Saturday, August 4, 2018

Rural public libraries are essential for bridging the gap - Part I

"A library should be a reservoir of knowledge, not just a building of books. We cannot expect to better our living conditions if we do not have a literate population. In a changing global economy, companies are increasingly looking for workers who can think critically and adapt to ever-changing situations, skills for which there is no greater incubator than a library."

At the risk of committing a social faux pas, I am quoting myself here. In 2013, I wrote a Letter to the Editor to protest the fact that my home county's rural library was the least funded in North Carolina, all while the county commissioners were among the highest compensated. The public library is one of the greatest inventions of our modern civilization. It is a place where everyone, regardless of their social class, has equal access to a litany of resources. A well-funded library can be a great asset for a community. However, rural libraries are often underfunded, underresourced, and unable to fully realize the potential that a great public library can provide.

This is the first of a two part post. Part I will explore the roots of rural libraries in the United States and what has led us to where we are now. Part II will be an exploration into the modern challenges of rural libraries and how they struggle to meet the needs of modern-day rural America.

Public libraries in the United States have their roots in New England. The earliest "public" libraries in the American colonies were supported by religious institutions and were usually only utilized by church parishioners. The idea of an independent, free-standing library didn't come to fruition until 1778 when the town of Franklin, Massachusetts voted to utilize a generous 118 book donation by town namesake Benjamin Franklin and allow residents of the town to check out the books free of charge. This library was not supported directly by taxation however and would not come under the auspices of the Town of Franklin until 1981. The first library to be supported by taxation opened in 1833 in Peterborough, New Hampshire. The unique governance structure of New England allowed for the easy spread of public libraries into the rural regions of those states. After all, there is very little unincorporated territory in New England and almost every inhabited area of the region is under the governance of some form of municipal government. This structure allowed residents of even the most outlying area to have access to the bountiful resources that a public library can offer. The legacy of this can be seen in the image below (sourced from here).

The concentration of rural public libraries in 2013. Courtesy of The Institute of Library and Museum Services.
It was a different story however for the rest of the country. In the latter part of the 19th century and into the 20th century, some states attempted to remedy this issue by having traveling libraries and temporarily housing the collections in general stores, post offices, and other spaces where people tended to congregate. However, this solution proved to be inadequate. In much of the country, which had a significant amount of unincorporated territory, only municipal governments could operate permanent libraries. By 1936, just over a century after the establishment of the first taxpayer supported library, two-thirds of rural counties still lacked a single one.

As time went on, states did loosen their laws to allow counties to open and operate their own library systems. However many counties lacked the ability to raise enough funds to adequately establish and fund a library system that could serve its most outlying communities.

In 1956, Congress recognized this problem when it passed the Library Services Act, which provided funds to states to establish and maintain rural library systems. At the time of the act's passage, the United States Office of Education found that 300 rural counties, representing 26 million Americans, lacked any access to a public library. It also found that an additional 50 million Americans had only "inadequate service." The LSA sought to remedy this issue by providing states with funding to build and maintain library systems in rural communities. In order to ensure that states used the funds for their intended purpose and to hold them accountable, every state that sought funding had to submit a plan to the Office of Education for how the funds would be used and receive approval before the funds could be dispersed.

By 1961, every state except for Indiana, had accepted funds from the program. Indiana rejected funding because its governor feared that residents of the state would be forced to read books selected by "Washington bureaucrats." The act however proved popular and effective. It was re-authorized in 1960 by a unanimous vote in the United States Senate and a wide margin in the House.

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy called for an expansion of the LSA to cover non-rural areas and to expand access to disadvantaged groups of all stripes. President Kennedy's call would later lead to the passage of the Library Construction and Service Act of 1964, which replaced the LSA and expanded eligibility for funding to include non-rural spaces. The LCSA has been amended and reauthorized and remains in effect today. It was notably amended in 1984 to allow for tribal communities to receive funding under the Act.

In Part II, I will explore the modern day challenges of rural libraries.

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