I’ve been to library conferences before – national, state, even mini-conferences – but I’ve never been to a conference like ARSL. As a small-town librarian from the rural state of Alabama, I’m used to carrying a chip on my shoulder when it comes to funding and possibilities. At other conferences I’d inevitably leave discouraged, knowing that the ideas outlined there would never be possible for me and my budget.
ARSL was different. Suddenly, I wasn’t the smallest town at the table – in fact, at a population of 6,600, I was one of the biggest! Meeting librarians who had accomplished so much, in towns even smaller than mine, was incredibly inspiring. It’s really difficult to walk away discouraged about the possibility of completing a project when you’ve just listened to a detailed and passionate presentation about how it was done in a town of 800 people. Meeting solo librarians really put things into perspective for me. Instead of focusing on my limitations, I had my eyes opened to the resources I have. If these libraries could do so much with so little, what couldn’t I accomplish?
In our field, we’re used to disappointments; we’re used to having our needs ignored, our budgets slashed, and our services misunderstood or belittled. It takes a special kind of dedication – an especially tough brand of hope – to fight the good fight, and always push to deliver the services that we know our communities so desperately need. In our often insulated work environments, it can be hard to remember why we even try, when the rest of the world so often questions our purpose. But just like our pack-horse-riding forbearers, rural librarians are uniquely resilient. Being surrounded by so many other passionate professionals, who believe in the cause as much as I do, who sometimes fought even harder or went through even more, was incredibly uplifting. I spoke to librarians from New York, New Hampshire, Utah, northern California, and Arkansas. I asked detailed questions, commiserated about funding, and listened wide-eyed to stories of quiet determination and fortitude. In dine-arounds, after-hours events, and casual dinners, I immersed myself in this tribe of formidable public servants. At each and every session, I learned something useful, filling up almost my entire notebook with ideas and practical, hands-on tips.
What I came away with, and what I will always be grateful to ARSL for providing me with, was this: it can be done, and we can do it. As far-flung and isolated as we might be, rural and small-town librarians are some of the bravest public servants I’ve ever encountered, and ARSL reminded me that I am one of them. It might be a cliché, but it’s true – if you can only go to one conference, go to ARSL.