Leaders Needed at Rural Libraries, by Natalie Binder | Letters to a Young Librarian
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You’ve always wanted to work in a public library. You believe in service, citizenship, and community. You value relationships; when you imagined being a librarian, you imagined participating in local government and getting to know your patrons by name. You want to make a big impact—not just in your career, but in people’s lives. You want to be a generalist, not a specialist. You want to have a great quality of life on a librarian’s salary. And when you started library school, you wanted to be a traditional, book-based, community librarian, but it seems like those jobs are either disappearing or impossible to get.
If that sounds like you, you may be a rural librarian at heart—which is great news, because rural libraries need you. These jobs rarely appear on listservs or job boards, but the “graying” of the profession is very real in rural libraries. Many rural libraries have a long-serving librarian (or staff) who will be retiring soon. And since rural libraries are often quite small, you can quickly rise to an influential leadership role and have a strong say in how these small libraries meet the challenges of the future.
I’ve worked in a rural library since before library school—four years this month—and I love my job. Every day I go to work knowing that I will make an impact on someone’s life. Every day something terrific, exciting, or funny happens at my library, and though I am not in administration, I always feel like my contributions and ideas are appreciated and valued. There are many other benefits to rural librarianship. While salaries are generally low, a dollar goes much further in rural communities than it does in urban or academic communities, and affordable housing is rarely an issue. You can probably afford to live much closer to a beach, farm, or lovely national park than you imagine. If the library is adequately staffed, working conditions are also good. Rural libraries enjoy strong community support, and small staffs often work together to ensure flex time is available for things like childcare and family events. Rural libraries are usually quite safe—while no public library is conflict-free, your patrons are more likely to bring you homegrown vegetables than complaints.
Best of all, rural libraries serve as true community centers, where far-flung and diverse groups can come together. A rural library often serves as a small town’s largest meeting room, its only Internet hotspot, the only local, affordable entertainment for adults and children, and an access point for badly needed social services. My library serves as the physical “office” for employment services, child welfare and legal aid.
Of course, no type of library is for everyone. Rural libraries are generalist libraries. As a rural librarian you will frequently be called to do things your master’s degree never prepared you for, from running a farmer’s market to repairing a child’s shoe. If you’re interested in doing something quite specialized or academic, it’s probably best to begin your job search elsewhere. If you need to be surrounded by other young academics, or enjoy a lot of social activities, then you probably won’t enjoy the quiet and isolation of a rural community. If you’re married, it can be a challenge for your spouse to find work in town.
Finally, in small towns there is little division between your personal life and your work life. Your patrons, co-workers, Friends group, Board of Directors, and government leaders are also your friends and neighbors. Sometimes it feels like you’re never off the job! For this reason, it’s very important to move slowly, get community buy-in, and be prepared to backtrack on big changes. That can be a challenge if you’re fresh out of library school and eager to change the world.
I have seen too many “new directors” leave or lose their rural jobs because of avoidable conflicts among stakeholders. It’s great to have vision and ambition, but if you’re more combative than cooperative, you’ll have a hard time achieving your goals in a small town. Even if your library seems like a mess that you were hired to fix (or “bring up to date”), plan to spend a full year or more listening and learning before you try to change the system. When you become a librarian at a rural library, you’re also joining small, stable team of prominent citizens and community leaders whose support you’ll need for years or even decades. Make those relationships a priority, and always take the long view in any conflict.
If that sounds like a challenge you’re up to, then you can begin your rural job hunt locally. No matter where you live, you’re probably not far from a small library system. Check county job boards, or see if there’s a volunteer position available. Ask if you can shadow a librarian or staff member for a day or two. These jobs are not usually widely advertised. Take your time and get to know the rural libraries and communities around you. Even if you decide to look elsewhere for a permanent job, you’ll be in for a fun, rewarding and educational experience.