March 19, 2018

Lessons from Small Libraries: They’re Not Intimidated by the Present, or the Future | Editorial

“An american library horror story with a Happy Ending”: that’s the tagline on the winning application submitted for LJ’s 2012 Best Small Library in America Award. In today’s library world, with shrinking budgets, staff, and hours, we all understand the horror story. It’s the happy ending that’s difficult to envision.

In effect, however, all 30 nominations for Best Small Library in America represent happy endings, even for those that didn’t make it to the winner’s circle. What’s amazing about all these libraries is not only their stories of triumph over adversity but their ingenuity, can-do spirit, and constant cycle of innovation.

Over the last few months, we’ve all been subject to the litany of retrenchments, as well as fears expressed by some in the field that the best is over and that libraries can’t withstand the myriad challenges facing them: too little money, yes, but also hurdles posed by ebooks, social media, mobile technology, and more. The applications for Best Small Library in America, sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for libraries serving populations under 25,000, show that there are plenty of librarians out there who aren’t listening to the worriers or naysayers.

If you read the story of this year’s winner, Independence Public Library (IPL), KS (see p. 20–23), you’ll learn how the staff revived a “dying library” by breaking out of their “box of isolation,” as Director Julie Hildebrand put it in her nomination. In just a year and a half, they have turned the library around on all fronts, in part by reaching out to individuals and partners to deliver programs and services that bring the community into the library.

To address the budget gap, they applied for numerous grants and awards, including this one. IPL’s YA library clerk, Allison Merritt, heard about this award on a WebJunction webinar on “Innovations from America’s Best Small Libraries.” (There’ll be another later this year.) The library also has embraced the OCLC Geek the Library campaign to strengthen advocacy and successfully grow the budget.

IPL also found, says Hildebrand, “that technology is part of the solution [for] a dying library.” They use social networking—Facebook, blogs, Twitter, Tumblr—for “cost-effective marketing” to engage the community. The statistics are truly remarkable: the library Facebook page went from 9,556 views in all of 2010 to 106,695 in the first nine months of 2011. In addition to the 50 PCs in the library, IPL lends laptops for in-library use as well. That came about, wrote Hildebrand, after the library began providing laptops for people in wheelchairs or on mobility scooters and received complaints of reverse discrimination. The solution: more laptops.

Both Decatur Public Library, TX, and Dover Town Library, MA, the two other finalists for this year’s Best Small Library in America Award, also describe an array of solutions that sustain and expand library services. Both towns have about 6000 residents and both libraries have an outsize impact, like IPL. Decatur PL helped create the North Texas Libraries Consortium, which provides an affordable Evergreen open source catalog and Amigos courier service for 14 small, rural libraries. Decatur PL also steers the seven-library Wise County Library Association, wrote Director Cecilia Barham, and has brought in grants that benefit all members.

Dover Town Library, wrote Beth Gallaway, assistant director of Haverhill Public Library, MA, in support of the nomination, “provide[s] both the comfort of America’s living room, the genteel charm of afternoon tea…with a slick [tech] bar in lieu of a reference desk, a video gaming alcove tucked under the stairs, and the library’s entire CD collection ripped to an in-house iTunes server for music previews and general enjoyment.” There are classes for digital storytelling, creating killer blogs, podcasts, and videos, all in a space that combines the best of favorite destinations: gardens, the Apple store, bookstores, museums.

In these economically and technologically challenging times, these small libraries, with staffs that range from seven to 12, can teach us a lot about dedication and the courage to try new things. They’re not intimidated by the present, or the future. They provide lessons for us all.

Francine Fialkoff, Editor-in-Chief

Francine Fialkoff About Francine Fialkoff

Francine Fialkoff ( spent 35 years with LJ, and 15 years at its helm as Editor and Editor-in-Chief. For more, see her Farewell Editorial.

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  1. Small libraries, and their directors/leaders/managers, are a LOT closer to the community than large multi-branch behemouths. They are the ones who can truly be flexible and who, to use an awful cliche I used to hear, “have their finger on the community’s pulse”. They MUST be engaged.