Tuesday, August 7, 2018

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

Welcome back for Part II of my look at rural libraries and how they are essential for helping to bridge the rural-urban resource gap. In Part I, I looked at the history of libraries in rural spaces. In this post, I am going to look at the potential of rural libraries to help bridge the resource gap and some of the challenges that they face today.

A library is a tremendous asset to any community. As I have said before, it is more than just a building of books, it is a portal to the outside world, a window to experiences unknown to us, and the key to the closet that contains unparalleled knowledge. In a public library, you can access, free of charge, resources that can take you to a world beyond your own experiences and open doors that you never knew existed. The public library is truly one of our greatest government programs.

However, not every library is created equally and disparities in availability of materials exist across the various library systems that dot our landscape. According to the American Library Association, rural libraries are often the most underresourced, possessing a median of 1.9 full time librarian and occupying just 2,592 square feet, almost 10,000 square feet smaller than their urban and suburban counterparts. The average salary for a librarian in a rural library is a relatively low $28,508. Attracting top talent is also an issue, a 2014 study found that the average rural library has .9 librarians that hold a master's degree from an ALA accredited school.  In large part due to their staffing issues, rural libraries are also less likely to even be open with the most remote rural libraries only opening for 26 hours per week. To anyone who regularly reads this space, rural spaces being underresourced should perhaps come as little surprise.

Public libraries serve a key role as a connector to the world beyond our own experiences, a role even more pronounced in Rural America. According to the aforementioned 2014 study, the library is often the only free broadband internet resource in 70.3% of rural communities, this is especially important given the state of rural broadband and its relatively low availability in rural homes. As of 2015, only 55 percent of rural households were broadband subscribers.

However, people who rely on the local library as their sole source of broadband access may find themselves sorely disappointed. Internet speed in rural libraries also greatly lags behind that of its urban and suburban peers. According to the previously linked report from the ALA:
Libraries in communities of all sizes have improved their technological capacity in recent years. In 2014, for instance, 14.9 percent of rural libraries had subscribed Internet download speeds of 1.5 Mbps or less, compared with 43 percent that reported this was the case in 2010. Libraries overall have a median subscribed download speed of approximately 16 Mbps, with a high of 40 Mbps for city libraries, 25 Mbps for suburban outlets, and 15 Mbps for town locations. Rural libraries have the weakest capacity at a median of just 10 Mbps, falling well below the FCC’s broadband standard of 25 Mbps for home (not library or school) access, where bandwidth is divided by members of a single household rather than staff and patrons of an entire library. Furthermore, this is a fraction of the 100 Mbps goal set by the FCC for all libraries serving 50,000 people or less. Rural fringe libraries have the best broadband capacity at a median of 13 Mbps for downloads and 8.6 Mbps for uploads, showing that these libraries’ proximity to population centers makes them more likely to be able to take advantage of local infrastructure. Rural distant libraries stand at a median of 7.7 Mbps for downloads and 2.2 Mbps for uploads, while rural remote outlets stand at 6.7 Mbps and 1.0 Mbps, respectively.
For rural residents who rely on the local library for accessing the internet, the availability of internet is not only important because of the lack of broadband infrastructure in rural communities at large but also because of the expense associated with broadband internet subscriptions. Rural communities are largely more impoverished than their urban and suburban peers. An impoverished rural resident is going to be reliant on the public library to access the internet, especially if it's the only access point in their community. With many of our everyday activities being conducted online, not having access to the internet is a significant disadvantage in modern society. For example, a person without internet access may find themselves unable to apply for a job, which has a great impact on their ability to further their economic standing.

The ability to apply for jobs is not the only way that the internet helps to foster economic advancement. The ability to access high speed internet also allows a person to further their education by attending college online. Many colleges now offer online degree programs and courses at brick and mortar schools (such as a community college) are increasingly containing components that require a broadband internet connection to access. The inability to access broadband internet or even the ability to only access substandard broadband internet results in a barrier being erected that could hinder a person's ability to acquire the skills needed to apply for jobs that can help them break the cycle of poverty.

A poorly resourced public library also has a detrimental effect on younger people in the community, who may still be attending the brick and mortar public school system. I will use myself as an example. When I was in high school, I wrote a report on climate change. My high school's library had nothing on climate change so I had to peruse the county library system to find materials that could help me prepare my report.  I also did not have broadband internet access at home, this was the mid-2000s after all, and needed a place to conduct my research. The library branch in the closest town (of approximately 1,000 people) did not have a single book on climate change so I had to drive approximately 20 miles to the county seat to go to the main branch of the county library system. When I arrived there, I again found no books on climate change. As I stated in the Letter to the Editor that I linked to in Part I, this had a detrimental impact on my ability to produce a paper that met the standards that I had set for myself.

How do we address this gap? First we have to consider one possible cause of the problem, the bulk of library funding (approximately 80%, according to the previously linked 2014 report) comes from local governments with relatively little state or federal aid. This obviously puts low-income communities at a disadvantage because of the relatively little tax revenue that they would bring in. However, we can't assume that the local government would fund libraries if they had the means to do so. As Professor Pruitt wrote in September of 2017, Douglas County, Oregon, despite closing every single branch of their county's library system, opted to spend $250,000 in federal money on lobbying videos for the timber industry. There also has to be political will from the local communities to hold elected officials accountable.

You may ask about the federal aid mentioned in Part I. There have been some success stories from rural communities being able to expand services through grant funding through the Library Services and Technology Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1996 as a replacement for the Library Construction and Services Act. The LSTA awards grants to individual state library systems, which tend grants them to local library systems. However, these grants are often limited in scope and only cover certain projects. They do not typically cover operating expenses for the broader library.

In many communities, the reservoir of knowledge has run dry.  Right now, rural residents are forced to use libraries with substandard space, internet access, staffing, and hours of operation. This is unfair and creates another situation where people are penalized solely on the basis of where they live. Inequity in access to resources is a major problem in Rural America and it will be important to continue to work to address these issues so communities can move forward and be able to able to fully join the interconnected world of the 21st century.

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