I grew up in a small town in Kansas that, according the Washington Post in 2018, is one of the 10 most middle of nowhere places in the country. I have a tendency to pull this fact out a lot because it helps me explain where I come from and where I ultimately hope to end up someday. Growing up in a small town is a large part of why I hope to return to a rural area to work as a librarian upon completion of my degrees at Simmons University.
It may be hard for some to understand why this is my career goal, especially with a growing rural-urban divide that polarizes and misrepresents rural America. However, rural areas have inherent value and rural libraries and librarians have an important role to play. So, here are 4 reasons I want to be a rural librarian.
Rural libraries are a valuable resource
To be fair, libraries are a valuable resource in any place, be it city or small town; but as Margo Gustina noted in the article, “Critical Optimism: Reimagining Rural Communities Through Libraries.” , “many rural communities see their local library as the last civic, cultural, or service organization in town.” This puts a lot of weight on the shoulder of librarians, but as Gustina notes, it also offers opportunity and possibility.
Beyond being key organizations in the community, libraries in rural areas provide key services such as internet access. Rural areas often fall behind other parts of the country when it comes to access to quality broadband, but libraries almost always offer their patrons free internet access in areas where it may otherwise be difficult to get connected. According to the Institute for Museum and Library Services, 99.2% of libraries provide public internet access, and expansion of broadband access to areas in need is one of IMLS’s priority areas.
The role and value of rural libraries can be further explored in an October 2020 infographic from IMLS that highlights the services that rural libraries provide to 30 million Americans.
I want to be a part of the “Brain Gain”
There continues to be the notion that there is a “brain-drain” from rural areas to urban centers which is perpetuated by the notion that small towns are a place you get out of or a place you get trapped in. Journalist, National Book Award finalist, bestselling author, and Kansan Sarah Smarsh challenges that notion, explaining “something special is happening in rural America.” Smarsh cites a variety of studies in her 2019 New York Times opinion piece; but the one that has stuck with me the most is that rural America is actually experiencing a “brain gain” and attracting early and mid-career residents, some of whom are drawn back to rural areas and others who are settling there for the first time. With two masters degrees, experience living in rural area and a city, and a desire to make a career and a home in a rural area, I want to be a part of this brain gain and help rural communities flourish.
I want to be a generalist
Since I’ll be graduating in about a year, I’ve started looking just casually at job listings; and I’ve noticed that for jobs in cities, suburban areas, or larger library systems with multiple branches, youth service librarian positions are more specific: children’s librarian, teen librarian, or the occasional tween librarian. Meanwhile, small libraries or those in rural areas may have only one or two children’s or youth services librarian who are responsible for all ages. I’ve known for a long time that I’m interested in doing multiple things rather than specializing in a specific age group or service area. I want to do collection development and programming for all ages. One of the things that I see as appealing about working in a smaller library and working with multiple age groups is that ideally over the course of my career, I can see young people through multiple stages of their library use from early literacy development to high school graduation.
I desire a sense of community
This is perhaps the most intangible of the reasons I want to be a youth services librarian in a rural area, especially given that libraries are truly a community institution regardless of where they’re located. However, having grown up in a small town, I truly value the community that was created where adults in the community were visible and accessible for young people. For example, my youth services librarian was also an active volunteer with the local 4-H program in my town. Community leaders from my town attended sporting events, high school theater performances, and gave their time in myriad ways even if they didn’t have kids of their own participating in these events. While a community environment can be cultivated anywhere, I’ve yet to experience a local community that matches those I’m familiar with from growing up in a small town. I want to be a part of a community like that.
I’d love to hear more about people’s own professional goals. Where do you want to be an information professional: a city or a small town? A public library, an academic institution, a special library, or somewhere completely different? If you’re from a rural area or want to work in a rural area someday, let me know your thoughts on rural librarianship in the comments.
Macy Davis is a second-year student at Simmons University in the MA in Children’s Literature/MS in Library and Information Sciences dual degree program. She’s gearing up for the spring semester and checking out more books than she can read from the Brookline Public Library. You can find her on Twitter @bookishlybright or through her personal blog.