February 17, 2018

Small Library Conference Getting Bigger

The Association for Rural & Small Libraries (ARSL) conference in Raleigh, NC, saw an attendance of 379, matching the organization’s largest gate counts from back when it partnered with the Bookmobile association, and topping any previous independent conference. The crowd included attendees from 41 states, including Alaska, about one third of them made possible via scholarships from their state libraries. More than half—some 215—were first time attendees.

Among the organizational highlights of the conference was the announcement of ARSL’s tax exempt status, attained in the past year, and the location of next year’s conference (the Omaha/Council Bluffs area on the Iowa/Nebraska border, according to incoming ARSL president Andrea Berstler). A Gates Foundation-funded consultant is helping the group to organize further. That’s only one of many Gates shout-outs that ran throughout the conference, not least for their cosponsorship of LJ’s Best Small Library of America awardthis year’s winner, Julie Hildebrand, director, Independence, KS, Public Library, delivered a keynote address which highlighted the benefits the library has seen from receiving the award, including a half a million dollar endowment. [Note: nominations for this year’s Best Small Library of America award must be postmarked November 2—Ed.]

Other ARSL announcements included partnerships with NASA, the Jet Propulsion Lab, and a coalition looking for support for a bill to increase broadband Internet access. Taken together with the Pushing The Limits grants, funded by the National Science Foundation specifically for small and rural libraries, it is obvious that, as outgoing president Becky Heil noted, the STEM community is taking a strong interest in small and rural libraries.

As to what small and rural libraries are most interested in, a standing-room only crowd at David Singleton, director of Charlotte-Mecklenburg, NC, Library’s presentation, Surviving (and Thriving) During Challenging Times indicates that librarians feel the challenges are far from over. Among the takeaways from Singleton’s speech is that 80 percent of patron interactions fall into a few basic categories, and training every staff member to be able to handle these both increased customer satisfaction and increased the value of credentialed librarians as specialists when they really were needed. While many of those categories are things like paying fees and fines and checking out or renewing materials, they also include “recommend a good book,” So Charlotte-Mecklenburg has trained every employee in Reader’s Advisory, including the use of tools like NoveList. The biggest challenge, said Singleton, was getting adult librarians comfortable recommending children’s books.

Also attracting standing-room crowds was Turning Your Library into a Community Anchor. Other events tackled today’s hot button topics in librarianship, from ebooks in libraries to “Curation vs. Creation,” a two part workshop presented by Kieran Hixon of the Colorado State Library and Judy Van Acker of the Colorado Library Consortium. Incorporating themes from the recent R2 conference, in which both took part, the workshop was notable for Hixon’s contention that Maker Spaces and other community-created content are not only possible for small and rural libraries, they’re easier for them than for larger systems, in part because small libraries have fewer procedures and committees standing between them and change.

There will be funds available for small and rural libraries who want to follow Hixon and Van Acker’s advice: Susan Hildreth, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), said in her keynote address that Maker Spaces will be an IMLS funding priority in 2013-2014. She also emphasized the upcoming Connect to Compete national advertising campaign, which will require libraries to meet increased demand for digital literacy training, and The Edge, which will launch an online tool for national benchmarks for public access to technology services in 2013 (The Edge was also touted by Ron Carlee, COO of the International County/City Management Association, in his keynote presentation). But it’s not all tech-centric; Hildreth also said IMLS wants to fund pilots on libraries contributing to quality of life.

ARSL’s conference is extremely user friendly, from arranging (with the help of the State Library of North Carolina) most meals for attendees, to providing links to all programs and handouts, many of which were available before the conference even began, to a directory of all attendees’ contact information so they can easily follow up on their newly networked connections. And even at pushing 400 people, the conference is still small enough to easily make those new connections to take home.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz (mschwartz@mediasourceinc.com) is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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