2012 ARSL Conference Recap

First published in Pennsylvania Compendium

By Linda Orsted, Flenniken Public Library, Carmichaels, PA

The Association of Rural and Small Libraries is an amazing organization. It is managed by volunteers whose energy and commitment to its mission of addressing the needs of small and rural libraries keeps it focused and productive. I was honored to meet library staff members from Maine to Alaska at the recent ARSL annual conference in Raleigh, NC. Conferences often advertise their networking opportunities. It’s really true at ARSL. As great as the speakers and workshops were, I got as many ideas from casual conversations with other attendees as I did in the formal sessions. Every person who attends has a story about ‘what works for us’, or ‘these are the hurdles I overcame to get the funding the library needed.’

I attended a 4-hour pre-conference session called “What Do I do Next?” with Don Reynolds, retired director of the Nolichucky Regional Library in Tennessee. Don has a wealth of knowledge about how libraries operate, what challenges public libraries face now, and what challenges they may be facing in the future. Each person attending the session shared a threat or challenge their library is facing now. To no one’s surprise, many were similar—funding, marketing, the rapid change in technology, and keeping the library relevant in the community. One library director commented that they were ‘too successful.’ They are running so many programs and have such a high circulation that they are exhausted!

Don’s presentation focused on ways library directors and staff (if they are fortunate enough to have other staff) can find the community’s pulse, assess its health, and address the needs of its residents. Here are some of his suggestions:

  • Get out in the community. Library leaders should spend at least 10% of their time outside the building. Find out what business leaders are doing and what kind of information they need. Talk to official and/or perceived community leaders about the library as a community commons.
  • Gather ideas from outside of the library literature. Marketing and leadership gurus have great ideas that can be transformed for the library world. Find some brands and logos that you like and go from there.
  • Find library fans to help you get the word out about how wonderful the library is. Don quotes Will Rogers: “Get someone else to blow your horn and the sound will carry twice as far.”
  • Look at past winners of Library Journal’s Best Small Library award. Get inspired to try something innovative, and then apply for the award for your library. (The library director of the Independence, KS library spoke at the conference about winning the award.)
  • Don’t get lost in the digital divide. Make sure you know about emerging technology and implement its use in your library. (Don winks and suggests hiring a sixth grader as your technology coordinator.)
  • Be customer-friendly in everything you do at the library, and around your community, for that matter. Your next patron, donor, or advocate might be standing behind you in the grocery line. Can it hurt to return their books to the library for them?

After that whirlwind start to the conference, I wondered if the rest of the events would be as information-packed and energizing. Yes, they were!

There was quite a bit of discussion at the conference about libraries as community commons (i.e. gathering places for civic discourse). Lisa Lewis, the library director in Huachuca City, AZ, titled her workshop ‘Turning Your Library into a Community Anchor.’ She used the anchor as a metaphor for the library. It provides support and stability as well as flexibility in the community. The library is a champion of the arts, culture, youth services, the community itself, and a supplier of information.

Lisa talked about how she and her staff have made sure the library delivers on its promise to be a community anchor. The library provides support to the community in many ways, including workshops on subjects related to job hunting (résumé writing, dress for success, life after high school) and other life skills; ongoing classes for computer skills, GED preparation, needlework, genealogy, Every Child Ready to Read, and parenting; and regular programs (story time, family literacy night, art festival, back-to-school night, etc.) In response to community surveys, the library provides Internet access, a collection of best-sellers in book and other formats, databases, job listings, e-readers, reference services, and activities especially for seniors. The library is open to trying new things, partnering with other organizations in the community, and being responsive to community needs.

She reminded us that 6 out of 10 people want to live in a community with a library. Even if they don’t use the library, they see it as an essential part of a healthy community. The library is open to everyone. It’s a great place. In order to make it a great community anchor, Lisa says, “Show up, pay attention, then act!”

It was an inspiring four days. It met lots of wonderful, committed, energetic people. This was the first conference where everything applied to me! It reminded me that small and rural libraries are significant forces in our communities. We can make a real difference in people’s lives. The 2013 annual conference will be in Omaha. Go!

Even if you did not attend the conference, you may read the handouts at www.arsl.info/category/handouts. Conference handouts go all the way back to the 2006 conference, so there is a wealth of information on the site. Please check it out. You will want to bookmark it for future reference.

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