A library’s impact upon their individual community is wide-ranging. Whether it’s introducing young children to storytimes and literacy, helping a teenager apply for their first job or aiding in an adult returning to school or the workforce, the library provides many educational and technical resources to patrons. The library is also a hosting place for informational or educational meetings as well as unique, entertaining classes. In rural communities, Kent District Library (KDL)
branches address community challenges and foster a community’s identity in smaller towns.
Sandy Graham, regional manager 1 for the Alto
and Engelhardt (Lowell)
branches, has worked in rural libraries for 37 years and is nearing retirement. Graham says one of the most utilized resources they provide to residents is Internet access.
“So much nowadays has to be done online just for your day-to-day things. If you want a plane ticket, it’s basically online. If you’re ordering something, it’s online. Our hotspots
are extremely popular out here. Our patrons can get them here at the Library, take them home and gain Internet access.”
Courtesy of Tyler Herbstreith
Although high-speed Internet seems like a necessity these days, it’s not always readily available in rural areas. It’s a disparity that was made even more evident in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. With spotty Internet causing troubles for school-aged children, remote workers and even jobseekers, the need for a reliable Internet connection is prevalent. For some rural residents, that reliable location is the nearest library.
“We’ve had quite a few people that come in, who have Internet service at home, but if they’ve got an important meeting or class, they will come here to our building to do it,” Graham says. “They want to make sure they don’t drop Internet or lose part of the instruction while they’re in the middle of the class. We’ve seen that quite a bit.”
Jennifer DeVault, director of library operations at KDL, says another popular resource at rural branches is borrowing movies.
“You see less and less movie rental stores, but we have DVDs you can pick up in theLlibrary. It doesn’t cost anything, but not everybody has access to streaming like Netflix or HBO.”
Libraries adapt to their patron’s needs, and for rural communities, farming is a huge industry. Graham says many library card holders look for audiobooks to listen to while on the tractor. Truckdrivers also utilize audiobooks while on long roadtrips.
While urban residents might have more options and places to complete tasks, meet up with friends or central locations like coffee shops, in rural areas, the central hub is often the library. As businesses are farther apart in more country areas, the central library location can be a convenient location for a wide range of activities.
“We’re not as close to some resources as a lot of other people are, so by having various options here at the branch, we can take care of a lot of things for people,” Graham says. “They can download books here, participate in free programming, if they want to keep their kids active in learning during the summer, they can drive 2 miles instead of 10 to do it.”
“Another thing that’s nice about the rural branches is we are smaller than the big ones, which means we’re able to take a little more time to do personal, one-on-one conversations,” Graham adds. “We’re able to hear what’s going on in their lives, and recommend the very services we have that can do that. We have more time to talk about what they read for pleasure, and say, ‘oh, you like this person. You should try this one as well.’”
DeVault says rural branches are frequently on Main Street within their respective small towns, increasing accessibility.
“That’s nice because those branches are walkable for families that may live in town, or are walkable from the school, so kids can come over and access free programming,” DeVault says.
The central location also enables these rural branches to double as community centers, says Graham.
“We unofficially tend to coordinate a lot of local activities. If you need to know what the Boy Scouts are doing, what the school is doing or what the churches are doing, we have a pretty good handle of what’s going on. We can make those connections between people.”
Courtesy of Tyler Herbstreith.
For some, those connections exist even outside of the library doors.
“It’s a closeness you can’t get in the big branches, that you can find here in these rural branches,” Graham says.
DeVault says that closeness and visibility is another unique aspect of rural branches.
“The managers in these branches are really seen in the community,” she says. “They’re involved in the local Rotary or Kiwanis, the service clubs and the Chamber. It’s different when you’re in an urban library and there are people everywhere. In the rural branches, you really are connected to the people that work in the library. They are people you see in the grocery store, the post office, and you become friends. The library gets out into the community more through the people.”
Graham says a former employee of hers used to refer to a library branch as the living room for the community, a place for everyone to gather.
“We have programs for all ages, but I tell people I think far and above, our crown jewel is our programming for our youngest patrons — our storytimes are fabulous,” Graham says. “Of course, it’s nearest and dearest to our hearts because it’s an introduction to literacy
. There’s also the socialization that comes in, so that is extremely important.”
DeVault says the WonderKnooks
also give families the ability to take their kids into the Library for physical activity, no matter the weather.
“It reminds me of sort of like a playplace, an inside playground. The activity has gone up in the branches since these WonderKnooks were installed.”
On the other end of the spectrum, programming for adults and seniors, like craft workshops, are also widely-attended.
“Things that are kind of a diversion from your everyday life or something where you’re learning something rather specific that matters to you,” are popular, says Graham. “Several of the branches had a program on foraging and gathering mushrooms this spring. We had about 40 people for that here in this small branch. This was a subject that really struck a chord with people, and you probably couldn’t get it anywhere else for free. Here at the Library, it was accessible to everyone, free of charge.”
Courtesy of Tyler Herbstreith
These free resources add up, says Graham. “At the bottom of your receipt, if you choose to print one out, it will tell you how much money you have saved by using your library card rather than going to a store and purchasing things,” she says.
Not only are you saving green, but you’re also being green — environmentally friendly in borrowing rather than buying.
“If you want to read the latest thriller, you’ll read it once and be done, so why spend the money and clutter up your house with it?,” Graham says.
As other local townships are landing in the news for downvoting millages and withdrawing support for local libraries, Graham believes strongly in the big impact libraries can have, especially in small towns.
“When you look at our history, one of the first things a town would set up was a library. There was a lot of pride taken in the fact that your town, your neighborhood, your community, had a library because it showed that you valued education. I think that still remains true,” she says. “A lot of controversy makes the news, but when you get down to the personal level, I think people still value us and want us.”
Graham feels supported by the community, and is grateful to see the continual growth of the library.
“We’re expanding with an express library into Grattan Township. The township offices are interested in getting a library, and this is getting our foot in the water, hopefully preparing for an actual building in the future,” Graham says.
Courtesy of Tyler Herbstreith
The express library operates like a self-service kiosk or vending machine. The cabinet of 200 books, the most popular materials, will be available for patrons to check out with their library cards in a convenient setting.
A lesser-known resource that DeVault says is useful is the Beyond Books Collection
, with equipment like camping gear, stargazing goggles, GoPro cameras, thermal cameras, tools and boardgames to borrow for free.
“If there’s something you might only need once, you won’t need to go to the store to purchase it, you can just borrow it from your local library,” she says.
Ultimately, Graham considers the library as the first place local residents (both new and longtime) should visit.
“If you’re new to the community, the Library is probably your best gateway in getting to learn your new community. We have the connections, we’re going to know what opportunities are out there, what civic activities are available, what electricians are out there, and that sort of thing. Just come on in, you’d be surprised how unintimidating we are. We love what we do, we’re proud of what we have and we want to share it with as many people as possible.”
Literacy Matters is a series focused on the importance of knowledge, community resources seeking to remove barriers to access and the value of our library systems to society. Literacy Matters is supported by Kent District Library.
Sarah briefly lived in Grand Rapids years ago, before moving back to Lansing, but that West Michigan love never really left her heart. Through her coverage on small businesses, arts and culture, dining, and anything mitten-made, she’s committed to convincing any and everyone -- just how great the Great Lakes state is. Sarah received her degrees in Journalism and Professional Communications. You can find her in a record shop, a local concert, or eating one too many desserts at a bakery. If by chance, she’s not at any of those places, you can contact her at [email protected]