. As a cataloger, that “And other duties as needed” line on every job description became most of what I did until we were back online.
  • Many patrons and their families may be in subsistence careers like farming. Hence, there may not be a great deal of disposable income, and purchases like personal computers may be considered a luxury for some families.
  • Many areas of collection development deserve special consideration, e.g., when I order items for the nursing program, I need to be on the lookout for any new items related to rural healthcare.

I got my MSI close to a major metropolitan area in a very technologically literate town. During my classes, we were told that things would change rapidly once we left, and our education there was largely theory-based to accommodate that. When I then immediately went to a rural library, I found that instead, we were playing catch-up. That theory education ended up working retroactively so that I could help build our programs to be more current.

It would seem like an easy fix to focus on online resources to accommodate the issues with physical distance – but then, what if your patrons do not have reliable internet and a personal computer at home? And, if your patrons do not have personal computers, then doesn’t the building become that much more important for ensuring student success?

When your commute may take (what seems like) forever, then you want each trip to count. When you’ve got 2 hours in between classes, but you live 60 miles away on county roads, you need a place to spend extended periods of time.

While I have of course placed a necessary premium on online resources, we have put a lot of effort into our physical space. The library recently underwent an addition, and our head counts have gone up exponentially. What we have learned is that the building will always be important,¬†especially¬†in rural communities. If you put good computers, wifi, and a lot of comfortable furniture in a space, it becomes a gathering spot. We’ve found that it leads to more study groups, extracurricular activities, and better information literacy.

Rural libraries are a challenge. We typically have a limited budget and a lot of ground to cover (literally). Those who do have reliable internet access and personal computers want current, comprehensive services that do not necessitate an extended trip to town. Those who do not or cannot obtain access to those resources need the “traditional” library experience. We must be everything we can be, and then some.

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