WebJunction at the Association for Rural & Small Libraries Conference

WebJunction /
WebJunction team at info table at ARSL
WebJunction team members, (l to r) Andrew Harbison, Jennifer
Peterson and Brooke Doyle

It’s no secret that the Association for Rural & Small Libraries (ARSL) annual conference is one of our favorite conferences. WebJunction staff have been attending the conference since 2006, and we’re grateful to have been able to partner with ARSL on numerous projects and events over the years. Three members of our team had the opportunity to travel to this year’s conference, hosted in Wichita, Kansas in September.

Inaugural ARSL Award Winners

Unite & Ignite, this year’s conference theme, was evident throughout the multiple networking opportunities, at meals, keynote events, and in the exhibit areas, and of course, in the over 80 engaging sessions presented by practitioners or supporters of small and rural libraries across the country. Various conference themes surfaced, including a focus on community engagement and partnerships, emphasizing the value of community-based approaches in service design, networking, and advocacy. Additional themes emerged around innovation in smaller libraries dealing with budget constraints, and throughout many discussions on the unique challenges rural libraries face, particularly in relation to book bans, censorship, and intellectual freedom. And, not surprisingly, there were discussions about the growing impact of AI in libraries, including time-saving applications and reaching new audiences through podcasting and social media applications. A definite conference highlight was the ceremony honoring the winners of the Inaugural ARSL Awards and the 2023 Best Small Library in America, awarded to Page Public Library (AZ) by Library Journal and Ingram Library Services.

  • Solo Librarian of the Year Winner - Barbara Rehmeyer, Liberty Library in Liberty, Maine. (Learn more)
  • Innovative Service Award Winner - Sherry Scheline, Donnelly Public Library, Donnelly, Idaho. (Learn more)
  • Equity Champion Award Winner - Heather Hutto, Montfort & Allie B. Jones Bristow Public Library, Bristow, Oklahoma. (Learn more)
  • Distinguished Service Award Winner - Kieran Hixon, Colorado State Library, Florence, Colorado.

Our new WebJunction Director, Andrew Harbison, along with Brooke Doyle and Jennifer Peterson, had the great fortune of meeting many of the attendees at our WebJunction info table and at the session Brooke and Jennifer presented.

Libraries as Social Connectors: Strategies for Deepening Community

Jennifer Peterson and Brooke Doyle presented Libraries as Social Connectors: Strategies for Deepening Community Engagement to a full house of roughly 160 attendees. The session explored how social isolation and loneliness, highlighted by the Surgeon General’s recent Advisory on Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation, impacts roughly half of all adults (data from before COVID!), and how libraries are positioned to design programs and services that intentionally enhance community social infrastructure and create opportunities for deeper and more meaningful social connections. Perhaps the most startling data point shared in the Surgeon General’s report is this one, indicating that the lack of social connection can be as dangerous to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

As we continue to study this important topic and learn more about the ways libraries are creating opportunities for social connection and deeper community engagement, Jennifer and Brooke presented our learning again, in a January 2024 WebJunction webinar, Libraries Foster Social Connection: Responding to the Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.

Please check out these resources from our ARSL session, Libraries as Social Connectors: Strategies for Deepening Community:

What are you already doing to foster social connection at your library?

In our session, we asked attendees to shout out some of the ways they are fostering social connection at their library, and here’s a summary of the fantastic programs and approaches shared.

  • Question of the week on a bulletin board or white board in the library
  • Community Conversations – e.g., The Lighthouse in the Library program at North Liberty Library, Iowa
  • Community-wide events – e.g., closing the street for a block party
  • Book clubs
  • Attendees sharing ideas during ARSL session
    Attendees share ideas at ARSL session
  • Storytime – with “stay and play” time afterwards, for caregivers and kids to connect further OR keep storytime space open even when no program scheduled, so families can gather and not have to worry about being loud. An interactive indoor playmat is great for this.
  • Walking the patron to the correct department to get their question answered, and introduce them by name to the staff person you’re connecting them to, and summarize need, so patron feels heard and welcome
  • Food pantry in lobby or other library space
  • Puzzle or coloring table
  • Community Swaps – including clothing and kitchen items
  • A patron had recently lost her spouse and was feeling lonely. She trusted the library enough to share this and asked if they could help by providing a space and time for folks to gather to play Dominoes. It’s turned into a wonderful social and supportive gathering for many.
  • Paws for Reading and other animal-based interventions. See WebJunction article, Are Dogs the New Library Cat?
  • Dog Parade (we’ve heard of some folks using pet parades as fundraisers as well!)
  • Drop-in with games for informal gatherings, great for teens, especially with snacks!
  • Touch a Truck event, with police, fire, paramedics, etc.
  • Homeschool Hangout
  • Grief support group
  • At the beginning of the school year, consider supporting schools to host “home visits” at the library, especially those new to the community, so the library can be a part of their introduction
  • Pokemon Gym – hosted as a tournament

We hope these ideas have given you some inspiration to think about additional ways you can be intentional about designing opportunities for social connection at your library. Is there a group in your community that could use some intentional focus on social connection? How can you begin to invite them in?

Ignite Your Meetings

We also had the fortunate opportunity to attend another ARSL session, Ignite Your Meetings: Bringing All Voices to the Table, showcasing fantastic approaches to facilitating meetings and other events. Presenters Erin Suda & Katrina Carabba, from Whatcom County Library System in Washington, offered to share their valuable session handout (pdf) with us, to provide you with additional tools and activities to explore. Bring equity and meaningful engagement to your meetings and programs, no matter the size or purpose.

WebJunction webinar

On 4 January 2024 we presented: Libraries Foster Social Connection: Responding to the Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation, a webinar to further explore the important work libraries are doing to address social isolation and loneliness in their communities.

View webinar recording

ARSL 2024 in Springfield Massachusetts

And mark your calendars for next year’s ARSL conference, in Springfield, MA, September 11-14, 2024!