ARSL Conference Raises Hopes and Concerns

[Jeff D. Saunders was one of this year’s ARSL Conference Scholarship Winners. Thank you Jeff, for the excellent post!]

In my application essay for the Bernard Vavrek Scholarship the big justification I had for attending the ARSL 2011 Conference was sharing knowledge and exchanging ideas relating to our work at the Information Institute on the North Florida Broadband Authority (NFBA) and Florida Rural Broadband Alliance (FRBA) Middle Mile Projects. While NFBA and FRBA are more concerned with bringing better Internet connection speeds to rural Florida, the Institute’s task was a needs assessment of different community anchor institutions, libraries, schools, police departments, etc. and to give recommendations on how NFBA and FRBA could tailor their programs to get said anchor institutions to adopt broadband connections.

Of course, in the process we happen to get a pretty good picture of the state of technology use in rural and small libraries throughout Florida. So I must admit I had an ulterior motive for attending the ARSL conference, to gauge the situation at other rural and small libraries across the country. Through the presentation panels and conversations with some wonderful librarians I came away feeling a lot better about the world as most told me they recieved E-rate, had technology plans, were part of some type of consortium to pool resources for technology, and understood how free access to technology at their library provided a huge value to their community.

What was most concerning was the fact many believed it didn’t matter what value or impact the library had on the community to local administrators or politicians. Some noted the fact that despite the overwhelming support from the community and evidence of the importance of the library, funding got cut anyway. It is something that is downplayed, or not mentioned at all, in library schools today. The fact that despite best efforts and overwhelming empirical evidence libraries, especially rural and small libraries that are the backbone of public libraries in this country, are vulnerable to political ideologies.

We like to think we live in a time when access to information and continuing education for all are accepted as basic needs. Of course, all you have to do is turn on Fox News and you can see that is not the case. Libraries find themselves in a constant political battle with those who do not understand the purpose for them or the role they play in the community, one that everyone I talked to either mentioned or had an opinion on. It is also something that is not mentioned in library schools. Professors, at least most, shy away from explicit discussion about politics and the way it affects libraries. While it was normally the first topic of conversation with the librarians I had the pleasure of meeting at ARSL.

In terms of specific things I took away from the conference, the comments of one Director at the “Small but Powerful Guide to Winning Big Support for Your Rural Library,” panel who noted the lack of an IT standards system for libraries. This is something extremely interesting to me as I spent the summer hearing pretty much the exact same thing from library directors in Florida. Why there are no standards for the types of technology in libraries is due to a number of factors. For one it is difficult to say what is best for all libraries given the different contexts, situtations, and communities libraries exist in. Second, the power of who decides what the standard is, or more importantly what vendors’ product will be the standard, is a highly contentious proposition. For example, you can imagine the controversy it would cause if the ALA set the standard OPAC system with one company and not another. However, providing general guidelines on what kind of connection speed a library of a certain size should have or the most advantageous number of computers for a library that serves a certain population size are more general questions that do need answering. These are also questions that will be largely answered through forces far outside of the libary’s control.

Libraries are somewhat caught in a shifting paradigm as they become more centered around technology and a new service role. It is unclear, especially to those like me just entering the field, how things will shake out. But I am certain of one thing after my attendance at ARSL, rural libraries are extremely adaptable, more so than their larger urban counterparts, and will profit most from their dedicated and highly skilled staff. When I tell other MLIS students I am interested in working in rural and small libraries they often give me a quizzical look and immediately ask, “but why?” It is pretty understandable. Most in my generation are more concerned with getting a high paying job in some city somewhere and library students are no exception. However, after attending ARSL I am more than ever enthusiastic about joining the rural and small library community.

Jeff D. Saunders
Research Associate
Information Use Management and Policy Institute
The Florida State University
Master’s Student
School of Library and Information Science
College of Communication and Information
The Florida State University

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