Partnerships as the Key to the Future of Rural Library Services to Older Adults

Noah Lenstra /

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, public librarians grappled with the challenge of how to continue supporting the types of social connections they had, pre-pandemic, facilitated through engaging programming and inviting spaces. For many older adults living in rural communities, the public library had become a “de facto senior center,” a space to go to see friends, see familiar library staff, and form community. As rural libraries worked to continue supporting the social needs of their older populations during the pandemic, they were faced with the challenges of limited internet availability, and limited digital literacy among older adults.

To understand how rural librarians grappled with this reality, my colleagues and I sent a questionnaire to 1,123 randomly selected small and rural public libraries in spring 2021, to learn how they supported social connectedness among older adults during COVID-19. There were 353 usable responses, creating a response rate of 32.4%. More information on methods can be found in Lenstra, Oguz, Winberry, & Wilson (under review).

The research found that libraries leaned heavily on existing partnerships to continue supporting older adults, and saw deepening those partnerships as key to the future of library services for this population.

Among the 76% of respondents who reported that during the pandemic they had offered “programs or services that were designed to include older adults within your community,” the most commonly offered service was the “Cross-promotion of programs or services offered by other organizations in the community, specifically designed to include older adults” (Table 1). From the responses, it also appears that rural librarians utilized a broad range of other techniques to continue supporting social connections during the pandemic: check-in/conversation services, homebound materials delivery, socially distant outdoor programming, and correspondence programming were all reported by over 20% of rural librarians who said they had offered programs designed to include older adults during the pandemic.

n

%

Program Type

159

59%

Cross-promotion of programs or services offered by other organizations in the community, specifically designed to include older adults

155

58%

Homebound material services delivery, without interaction with patron (e.g., delivery of materials are delivered to the home or to the senior care community)

145

54%

Virtual programming with a social / discussion component, led by library personnel

143

53%

Homebound material services delivery, with interaction with patron (e.g., delivery of materials to the home or to the senior care community)

134

50%

Check-in / conversation services (e.g., library workers call library "regulars" to check in with them)

124

46%

Virtual programming without a social/discussion component (e.g., release of a YouTube video without interactivity)

104

39%

Virtual programming with a social / discussion component, led by non-library personnel (e.g., partners or participants)

93

35%

Virtual community set up by library (e.g., a Facebook group set up around a book club)

87

32%

Social distanced in-person programming outside the library space (e.g., outdoors or elsewhere within the community)

78

29%

Correspondence programming, facilitated in whole or in part by the library (e.g., pen pal programs, or library distributes Valentine's Day cards to older adults)

63

23%

Other volunteer opportunities for older adults in the community

55

20%

Social distanced in-person programming inside the library space

52

19%

Hybrid (in-person + virtual) programming with a social / discussion component

23

9%

Virtual meeting spaces that can be reserved / used by patrons

19

7%

Facilitated mentorship program(s) between older adults and younger community members (e.g., virtual or over-the-phone tutoring)

To assess what small and rural libraries see as priority areas in terms of serving older adults going forward, three questions were asked: two related to the strengths of different types of relationships before and during the pandemic, and one about what respondents saw as priorities going forward.

Over 90% of the libraries (n=322) reported a strong or somewhat strong relationship “between library staff and older adult patrons”; over 80% indicated there existed a strong or somewhat strong relationship “between the library and older adults in the community.”

But only about 50% of the libraries reported a strong or somewhat strong relationship “between the library and local agencies that specialize in aging” prior to the pandemic. In other words, respondents reported the strongest relationships between library staff and library patrons, and weakest relationships between the library and external organizations. The strength of these relationships tended, in general, to stay about the same during the pandemic.

Given the fact that respondents reported having the weakest relationships with “local agencies that specialize in aging” it is unsurprising that the most frequently identified priority area going forward was building “stronger community partnerships.” The next most frequently ranked priority areas going forward were, in order of frequency: better technology, library advocacy for digital inclusion, opportunities to acquire ideas, and grant funding.

We are continuing to analyze this dataset, including the extraordinarily rich open-ended responses provided by rural librarians, and we’d invite your feedback. Reach out to me at lenstra@uncg.edu.

A larger conversation about these results will also be held at the 2021 meeting of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries, where rural librarians Patrick Bodily (Library Manager, Independence Public Library, OR), Taylor Atkinson (Executive Director, Union County Library, SC), and Jane Napier Ramos (Director, Sherburne Memorial Library, VT) will be joining me for a session entitled Supporting Social Ties Among Older Adults During COVID-19 & Thereafter.

Acknowledgements

This research was undertaken by professors Noah Lenstra and Fatih Oguz, with student support from Lindsey Wilson, at University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Public librarians and state library staff informed the design of the final questionnaire.

References

Lenstra, N., Oguz, F., Winberry, J., & Wilson, L. (under review). Supporting Social Connectedness of Older Adults During the Covid-19 Pandemic: The Role of Small and Rural Public Libraries. Public Library Quarterly.


Noah Lenstra is an assistant professor of Library and Information Science at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is an active member of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries and in 2016 started Let’s Move in Libraries.