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“I’ve heard people say the library is the heart of the community. I like to flip it. The community is the heart of this library.” — Suzanne Moore

Two graduates of Rural Center leadership programs help transform libraries as needs shift

During a usual week, Wilkes County Librarian Suzanne Moore is helping patrons find books. But, along with her staff, she’s also supervising the library’s Collection of Things where library users borrow fishing poles and pickleball kits. She may be meeting with a local domestic violence shelter to plan programs.

Or she could be working to secure grants for things like the library’s new vending machine with free Narcan -the opioid reversal medication -and fentanyl test strips and to double the library’s hot spots to ease the waitlist for them.

“It’s more than just books,” said Moore, a 2018 graduate of the NC Rural Center’s Rural Economic Development Institute who says the class helped inspire her to be a stronger leader and manager. She works for the Appalachian Regional Library serving Ashe, Watauga and Wilkes counties.

North Carolina has a rich history of providing library services to its residents. The first public library in the colonies opened in Bath in 1700. In the 1940s, a larger percentage of North Carolinians had access to libraries than in any other southeastern state. By the mid1950s, it had more bookmobiles than any other state, serving most of its counties, according to a history of the state’s libraries. Less than a decade later, federal funding made it possible for the state to expand rural public library service further. “They were community centers, they always have been and hopefully they’ll continue for many, many years,” said Joan Sherif, regional director of the Northwestern Regional Library, with locations in Alleghany, Stokes, Surry and Yadkin counties. “Although they’re changing.”

Today, the role of rural libraries in North Carolina and across the country has expanded far beyond their work to boost literacy. Now, they’re community hubs filling in widening gaps in rural access to essential services. A 2022 Public Library Association report found that about 80% of respondents who lead rural libraries were working now or in the near future to address digital equity, economic development and job-seeker support, and public health and wellbeing.

Photo of an older woman inside what looks to be a library.

“[Libraries] were community centers, they always have been and hopefully they’ll continue for many, many years… We need to continue to get the word out about libraries—that we’re here, and that we’re not outdated. Communities need libraries, even more now than ever.” — Joan Sherif

In rural areas with little internet access, providing connectivity is one way libraries are filling a need. They’re lending hotspots, Chromebooks and iPads and offering free access at and around library locations. In 2022-23, at Northwestern Regional’s locations, for example, wifi usage had grown 14 percent from the previous year.

Growing addiction and mental health issues in rural communities, along with unemployment and hunger, are other issues libraries are addressing. Wilkes County Library has a community refrigerator with free locally grown produce available to anybody. Northwestern Regional is starting to offer coding classes to provide job skills.

“It’s like a living room for a community, and it’s a university that you don’t have to pay tuition for,” Moore said.

Those complex community needs are forcing librarians to get creative, but Moore and Sherif are up to the challenge.

“There’s tremendous creativity with libraries in terms of developing all kinds of services,” said Sherif, who came away from the Rural Center’s Homegrown Leaders program in 2018 energized by the other committed and resourceful leaders she met. “There’s always room for innovation and change in libraries.”

Going forward, Sherif hopes more people recognize the continuing importance of libraries. They can be economic drivers for communities, luring new residents and businesses and helping people build healthy, productive lives, she said. The library in Elkin – like many in the area – gives away free seeds to anyone who might be interested in starting a garden. It also offers one of the best views in town – a small waterfall on Big Elkin Creek that patrons can view from the library’s lounge.

In fact, it’s not unusual for Sherif to see real estate agents bring clients by a library to showcase its offerings. A strong library is an indicator of the health and wellbeing of a community, she said.

“We need to continue to get the word out about libraries—that we’re here, and that we’re not outdated,” Sherif said. “Communities need libraries, even more now than ever.”

 

Woman observing a library card catalog cabinet.