Diversity & Outreach Columns ALA's Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services


Reinventing the Rural Library

Melinda Tanner

By Melinda Tanner

This post is the second in a series from the ALA Committee on Rural, Native, and Tribal Libraries of All Kinds and the Association for Rural & Small Libraries exploring qualities of leadership in rural and tribal libraries.

In today’s struggling economy, many businesses have closed. Others are doing things they never thought they’d do to stay in business. A perfect example is McDonald’s. On a recent visit, the manager was pushing their soft baked chocolate chip cookies. He said, “Boy, never thought we would be baking cookies at McDonald’s.” My reply was, “or making mocha frappes and fruit smoothies or serving oatmeal for breakfast.” Businesses are reinventing themselves for the sake of sustainability.

There is a sign on our staff bulletin board that reads: “Blessed are those who are flexible for they shall not break.” Rural and small librarianship requires flexibility in the ever changing landscape of our communities. Flexibility will allow libraries to address the unique needs of their communities. Flexibility will position libraries as valuable community solutions... whatever the challenge.

As funding has decreased and the number of unique community agencies has dwindled, the role of the public libraries has changed. We are filling the service voids within our communities. Libraries have a history and reputation for doing more in times of less. These past few years have been no exception. Small and rural libraries are demonstrating their value by doing whatever it takes by being flexible to meet the needs within their community. Libraries are doing things they may not have ever imagined they would. Some examples I’ve seen in Southwestern Pennsylvania include:

A very small library (two rooms in an old storefront) opens its doors once a week to a local diagnostic lab. Patients needing regular blood draws know they can have it done every Tuesday at the library. They no longer need to drive the 40 plus miles to the nearest hospital or out-patient facility.

In a different area, the library has become the community center. They offer classes in yoga, self-defense, and healthy eating for diabetics. You can also rent a room for a baby shower or birthday party. Another library will even provide programming including stories and crafts for birthday parties held within their facility.

In light of the recent influx of Marcellus Shale related industries, small and rural libraries are serving as research centers for assistance with property rights, deed location and heirs for mineral rights from generations past. The director of a small library was asked to help with the nearly 100 children of out-of-state drillers living at a local hotel during the summer. Summer reading programs are now taking place at the hotel!

The label “rural” in 2012 STILL means that the library is most likely the only place around with free Wi-Fi and free computers. Libraries are the go-to spot for assistance and are still offering beginner technology classes as many residents find themselves at a loss with applications and forms available only online.

Gone are the days of traditional libraries and traditional library services! Gone are the days of traditional library leaders. Library leadership involves creativity, flexibility and nontraditional thinking. And, like McDonald’s, libraries everywhere are “reinventing themselves” for the sake of sustainability--especially small and rural libraries.

No one is baking cookies…yet.

Melinda Tanner is a District Consultant Librarian for the public libraries in Washington, Greene and Fayette Counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania.  She has been an active voice for rural & small libraries, founding a rural and small libraries roundtable for the Pennsylvania Library Association.  Melinda is a member of ARSL.


Be Engaged, Set an Example, Be Enthused, Embrace Community: Rural Librarian Leadership Qualities

John D. "Danny" Hales

John D. "Danny" Hales, Jr.

By John D. “Danny” Hales, Jr.

This post is the first in a series from the ALA Committee on Rural, Native, and Tribal Libraries of All Kinds and the Association for Rural & Small Libraries exploring qualities of leadership in rural and tribal libraries.

There are literally hundreds of articles and books on being a leader. Many persons are just born leaders, but just about anyone can become one, if they are really committed.

I think being committed to rural librarianship is significantly important to being a good leader.

In my 35 years as a library director of a multi-county rural library system, I believe the following four words, can somewhat encapsulate, a guide to becoming a rural library leader. Being engaged, setting an example, being enthused, and embracing the community are all key elements of being a successful library leader.

Being engaged means a total acceptance of the full objectives of being a library director. In small towns, a vast majority of the public knows or knows of the library director. One must engage and accept, even relish that position. I personally am extremely proud of that position and take pride when I walk into a meeting and someone I do not know, says,”Hello, I know you; you’re the library director, right?” Anywhere I go or any meeting I attend I want that persona to be out front. I believe when people know you are engaged, even consumed by the service or product one provides, that acceptance, understanding, and even respect are given. That acceptance can go a long way in successful librarianship.

Similar to being engaged is setting an example. I had over 45 staffers, none of whom initially had any formal training as library workers, not undergrad or graduate level. I believe setting an example for them, in professional behavior, dress, and demeanor, allowed them to absorb the message a library seeks in its community. That is, we are smart, have abilities, want to serve, and are organized. We also are continually seeking ways to improve library activities, and to improve our own knowledge to better provide services to the taxpayers. It is that example set by the director that will consciously or subconsciously help mold the staff into the type of employees that make good library service and witness to the public that the library is here to serve. By setting an example of learning, being professional, listening to staff and the public’s ideas, and implementing thoughtful improvements, one is most probably on the path to being an effective leader.

I cannot say enough about enthusiasm. An enthusiastic director will be energetic, engaged, and will set good examples. When I speak at Rotary, Kiwanis, before the county commission, or just to someone in the aisle at the grocery store, I make sure my enthusiasm comes through, even on mundane, routine topics. I am animated, I smile, I joke, but most of all I let them know how much enthusiasm we  have for wanting to make their library the best it can be under the constraints provided.  I want them to know that constraints will not dampen our desire to improve constantly, to listen to ideas, and to implement better strategies for service. I want them to know that we will embrace their help if they wish to be engaged in providing a high quality library system.

Lastly, I believe in small or rural librarianship one can more easily embrace many segments of the community. By that, I mean being involved in community activities that are not necessarily just library oriented. Be a member, or be active in the chamber, school advisory committees, 4-H councilor, boy/girl scouts, Kiwanis/Altrusa, art guild, community theatre, historical commission, etc. Find ways for staff to participate in community projects as well. By embracing the community and its varied needs, some outside of the traditional library activities, one becomes part of the community as a whole, and not just the paid library director. Most library directors  will not have grown up in the community in which they direct and embracing the community goes a long way in substantiating that the library director cares, not just about the library but our community as a whole. One also can get a better understanding of the community needs when being involved providing opportunities for the library to expand or improve.

There is so much pride, self satisfaction and success that one can derive from being a good leader. Directing an important part of the communities services such as the library, gave me great joy. These criteria above served me and my community well, and I trust that your engagement, example, enthusiasm and embracement in some way will do the same.

John D. “Danny” Hales, Jr. is the retired director of the multi-county Suwannee River Regional Library System in Live Oak, Florida. Mr. Hales has been an active voice in the profession throughout his 39-year-long career, including serving on the Board of Directors of the Public Library Association, two terms as ALA Councilor, and Past President of the Florida Library Association, in addition to hundreds of state, regional, and national library committees. In 2010, he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Florida Library Association. He currently serves on the ALA Committee on Rural, Native, and Tribal Libraries of All Kinds.

The ALA Committee on Rural, Native, and Tribal Libraries of All Kinds addresses issues and challenges facing rural, native and tribal libraries of all kinds. It collaborates with other ALA units addressing the needs of rural communities, and serves as an advocate and partner with libraries serving rural, tribal, and native populations.

The Association for Rural & Small Libraries, Inc. (ARSL) is a network of persons throughout the country dedicated to the positive growth and development of libraries. ARSL believes in the value of rural and small libraries and strives to create resources and services that address national, state, and local priorities for libraries situated in rural communities. To learn more, please visit www.arsl.info.