Rural librarians and library workers operate on a smaller scale to achieve the same objectives as librarians working in larger urban systems: to meet the information needs of the communities they serve and to remain relevant, contributing members of library communities. They must be resourceful, employing unique information skills to obtain professional development and to best serve their communities while overcoming budgetary and geographical constraints. Sometimes they must band together to pool resources. A potential gap in LIS research, much can be learned from the creativity and tenacity of rural librarians.
One major challenge rural library workers face at conferences is learning the fine art of interpreting session contents and translating them into applicable information. The rural librarian is an expert at sizing down great ideas and at understanding whether a program initiated at an urban library can be translated into a smaller, equally positive experience for a rural library. However, when choosing conference sessions to attend, rural librarians risk missing big-picture movements in library science if they stick only to obviously scalable items. You will see rural librarians at sessions outlining leadership change in massive libraries or the rebranding of unique branches within a system since, in order to make the most innovative and up-to-date decisions for their libraries, a rural librarian has to know what’s going on around them so they can best glean the trends and standards of our ever-changing profession. Says Vanderhoof Library Director Jennifer Barg, “I often feel library conferences are not geared for us smaller libraries, but I do find there is always something useful we can adapt for ourselves” (J. Barg, personal correspondence, March 17, 2021).
Barg and other rural librarians approach information in a way reminiscent of Devotee work, an aspect of Serious Leisure Perspectives (SLP) in the study of Human Information Behaviour (HIB) in that Devotee work is “an activity in which participants feel a powerful devotion, or strong, positive attachment, to a form of self-enhancing work” (Elkington & Stebbins, 2014, p.4). The passion and creativity with which rural librarians seek information to better serve their profession and their communities, and the many ways in which they interpret the information to apply it in practice, result in library workers who are skilled across LIS disciplines who become resources unto themselves. At the biennial Beyond Hope Library Conference hosted by the Prince George Public Library (PGPL), Janet Marren, an early developer of the conference and former Library Director of the PGPL, found that “many of the most popular conference sessions [were] those presented by the rural librarians themselves who had found unique ways to meet their challenges and were eager to share their experiences with libraries in similar communities” (J. Marren, personal correspondence, March 10, 2021).
Rural librarians have a unique perspective that urban library conference planners would do well to seek. When planning the Beyond Hope Conference, staff at the Prince George Public Library pay close attention to pre-conference survey responses for session topics from the more remote and rural librarians planning to attend the conference. For Beyond Hope (named tongue-in-cheek for the northern geographical area beyond the lower mainland), Kaitlyn Vecchio, a previous planner of the conference, reports that rural and remote library workers request practical, hands-on sessions, such as book-mending (working, as most of them are, in the absence of a tech department) as well programming ideas, and broader topics in library science (K. Vecchio, personal communication, March 8, 2021). Small and rural library workers are looking for ideas that can be applied with limited staff and budget. Says Janet Marren, a “director in a rural library would not only be required to work with the Board and create partnerships within the community but would often run programs, catalogue incoming materials, staff the circulation desk and handle security,” so it follows that conference session content that is “less ‘aspirational’ or ‘theoretical’ and more practical and applicable” is preferable (J. Marren, personal communication, March 10, 2021).
Smaller and rural libraries face financial constraint in budgets that may not have room for travel or professional development. Face-to-face networking, as well as the impromptu information sharing that takes place at conferences, are invaluable to library workers, and while advances in connectivity such as online programming, webinars, and recent developments in conference accessibility via Zoom all offer rural and remote librarians options other than expensive travel and accommodation for professional development, there are still pockets of geography where Internet connectivity is poor and access to online conferences is limited. In-person conferences remain vitally important methods for rural librarians to remain connected to their peers, to trends in the industry, and to creating a community of practice. Jennifer Barg has found increased online professional development offered during the pandemic extremely useful: “it would be wonderful if it could continue, going forward in a post-COVID-19 work environment,” she says. Since travel is difficult and budgets are tight, “we simply miss out on many amazing things.” Barg goes on to say that the North Central Library Federation, to which Vanderhoof Public Library belongs, has brought awareness of and made attendance possible to many professional development opportunities. According to Janet Marren, the northern federations (North Central and Northwestern), showing acknowledgement for the difficulties faced by rural libraries, have contributed parts of their professional development budgets to the Beyond Hope organizers in the past in recognition of the value that the conference provides to its member libraries.
While funding for professional development, small staffs, and limited in-person resources remain perennial challenges for rural library workers, their capacity to creatively meet challenges and join forces to find solutions is impressive. Meeting rural librarians at conferences, and watching them navigate and negotiate an arena that often focuses on larger or more urban library systems, allows one to appreciate the particular skills and intelligence necessary to serve smaller, sometimes more remote communities. Much can be gained by observing and connecting with rural librarians who are necessarily engaged with librarianship in an active and resourceful way; if one of the central tenets of library work is ensuring equitable access to information, the rural librarian lives that tenet, sourcing information and ideas for themselves as well as providing them for others.
Gillian Wigmore is the Nechako Branch Coordinator of the Prince George Public Library and a current MLIS student at the University of Alberta who lives and works on the unceded territory of the Lheidli T’enneh, near the confluence of the Nechako and Fraser Rivers.
Special thanks to Jennifer Barg, Kaitlyn Vecchio, and Janet Marren for essential input in this article.
Elkington, S. & Stebbins, R.A. (2014). The serious leisure perspective: An introduction. Routledge.