Critical Optimism: Reimagining Rural Communities through Libraries

In Brief:

In the absence of governmental agencies and philanthropic support, many rural communities see their local library as the last civic, cultural, or service organization in town. This reality presents obvious challenges to the librarian, and also incredible opportunity. As the primary convener, libraries have the ability to facilitate regeneration in the communities they serve. This article situates rural librarianship within an organizing framework for change and discusses applications of community engagement tools and measures of impact aligned with social wellbeing.

By Margo Gustina


Rural libraries have the professional obligation, opportunity, and ability to facilitate positive transformational change in the communities they serve. Rural libraries in the United States serve communities in decline. After years of population exodus, the remaining demographic is overwhelmingly made up of immobilized individuals and families. As agencies have made service decisions based on population densities, an ever increasing number of communities have been abandoned by human service and civic institutions. In this environment, rural libraries fill the ever widening gap between resources and needs. The rural librarian, to catalyze change and facilitate the realization of community aspirations, will become an organizer who will measure progress in terms of equitable social wellbeing, rather than ROI and circulation statistics.

Reimagining Communities

In the gap between resources and needs, rural libraries can facilitate the re-imagining of their communities. Utilizing organizing frameworks with community engagement tactics, social wellbeing measurements, and regenerative design principles, libraries surviving in service deserts have unprecedented opportunities to realize deep, impactful, just, and long lasting changes in their communities.

To be organizers of community action, library people must acknowledge the intersection of privilege and domination that exists along ability, citizenship status, class, culture, gender, language, race, and sexuality lines. The full breadth of community diversity has to be appreciated, and members must hold agency in any change and decision making process. It is only through full inclusion that the full potential of systemic change can be realized. That necessitates the purposeful and active deconstruction of current barriers to access and agency for community members marginalized by current systems of domination.

Within the interrelated models presented here, libraries can organize and work with their members—the people whom they are to serve. In order for the organization itself to be inclusive and whole, the library organization members need to acknowledge and maintain awareness of the systems of domination they are working against in building equity and justice. For true community potential to be realized, community members themselves must be the designers of their future.

Existing Rural Conditions

To fully appreciate how the models discussed here apply to rural libraries and the communities they serve, we must understand the conditions of resource poor geographies.

Rural Immobility

Rural libraries largely serve the immobilized. Most of their communities have limited or no governmental or human service infrastructure. Libraries of all types, in all places, hold the potential to be both conveners and leaders in constructing the narrative of place. To fully realize that potential within the unique challenges of rural communities, library staff and librarians must actively engage in deconstructing interrelated systems of domination, rather than sidestepping them. It is especially important for rural librarians to mitigate these systems as there are few or no other institutions around to do it.

Understanding how people can find themselves in their individual conditions by virtue of their birth and circumstances is key to deconstructing our own supports for the dominating forces that lock people out of opportunity. As librarians, we have power within our communities—power that we should use to trust our neighbors in their knowledge of their own experiences and help them build on their own potential.

The idea that people make their own bed is a hard one to overcome. A myth of mobility pervades all levels of policy and perception:

“I’m going to start explaining to people: When you have an area that just isn’t working like upper New York state, where people are getting very badly hurt, and then you’ll have another area 500 miles away where you can’t get people, I’m going to explain, you can leave. It’s OK.” Donald Trump (Herbert, 2017)

Individuals and families who cannot migrate for economic opportunity due to physical, emotional, intellectual, familial, cultural, racial, and class immobilizers make up a large portion of residents in rural communities. While the reasons for immobility might be individual and specific, overwhelmingly the most common condition across all rural communities in the United States is financial and resource poverty.

Resource and Financial Poverty

“You have to be rich to be poor.” (Brown, 2009)

Income inequality is only one part of a larger resource poverty story in rural communities. In much the same way that being financially impoverished is costly, living in resource-poor communities is expensive. Over time, philanthropic funding has declined (Lindsay, 2017), local tax bases have shrunk, and major commercial investment has vanished. This has meant that access to services in rural areas has dramatically decreased. Additionally, access to agency partners has decreased for libraries working to serve the remaining population.

People living in rural communities have limited or no governmental and human service infrastructure. The United States Postal Service controversially cut hours at 13,000 rural offices around the country in 2012, claiming success for rural communities because they didn’t simply close all the offices (Liberto, 2012). Like many rural services, the Postal Service no longer provided the return on investment to justify its continued existence. For residents most in need, lack of access to a health services infrastructure can propel them into devastating entrenchment in the poverty cycle. If you are going to have a baby or a heart attack, best to not live in a rural area where widespread hospital closures necessitate fair-weather travel greater than an hour to reach emergency medical assistance (Maron, 2017).

As researchers concerned with public health have noted, living in rural America stacks the deck against community members. According to the CDC, the frequency of early death was more than 50% greater in rural regions in the United States than in metropolitan communities (Moy, et al. 2017). These statistics underline the very real impact a lack of resources has on rural residents.

Information and Access Poverty

Perhaps the most heavily documented and thoroughly researched (within librarianship) feature of rurality is the lack of diverse information access options. Much of that research has been specifically focused on the near non-existence of affordable broadband internet access. A study by the American Library Association’s Office of Technology Policy distills current conditions around technology-based services in rural libraries in the study Rural Libraries in the United States (Real & Rose, 2017).

While most rural residencies have some sort of television via cable or satellite connections, they often do not have access to reliable cellular networks. As such, the primary internet delivery method in impoverished communities in urban and international rural areas, the smartphone, is unavailable to U.S. rural communities. Widespread dead zones in rural areas make this mitigation of information poverty a near impossibility. Research drawing out the social and democratic implications of the unique features of information access in rural communities is necessary.1

The Limits of Advocacy

Advocacy is the library field’s most commonly employed tool for change at both the state and national levels. Empowerment, the key to libraries and communities sharing the work of reimagining the future, is largely missing in current advocacy practice. In No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, author Jane F. McAlevey describes the agency held by workers within three “Options for Change”: advocacy, mobilizing, and organizing. The power of the individuals in advocacy models are diminished or non-existent. Advocacy is a tool of a few empowered to speak for the many through recognized channels, often defined and regulated by those in power. McAlevey offers an analysis of power that is useful to the work of librarians serving rural communities.

Advocacy Mobilizing Organizing
Theory of Power Elite Primarily elite Mass, inclusive, collective
Strategy Litigation, polling, advertising Campaigns prioritizing framing, messaging, and representative people, than masses of people Recruitment and direct involvement of large masses of people—majorities of constituent population

Table 1: Options for Change2

To clarify what is meant by “power,” which can be a hotly contested word, the work of author and activist bell hooks is insightful. Throughout multiple works, hooks digs into power, its nature, and its danger. In describing the classroom and her relationship to students, hooks explores the many ways in which power need not be domination. When working within a framework of organizing, librarians, by virtue of their profession, will have more power than some community members. Through examining and understanding the nature of the power we hold, we are better equipped to share power with others. We can invite to the table, relinquish control of the floor, and share decision making in ways that empower others to reclaim their agency as shapers of their community future.

Organizing community members by empowering them to shape the future they themselves want may seem outside the role of the librarian. But our everlasting role is to provide access to information for the service base. The boundary lines of “access” require the deconstruction of all barriers to access that exist for each and every community member. It also pre-supposes that the boundary line of information is all modalities and experiences from which a person gathers information. Finally, it states that the boundary of service is the community system, in which is nested smaller organizational systems, and which itself is nested in larger regional ecological, political, cultural, and social systems.

Full access to information by all community members is too large a job and requires the input of too many people for advocacy by the few to the few to be effective. Advocacy does not build local capacity or transformative agency among community members. For rural communities specifically, with their small voting populations and light-weight tax base, politics is a game in which they are played rather than empowered. Advocating within that field, while a tool to be employed, is not the tool of deep and sustainable change.

Listen, Convene, Contribute

When we dismiss advocacy as our primary tool, we need to seek other tools to redesign our communities in a way that engages and reflects the peoples’ actual concerns. Community engagement is a tactic the rural librarian as organizer can use for rebuilding local agency and collective action. This work can help reposition libraries as partners in improving the lives of the people they serve. This partnership is realized in the example of Red Hook Public Library in Red Hook, New York.

At Red Hook, Library Director Erica Freudenberger and Deputy Mayor Brent Kovalchik teamed up to change how they operated. Rather than advocating to distant politicians on library issues, speaking on behalf of a community from whom they rarely heard, they engaged directly with their community members, asked them about their aspirations, and facilitated direct community-led actions to move toward a better community. Using the tools in the ALA-Harwood Institute for Public Innovation joint product, Libraries Transforming Communities: Turning Outward Resources, they spent months listening to community members one-on-one and door to door, as well as in large community-wide facilitated conversations. Rather than traditional focus groups about services, these conversations revealed aspirations, priorities, paths forward, and trusted partners.

One of Red Hook Public Library’s actions which resulted from their conversations was facilitating the repair of a stop light. No one from the library shimmied up the light post to fix its timing. The library director and deputy mayor went to the officials they thought could take action on the concerns they heard. Those officials said they couldn’t help, that the fix was beyond their power in a different agency. So the library did what libraries are supposed to do: they shared information with the public about who they would need to pressure and the tools they could use. They organized their community around an issue which community members themselves had identified. While the library facilitated, it was community members speaking with their own voices that made change happen.

Many would not see fixing the timing in a traffic light as a typical library service. In practice, though, it aligns perfectly with the mission of librarians to empower and provide access to opportunities for realizing potential in one’s self and one’s community. It is important that rural libraries not limit themselves to a narrow view of library service, but keep empowerment of all community members as a primary value. The Red Hook Public Library’s process is documented on the Libraries Transforming Communities Case Studies page (ALA, 2015).

ROI Isn’t for Libraries

Library organizations are faced with the same considerations and challenging forces with which other service agencies struggle. Nonprofits are often encouraged to seek guidance in the for-profit world. It’s tempting to trust the tales of success, efficiency, and innovation we hear from the business sector, especially when we know what each service costs and that we must advocate to power players for every penny. And slowly, insidiously, libraries have allowed our measures of success to be shaped by a system of financial capital, the most glaring of which is our use of return on investment (ROI).

ROI is a valuable model when we communicate libraries are not a “free” service but are comprised of resources for which all community members have a responsibility to contribute towards financially. Still, the assertion of ROI as a measure of importance in rural libraries should be limited to that conversation because when viewed within a larger context and benchmarked with non-rural communities it becomes problematic. Rural communities are defined by their lack of density and population, immediately making ROI ratios look less favorable than they would in more densely populated locales.

Population Range Average Cost per Open Hour per Capita
100-1,000 $0.20914
1,001-2,500 $0.04556
2,501-5,000 $0.02523
5,001-10,000 $0.01793
10,001-20,000 $0.01473
20,001-50,000 $0.01181
50,001-100,000 $0.00738
100,001-250,000 $0.00334
250,001-500,000 $0.00141
500,001-1,000,000 $0.00086
1,000,001+ $0.00038

Table 2: Average Cost per Open Hour per Capita by Library Service Population Range3

Rural communities are expensive. The low population density and small tax base necessarily means that each hour of library service is exponentially more expensive, on a per capita basis, in smaller population communities (see Figure 2, Data Set 2015 imls.gov). When library organizations focus on ROI, they set a trap for themselves: one of dwindling returns in which tough choices have to be made on behalf of the individual investor. These tough choices include closure of library outlets, reduction of services or hours, or freezing staff wages and benefits. Libraries are pressured to follow the path of so many organizations before them, which is to abandon services to sparsely populated communities. The ROI simply isn’t good enough to justify continuation.

ROI does not measure the true critical nature of a library’s presence in a service desert. When library organizations abandon ROI for measures of social wellbeing, we realign with our purpose and our communities. With this alignment, we can work from a position of potential rather than the continual struggle to mitigate challenges.

Dimensions of Social Wellbeing

The Institute of Museum and Library Services defined the connection between social wellbeing and library services in the 2016 report Strengthening Networks, Sparking Change: Museums and Libraries as Community Catalysts (Norton & Dowdell, 2017). In their work, Norton and Dowdell condense related dimensions of social wellbeing into measurement content areas:

Social Wellbeing Dimension Indicators Data Sources
Lifelong learning, cultural engagement School metrics; adult educational attainment; voter participation; density of cultural orgs locations NCES; Census; State ED.; Local boards of election; IMLS
Economic wellbeing and diversity, housing quality Poverty and unemployment rates; housing ownership and cost data; vacancy Bureau of Labor; Census; HUD; Local court filings
Health, physical security Mortality and disease rates; injuries and violence; violent crime rates Census; CDC; State and local public health and health and human service agencies
Environment Parks; vacant lots; environmental assets and risk areas EPA; Local planning department; Parks and Recreation department

Table 3: Data Sources & Indicators to Measure Social Wellbeing4

As libraries reflect on progress, data within social wellbeing domains can assist the library and its partners on prioritizing actions. Noticeable throughout the data sources is the absence of traditional library measures. When we are contributors to social wellbeing, internal library measures don’t indicate our desired impacts.5

One social wellbeing dimension-based assessment content area is Lifelong Learning and Cultural Engagement, which is an area that rural communities specifically have profound challenges in growing. For instance, as noted above, rural communities suffer heavily from a lack of information access. The Ripley Free Library took on this issue directly.

In Ripley, New York, there was no newspaper. No newspaper seems so commonplace that it hardly seems worth mentioning. But within the unique information landscape of geographically isolated communities, no locally operated print news source is a big problem.

Libraries are not newspaper publishers. But they are institutions whose purpose is to satisfy the information seeking behaviors of their public. So, in Ripley, the library publishes the news. In resource poor geographies, communities don’t have the luxury of redundancy. To this end, the Ripley Free Library uses the About Town newsletter to communicate community resources and facilitate sharing of those resources between disparate organizations. This means that the school, which was under threat of closing, is being used by community adults to stay active and fit.

About Town also directly impacts civic engagement and decision making. In the October 2017 issue, the library reminds readers that lakefront revitalization is going to happen, that there have been community conversations held at the library for the previous months, and leaders want direct input from the community. The library is the home for the planning, the conversations, and now for the direct feedback on direction using paper “worksheets” and a list of possibilities to be explored. The Ripley Free Library owns its role as a convener and includer, not as a lone hero. And so their community is experiencing increased individual empowerment and engagement.

Building a Regenerative Future Together

Common to McAlevey’s (2016) organizing framework, the ALA’s community engagement tool-kit, and the IMLS social wellbeing measurement model is a realization of people as multi-dimensional, multi-capability beings who have the capacity for collective decision making. Empowering people, of course, means that they might not always work together towards the goals we want them to work towards. Social justice, for example, is not an inevitable goal. It is important, then, that empowerment not be just an end goal in itself, but that it be focused on empowering the least heard voices, partnered with an explicit emphasis on human rights, and part of personal and organizational anti-oppression work.

Many rural communities have been living without robust government or agency services for so long that they have had the opportunity to imagine other solutions. Community members and their libraries are gifted with the impossibility of a return to the past. Once that realization is fully incorporated into local decision making, the community can become open to the possibility of building something new for themselves—something which engages rather than transacts, creates rather than consumes, shares rather than extracts. It can be more healthy and socially just.

A shift to aligning goals with social wellbeing is not about resiliency, or a call to do more with less. It is a call to turn our backs on the traps laid out by systems of domination. It advocates for the end of begging, the end of trying to be people, organizations, and communities we are not. It is an invitation to stop craving and start creating a future of self-sufficiency, regeneration, and wellbeing on a community’s own terms.

An asset available to rural communities which many urban communities no longer have is the proximity of poverty to wealth. In very small communities, the geographic and social distance between people of greater and people of lesser means is very small. Without the buffer of distance, all community members are able to see the humanity in their neighbors, which affords the opportunity to address inequities and biases.

Libraries can strengthen their role as organizers to lead their communities in addressing the detrimental impacts of class, race, and other divisions in the local community. In order for this to be effective, the library must facilitate the community’s own aspirations for improving local quality of life through resources within their reach: partnership, bartering, collaboration, and sharing.

Imagine a geographically-isolated individual with few financial resources who has places to go but cannot afford a car. If the question asked shifts from “How do we buy this person a new car?” to “How do we help this person get where they need to go?” the solutions are more achievable. Similarly, a library can help rephrase the question asked from “How do we bring industry back?” to “How do we create with what we have a community that is supportive and provides dignity and engagement for all residents?” Giving up on the commercial dream is a necessary part of developing a sustainable local economy and a community that offers a life of dignity, support, contribution, and engagement—a life well-lived.

Don’t Make Decisions About Me Without Me

Libraries can no longer think of themselves as bringers of the light to the downtrodden. That missionarianism empowers nobody. At best, it contributes to outdated perceptions of libraries, and at worst it makes more entrenched systems of domination keeping community members disenfranchised.

To make real the promise of access, we have to develop methods of equitable access; and if we are to do that effectively in our geographically isolated rural communities, we must face head on the systems of domination that impede access. The deconstruction of these systems cannot be done for communities by people who have access to power. It must be done in deep partnership and collaboration, led by the people most heavily impacted by the changes happening in the local community.

Those working and living in rural communities would never turn to their neighbor or themselves and say, “We deserve to be abandoned.” All communities deserve a method of accessing information in all forms. When we see both of those statements as true, the full weight of responsibility of service can be realized by the librarian. Further, we see that effective, lasting positive change can only happen in an environment of inclusion, empowerment, and human interest.

Rural librarianship is the long game. There is no independent award for being a valuable partner to your community in deconstructing systems of domination and building capacity and individual agency. I was recently struck by this quote from Beverly Gage in her opinion piece “When Reform Means a Process of Elimination” (Gage, 2018):

“Reform,” these days, may purport to fix things, but it tends to evade the hard work of defining either a problem or a solution. It posits a self-evident consensus—about a system’s failures, and about what might be preferable—where none exists.

As a profession we mistake activity (programming, attendance, etc.) for action. Norton and Dowdell (2016) posit that we need to shift from prioritizing attribution to contribution in the metrics we use. When we fully appreciate our community as a set of independent actors within a system, and that systems can be impacted by massive action, then we believe that positive, transformative change is possible. The rural librarian, to catalyze change and facilitate the realization of community aspirations, will become an organizer who will measure progress by the prevalence of equitable social wellbeing.


Thank you to Eli Guinnee for early draft feedback and multiple confidence boosters. Thank you to reviewers Deanna DiCarlo and Bethany Messersmith for their thoughtfully considered edits and recommendations. Also, thanks to publishing editor Amy Koester.


American Library Association (2016 March 15). “Case Study: Red Hook (N.Y.) Public Library: One Small Win Creates Huge Ripples of Change”. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/tools/librariestransform/libraries-transforming-communities/case-studies/redhook Document ID: 2d54ca50-a8eb-eb34-1983-4efb0de63751

Brown, D. L. (2009 May 18). The High Cost of Poverty: Why the Poor Pay More. Washington Post. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/05/17/AR2009051702053.html

Gage, B. (2018, February 13). When ‘reform’ means a process of elimination. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/13/magazine/when-reform-means-a-process-of-elimination.html

Herbert, G. (2017, July 27). President Trump says Upstate NY residents should leave to find jobs. Retrieved from http://www.syracuse.com/state/index.ssf/2017/07/trump_leave_upstate_ny_jobs.html

Institute of Medicine (US) Roundtable on Environmental Health Sciences, Research, and Medicine; Merchant J, Coussens C, Gilbert D, editors. “Rebuilding the Unity of Health and the Environment in Rural America: Workshop Summary”. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2006. 2, The Social Environment in Rural America. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK56967/

Institute of Museum and Library Services (2017) Fiscal year 2015 PLS data file. Retrieved from https://www.imls.gov/research-evaluation/data-collection/public-libraries-survey/explore-pls-data/pls-data

Liberto, J. (2012, May 9). Postal Service won’t close rural post offices, but hours cut. Retrieved from http://money.cnn.com/2012/05/09/news/economy/postal_service/index.htm

Lindsay, D. (2017, October 11). American Generosity Declines in the 21st Century, Report Suggests. Chronicle of Philanthropy. Retrieved from https://www.philanthropy.com/article/American-Generosity-Declines/241417

Maron, D. F. (2017, February 15). Maternal Health Care Is Disappearing in Rural America. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/maternal-health-care-is-disappearing-in-rural-america/

McAlevey, Jane F. (2016). No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age. Oxford UP.

Moy E, Garcia MC, Bastian B, et al. Leading Causes of Death in Nonmetropolitan and Metropolitan Areas — United States, 1999–2014. MMWR Surveill Summ 2017;66(No. SS-1):1–8. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.ss6601a1

Norton, M. and Dowdell, E. (2017). Strengthening Networks, Sparking Change: Museums and Libraries as Community Catalysts. Institute of Museum and Library Services. https://www.imls.gov/sites/default/files/publications/documents/community-catalyst-report-january-2017.pdf

Real, B. and Rose, R. N. (2017, July). Rural Libraries in the United States: Recent Strides, Future Possibilities, and Meeting Community Needs. Office for Information Technology Policy at the American Library Association. http://www.ala.org/advocacy/sites/ala.org.advocacy/files/content/pdfs/Rural%20paper%2007-31-2017.pdf

Srivatsav, A. (2016, February 5). Map displaying Median Household Income, Population Density and Unemployment Rate for USA. ArcGIS.com https://www.arcgis.com/home/webmap/viewer.html?webmap=ca88e94b0b3949af8bd5bd275cc2a4a5

  1. Though outside the scope of this paper, more research is needed to determine the destructive impacts of telecom consolidation of local broadcasters. See: Information access in rural communities; Mode of information access impacts choices; Widespread acquisition of local tv stations by national corporations; Disappearance of local papers and print news sources []
  2. adapted from McAlevey, 2016, p. 11, Table 1.1 []
  3. This table is compiled from the Institute of Museum and Library Services annual survey of public library statistics for Fiscal Year 2015. I limited the libraries in the data set to those with populations greater than 100 and staff expenditures greater than $0. The formula for the every remaining library was Total Annual Expenditure divided by Total Annual Hours divided by Total LSA Population. I averaged the result of these individual results within the population ranges denoted in the table. []
  4. adapted from Norton & Dowdell, 2017, p. 35, Table 1 []
  5. As a library worker, I’ve heard for more than a decade that public libraries need better metrics to describe their work and impacts. Here it is! []

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