Know Thy Community: Tips for Rural Library Directors

In a WebJunction webinar, Jennifer Pearson shared her experience and advice for rural library directors.

Erin M. Schadt /

If the recent webinar Beyond the Job Description: Ten Practical Tips for the Rural Library Director could be summed up in one sentence, it might just be: "Make sure you know your community and that your community knows you."

Jennifer Pearson, Director, Marshall County Memorial Library (TN) and Association for Rural & Small Libraries board member, hit on this point consistently through all ten of those practical tips, and as she shared her own experience as director of a library in a community that she's not from. "The first two questions people asked me: where do you go to church? Who are your people?"

While these questions will vary depending on your location, no matter where you are, she emphasized that passion for your community and library will "make the public library an integrated hub of the community."

While this webinar was aimed at library directors, there are takeaways for anyone who works in libraries. Before watching the free webinar recording, I highly recommend downloading the chat (which is rich with discussion) and downloading and working through the Learner Guide, which will help you put these tips into action.

Ten Practical Tips:

1. What are your community's needs? How can the library meet them?

Pearson made it clear that buy-in from your community is key to you and your library's success. "You come into this job with all sorts of ideas … but it's not about what you want … it's about what your community wants and needs from you, and you can't assume that you know what they want or they need."

She suggested several ways to get to know what your community wants (see slide at right), and gave some concrete tips for how to follow through on these steps. In the webinar's chat, attendees shared many suggestions for who your partners in the community could be, including the senior center, Chamber of Commerce, historical society, United Way and local businesses.

"If you get feedback from your community we want x, y, z and you are already doing x, y, and z, then take a look at how you are telling your community about what you are doing, because they are obviously not hearing it," says Pearson.

2. Don't try to do everything at once.

Pearson fully admitted she's guilty of this one (who isn't?), but says it's all about making a list of priorities based on community feedback and your own assessment, figuring out quick wins you can initiate right away, and then thinking about medium- and long-range things you want to do. These should be initiatives you can actually do with the resources you have or have confidence you can get, along with a few long-term aspirational goals.

3. Stuff takes time

Pearson characterizes this tip as "another cautionary tale to myself." And to keep in mind that "Deep changes, especially mind shift changes, take a long time. Building partnerships take time." The key piece is taking time to establish trust from stakeholders, community and staff, in order to build a following and build your vision.

4. Figure out your staff

Pearson spent time explaining her experience coming into a library, assessing the culture, and figuring out what culture was right for her and for her staff. She says you should do this almost immediately. She also shared how she assessed individual staff members, what they are good at, bad at, passionate about and want to learn more about; steps that are important for any new director.

"You have to get out there. Your most important job as the director is to be an advocate for the library in the community. You've got to be a joiner."

5. Make yourself known to your community

Though getting out into the community is something that comes easily to Pearson, she acknowledged that's not the case for everyone, but nevertheless, "you have to get out there. Your most important job as the director is to be an advocate for the library in the community. You've got to be a joiner."

She gave many suggestions for organizations to connect with and ways to connect outside the library, and attendees shared what they have found successful, including one person who said that "Using 'lieutenants' to represent the library to the public also spreads the library's influence, and grooms library leaders and advocates."

6. Ask for Help

Pearson advises you create a list based on people you trust, needs you have and influencers in the community; she also gave suggestions about who that might include.

7. Don't bulldoze your way in

"When you're new and you have lots of ideas and you are really excited about them, sometimes you can get over eager to implement them, but remember, you're a politician. As a library director, you are a politician. You have to understand what's going on around you in the library and community. You have to listen. You have to see what needs to be done, who needs to be talked to and how you need to talk to them."

Pearson gave good examples of how knowing what's going on in your community can affect the library, and other things to keep in mind as you work to implement your vision.

8. You win some. You lose some.

Pearson says to win you need to be prepared (know that you are asking the right people and how to talk to those people) and ask for the right things at the right time.

When you lose and you're going to lose to "take every no and figure out why it was a no." Figure out how to turn it into a yes, or to put it on the back burner or take it off the stove entirely.

9. Own your successes. And your mistakes.

"When you succeed, the most important thing to do is to celebrate it and to tell people," says Pearson. She also advises figuring out why it worked so you can replicate the success, and always acknowledging everyone who helped you.

Not everything is a success, of course, and Pearson provides advice on how to learn from a failure.

10. Whether you like it or not … the library is a reflection of YOU

In case you're wondering, Pearson clarifies, "And I mean you, the person. The library director." She says it's critical to articulate a clear vision and be able to state it to anyone who asks, and every time you talk about the library.

Pearson took plenty of time to respond to questions in chat and, keep in mind, this article is just a summary, so make sure to view the webinar recording at your convenience to get much more advice on all of these tips.

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