Rural Library & Social Wellbeing Project Overview

Beginning with a rich question set: Are libraries a component of social wellbeing in resource-poor geographies? If so, what practices do they employ? We launched this IMLS funded, three-year nation-wide research, resource, and education project in 2018.

Beliefs that inform our work

The project team came to this work with a set of beliefs that informed the way in which it was developed. As a group we reject the myth of objectivity and embrace the humanity of our subject and ourselves. We:

  • respect community life, in all its complexity and nuance,
  • make our data accessible and research transparent,
  • are driven by curiosity and humility in the face of data,
  • strive to bring value to our research subjects, not continue a legacy of extraction that has damaged so many of our subject communities.

Our Story

More than 16,000 public library facilities can be found across the country, in towns and neighborhoods of all sizes–testaments to the power of collective action and togetherness. Libraries are a trick so astonishing that lifelong users still express a sense of wonder and delight in them. Well known is how the work of librarians unlocks cooperative resource sharing potential; still underappreciated is how the social connection role they play unlocks broader security and support dynamics that impact broadly on wellbeing. The way they do this is long term and tailored to both the people and the place. We describe it as pathways to wellbeing.  

The Rural Library and Social Wellbeing project looked specifically at independent public libraries in the nation’s smallest and most isolated communities: towns without formal education facilities or hospitals and with fewer than 2,500 people. During our study period (2018-2021), we visited eight of these places for in-depth interviews with community residents, as well as library trustees and staff.

You will find here the story of this research told through: 

We found that feelings of belonging factored strongly in people’s notions of living in their ideal community and that core to that valuation were feelings of self-determination and mutual support. Public libraries in these communities functioned as the organizing center and trailhead to pathways of belonging, power, and connection for residents, regardless of their status as newcomer, long-time outsider, or well-networked social butterfly. 

Where directors and managers were authentic, generous, resourceful, and power sharing, the libraries were the most active and the communities the most thriving. When the public library is the only community anchor in town and the director is the only staff person at the library, this individual and the institution they create hold powerful sway over the culture and feel of the community as a whole.

This is a love letter to rural places: from the dew on ferns and forest cloisters, to the sun dried adobe and the sharp green of corn leaves. And it is to the people who inhabit them, with a dedication to the land they are on, to hard histories, optimistic futures, and the networks of dynamic reciprocity that makes living an hour from the nearest emergency room feel reasonable and safe.

And to the people who choose to work in our smallest libraries and bookmobiles. We know you are tired of the communities you serve being described only in terms of poverty, lack of resources, and distance from more cities. We know that you offer the books people love, and also the chat, the browse, the feel of care that comes with personalized service. 

Your work matters. Libraries of all sizes can learn from some of the impactful practices we witnessed in these places which exist in the library profession’s margins.

Have questions? Get in touch!

Rural Library Service & Social Wellbeing Project
Southern Tier Library System
Painted Post 14870

research@rurallibraries.org
607-962-3141
8 am – 4:30 pm EST

Meservey Public Library, IA
Jaquith Public Library, VT
Library patron supervising child patrol cooking waffles
George and Leah, NY
Plum Lake, WI
Four white women at a table
Book Club, WI
Helvetia Public Library, WV
Elk River Free Library District, ID
Plum Lake Library, WI
paper lanterns
New Year’s Eve, ID
View down into valley
Elk River, ID
Meservey, IA
Miss Pam, State Line Public Library, Pine Forest Library System
Helvetia, WV
Marshfield, VT
Helvetia, WV