When we think of famous libraries, we probably envision large buildings like the Library of Congress or ancient ones like the Great Library of Alexandria. But when someone asks us to share a favorite memory about visiting a library, for most of us that memory will be of a small library. Most likely it will be the one we grew up with, or the one we brought our kids to. It will probably be a library packed full of books, some covered in dust because they haven’t checked out in decades and the librarian can’t be convinced to part with what she views as “her children.” It may or may not be a quiet library, but it mostly likely is one where the librarians know your name and they know what you like.
And that pretty much sums up the power of small community libraries, something which I was reminded of while recently attending a conference in Vermont for small libraries. The Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL) Conference is held annually and Jeff Davis Parish Library finds so much value in this conference that we specifically budget each year for at least three people to attend. This year, three library staff and two library board members were able to attend.
The conference was held in Burlington, a small city of just under 43,000 people. Located in northwestern Vermont, Burlington is surrounded by pristine mountains and lakes. This region is very agrarian and known for its maple syrup, hard ciders, and craft beers. Most of the libraries we visited were historic buildings, with the exception of one in a shopping mall. Burlington is less than an hour away from the Canadian border, so some of us were able to visit some libraries in Quebec as well.
The library that best represents the power of small is the Charles D. Brainerd Library in West Danville. It is the smallest library in Vermont, at only 10×17 feet. Formerly a gas station, this building was converted into a library and is supported by volunteers. It has no electricity, no AC or heat, and it is only open for 2 hrs a day from Monday – Friday. But it is obvious to any observer that this library is loved and appreciated by its community.
The ARLS Conference had attendees from all over the country. There were solo librarians who operate by themselves, working maybe 16 hrs/week and serving a population less than 3,000. Then there were “medium” libraries like us. There were libraries with huge budgets and libraries with no budget, depending solely on volunteers and donations. There were librarians serving extremely liberal communities and those serving extremely conservative communities, and everything in-between. There were sessions that pushed us out of our comfort zones, and speakers who re-ignited the passion for what we do and why it’s so important.
What impacted me the most, however, was to see how much these libraries are doing with so very little in terms of space, money, and staffing. Some of the libraries with the least amount of resources are the ones making the biggest impact on their communities. They have learned to be creative and look beyond the physical walls of their buildings. They have reached out to community partners and become a fixture at local events. Some have opened their doors on Thanksgiving and Christmas, voluntarily sacrificing their personal time so that no one in their community spent a holiday alone or cold.
Here in Jeff Davis Parish, we know that libraries don’t have to be huge to be powerful. Sure, it would be nice to have a library with spacious meeting rooms or separate children’s rooms where kids can be kids without disturbing the quiet. It would be awesome to have makerspaces with 3D printers and sewing machines and whatever else the big city libraries are dreaming up. But we work with what we have, and what we have is a dedicated group of librarians who want to know you by name and want to help you achieve a happy and fulfilled life. We have a beautiful historic building that has been preserved and is being used for the good of all. We have three branch libraries and a bookmobile that ensure everyone in our parish has access to our services. We have programs that prepare young kids for school and outreach to those who cannot leave their homes or their facilities. We are a safe haven. But most importantly, we are your small hometown library that wishes to serve our community to the best of our ability and continue to make a difference in whatever way we can.