It has been quite a long time since I wrote a post about libraries, but in case you missed it, I am working in one again. It is good to come home to the profession that always had a large piece of my heart. There will probably be more library posts, in addition to writing posts, in this space. You’ve been warned.
Last time I served at a library, I was at a large top tier research institution. I did a lot of things, but the things I did were specialized.
Now, I work at a small community college in a rural area and I do a little bit of everything. I am the Acquisitions, Technical Services, ILL, and Circulation Departments. In addition to this, I do reference, teach information literacy classes, and sit on campus committees. In a small place, it is safe to say you do all the things because that is what keeps the doors open and things running smoothly.
The scale of things here is different. Sometimes that is frustrating and sometimes is it awesome. After three months at my new job and in my new town, I have some observations.
When you get down to the marrow, everything here, good and bad, comes down to scale.
Wyoming is a big state of mostly rural areas. Even libraries in larger towns*, serve a significant population of people who live in remote areas. I live in a decent size city, for Wyoming, and it only claims a little less than 18,000 residents. Much of our community is rural. Even if you live in the city, you still have to drive two hours to find major retail stores. The distance between service hubs is a problem of scale.
Because most libraries are serving small rural communities, they are themselves small and rural. The wealth of information out there in the world means that the libraries can only collect so much because access costs $. This is a scale problem that is not unique to small libraries. The libraries here have worked to solve that by having an efficient ILL and electronic resources sharing system within the state called WYLD. Wyoming’s libraries are adequately funded, from what I can tell, but they still struggle. Even though they are getting funded, it is never enough. Well funded on a smaller scale is still a small amount of money.
The other issue is technology and, boy howdy, is this an issue. Remember when I said Wyoming libraries tend to serve a rural population? In technology terms, this means we serve a population that often does not have high speed internet, but might have a smartphone if they are lucky enough to live in an area with coverage.I have heard a saying often that Wyoming is ten years behind in most things. I think that is an accurate assessment.
Technology is an issue for most of the businesses I have come in contact with. If they have a website, and that is a HUGE if, they have a terrible UX and are often not mobile compatible. Very few corporations are on any kind of social media outside of facebook, if they have that.
This lack of technology use comes into sharp relief at the reference desk. Multiple times this semester, I helped students who were barely able to use a mouse and navigate Windows, much less the web and Blackboard. These students were expected to take classes which had major online components. To say they were lost would be a gross understatement. What shocked me the most is that these were not older adults coming back to school. They were my age (I am 39) or younger. I have lived in an urban area and worked in service jobs all my life and I have never been exposed to this level of technology illiteracy in my life. It was and is shocking to me.
On the positive side, I live in a small town with all the quirks associated with a typical western small town. Everyone knows everyone else. Our lives are all connected in one way or another and I have found this to be a welcoming, friendly place.
All of these observations have raised the following issues and questions that I want to explore:
- How can I use readily available technology (free/cheap) to serve students who may have limited connectivity?
- Are there tools that can make their lives a little easier that require a low learning curve?
- How do I need to shift my own instruction and interactions with my new population in mind?
- What does advocacy for information look like in a place where information is not always accessible or affordable?
- How can I help students see beyond the small worldview of their experience to the greater world beyond in the way I teach and the choices I make for the library?
- What can I learn from my new community that will make me a better librarian?
*The largest city in Wyoming is Cheyenne which currently holds a population of 64,019. To me, no matter how you slice it, that is a small town.