Small and Rural Libraries Discussion Paper
Small and Rural Libraries Discussion Paper
Three years ago, one of the authors traveled with his wife to a rural Midwestern U.S. town in northeastern Iowa for specialized medical treatment from a nationally-recognized doctor. Twice during the week, he visited the nearby local library. The small, though substantial, older building with a dated collection was staffed by one librarian and a part-time assistant whom he did not meet supported by a total budget of $60,000 (U.S.) including funds for materials, facilities, and personnel. One computer provided access to the Internet and limited, licensed information through a regional consortium. After leaving the city, they passed by two even smaller public libraries within a 30-minute drive.
Despite huge advances in technology during the last 40 years, he saw little difference between the information services at this small public library in 2004 from that experienced in 1966 at a small cultural center in the port city of Niigata, Japan. Now a thriving metropolis of nearly 2.5 million inhabitants and a hub of information technology like much of Japan, the then earthquake-damaged city lies to the northeast of Tokyo on the Japan Sea side of the island of Honshu, about a 3-hour bullet train ride from the capital city. In contrast to present-day Niigata, however, decades into the Information Age, large pockets of information poverty sadly still prevail globally in developed as well in developing countries and regions of the world.
Another writer encountered a similar experience in 2006 on his way to the Public Library Association Conference in Boston. Passing through a small town in northeastern Connecticut, he stopped at the local public library. Books were stacked everywhere; it was difficult to negotiate the very crowded aisles. He couldn't find anything because of the poor arrangement. It had no reference section and very few seats, but there was a small and crowded children's area. He could not find a catalogue or finding aid to the collection. The one visible computer was for staff, who during his visit had difficulty logging-in. In addition, two other libraries that he had expected to visit that day were closed, apparently because of lack of funding.
As requested by the Members Council Small and Rural Libraries Discussion Group, the authors developed this background paper to describe information needs of small public libraries around the world. A small or rural library is defined herein as a public or government library administrative unit whose legal service area population equals 25,000 or less. In preparation for the group's upcoming discussion on services required by the OCLC Global Collaborative, this paper purposes to describe the variability in current services quantitatively and qualitatively as well as the information requirements of small libraries.
So, whether in a rural state like Iowa, an urban one like Connecticut, a Japanese metropolis, or elsewhere around the globe, the dilemma is similar: how can small libraries adequately serve their users? Jeff Baskin, Director of the North Little Rock Public Library, succinctly summarized this disappointing state of affairs, "Rural libraries comprising some 80% of the total worldwide are dying. We must find ways to help small libraries better serve the information and continuing education needs of their users" (Baskin, 2005).
After many years of visiting libraries on most continents, former Members Council delegate and President of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) Christine Deschamps summarized the situation by saying that most libraries around the world still function in a difficult environment with a shortage of information. As a former member of the OCLC Board of Trustees, Madame Deschamps participated in the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2000 and later reported on it to Council. She concluded, "The World Summit on the Information Society is only the beginning of a process to make sure that people across the globe have the information they need for their lives, prosperity, and freedom" (Deschamps, 2004, §9).
World Library Data and Population Demographics
Library success factors
These factors were applied to the statistical compilation of 39 countries pulled from the LibEcon database. Europe is heavily represented in this dataset, but Korea, Japan, Canada, USA, Mexico, Australia and New Zealand among others also are included. One success element (program attendance) was eliminated because it was not tracked globally. Success factors for these LibEcon libraries were measured not only for the per capita legal service area but also registered users. Because services per capita for registered users are much lower than for the entire legal service areas, they are probably a better indicator of effectiveness.
In addition, per capita income is highest in Denmark for both the legal service area and registered users ($67.26 and $183.56 respectively). Income is lowest in Mexico per LSA ($.51) and in Portugal for registered users ($3.66). Materials expenditures per capita LSA are again highest in Denmark ($9.98) and in Switzerland for registered users ($32.73). Turkey and Mexico are tied with the lowest amounts in each category. (See Attachment 1 for a detailed global breakdown.)
U.S. Library Demographics
Related to the percentage of total population served, however, the figures are almost reversed; small and rural libraries serve only 17% of all people in the United States. This is another variant of the classic "80/20" rule: in the United States, small and rural libraries comprise 78% of the all libraries yet serve only 17% of the population. Small libraries in the Northeast serve only one third of its total population base; the Midwest serves one fourth. The South (10%) and the West (8%) serve considerably fewer people number-wise and percentage-wise. Ranges for population of legal service area in this group run as high as 90% in Maine to a low of .4% in Maryland and an almost equally low 1% in Florida, North Carolina and California.
As for the density factor, states with the lowest number of libraries per 100,000 inhabitants predominately are in the Midwest (18.7), closely followed by the West (16.2). States with an unusually high factor of libraries per 100,000 people are Nebraska (51), Alaska (44), Kansas (40), and Vermont and Iowa (32), all having relatively large rural populations.
Quantitative success factors
Moreover, the authors recognize a substantial difference between similar per capita figures when the population size varies dramatically between, for example, a large town and a small village. In what we call the "critical mass factor" of small and rural libraries, similar per capita expenditures for library services materially disadvantage the small library user in a less populated region because of low, aggregated funding, resources, and staffing.
Other quantitative factors
The only service area in which this group is above the regional norm for all libraries is that of print materials. The Midwest has the highest rate, with 5 print materials per capita, but the range runs from a high of 7.7 in Kansas to a low of 2 in Tennessee. Anecdotal evidence suggests that small and rural libraries may discard less than all public libraries as a whole.
E-usage per capita is highest in the West (1.4). The range runs from a high of 2.5 per capita in Alaska to a low of .4 in Maine and Mississippi. This low usage in Maine presents an intriguing case of libraries serving 90% of the state's population apparently without relying heavily on e-resources. Reference transactions per capita show the similar lack of variance as program attendance, ranging regionally from 0.6 to 1.3. The region with the highest reference transactions per capita is East North Central (1.0), and lowest in East South Central (0.5). Individual states per capita reference transactions are highest in the District of Columbia (2.0) and lowest in Alaska (.5). (See Attachment 3 for a detailed breakdown.)
Small and Rural Library Information Needs
D.J. and V.M. Hobbs succinctly summarize and evaluate U.S. progress toward universal telecommunications service and advocated going beyond telephone connectivity to meet rural information needs (Hobbs, n.d.). They drew the following conclusions:
Because of diminished telecommunication and computer penetration, at this point the backbone of information service to rural areas is still the public library. The library is instrumental in fulfilling the two most important information needs of rural America: education and technology (Sanchuk, 2004). For many rural residents, libraries remain the sole provider of free Internet access (Flatley, 2001). The rural library is a major contributor to solving the two largest problems caused by the digital divide: education for adults and access. "Libraries provide the most extensive network for public Internet access and are an important source of computer assistance" (Mossberger, 2003, p. 48.)
The data suggest two areas to explore.
1. Maximizing the power of collaboration. The small and rural libraries cannot improve their financial and service plights alone; for most vendors, it is simply too costly to sell products and services to these small individual libraries. Leveraging the cooperative efforts of consortial arrangements could collectively enhance and strengthen their services. The library would thus function as partner or collaborator in providing services at a more local level. Some examples of types of collaborative efforts already under way by consortia and other groups (not necessarily OCLC) that address the issues of education and technology are as follows:
2. Facilitating and promoting efforts to digitize local collections. All libraries, no matter what size, have unique collections. Digitizing those special collections will increase not only their contribution, but also their users' access to such information as local history, genealogy and other unique content. Digitization efforts can often get started with very little up-front investment and are scalable depending upon resources.
Discuss ways in which the OCLC Cooperative can enhance collaboration to provide improved access to resources, and can facilitate digitization services for small and rural libraries.
Baskin, Jeff. (2005). Presentation on "Small and Rural Libraries." OCLC Members Council, 20 October 2005.
Deschamps, Christine. (2004). "A challenge to libraries and the World Summit on the Information Society discussed." Summary of the OCLC Members Council, 8 February 2004. Retrieved 2 May 2007.
Flatley, Robert. (2001). "Rural librarians and the Internet: A survey of usage, attitudes, and impact." Rural Libraries 21 (1): 7-23.
Hobbs, Daryl J. and Vicki M. Hobbs. (n.d.) Rural America: Assessing the Extent of and Demand for Telecommunications Infrastructure in Rural America. Organization for the Promotion and Advancement of Small Telecommunications Companies. Retrieved 30 April 2007.
LaRue, Jamie. (2007). Comments in the Small and Rural Libraries Discussion Group at the Québec City Members Council, 5 February 2007.
LIBECON Project. http://www.libecon.org/default.asp
Mossberger, Karen, Caroline J. Tolbert, and Mary Stansbury. (2003). Virtual Inequality: Beyond the Digital Divide, Georgetown University Press, Washington, D.C.
NCES. (2006). Public Libraries in the United States: Fiscal Year 2004.
Rosser-Hogben, Debra M. (2004). "Meeting the challenge: An overview of the information needs of rural America." Rural Libraries 24 (1): 25-49.
Sanchuk, Patricia. (2004). "Information needs in rural America." Rural Libraries 24 (2): 41-60.