Keeping Up With... Small and Rural Libraries

Small and Rural Libraries

This edition of Keeping Up With... was written by Rebecca Freeman.

Rebecca Freeman is Assistant Librarian at the University of South Carolina-Lancaster Medford Library., email:


All libraries have challenges, concerns and problems that they have to handle. Small and rural libraries are no different. If you work in a small and rural library you know that there are many different challenges facing these institutions and while each institution may have very unique challenges, many face very similar issues. This article will briefly look at some of the challenges facing small and rural libraries, some methods for facing those challenges, and why keeping up with library developments in these institutions is so important.


Staffing is the bane of many small and rural libraries. Very few have enough staffing for the work that needs doing. Staff are often called to do the work of multiple individuals. There are some advantages to having staff that can do different jobs. It can, however, also cause stress for the staff.  In some cases when one staff member is out, other staff members have to take on additional duties to ensure that all of the work gets done. While it means that the work is not impeded by absence, it does require that there is time for adequate training of all of the staff. When does this cross training take place when there is little extra time due to staffing?

Staffing is a challenge that can be mitigated through volunteers and part time staff members. One thing to remember is that while libraries in general often seek to be everything to everyone, we cannot. Some things may need to wait for staffing changes, or staff may need to be creative and think outside the box to create ways to get things done.


Funding is an issue that faces all libraries, no matter the size. So how and why is funding an issue specific to small and rural libraries? Many times small and rural libraries have smaller operational budgets than larger libraries. When there are cuts to the budget, as there has been recently, small and rural libraries tend to suffer more than other libraries, those cuts frequently go proportionally deeper. While budgets are very dependent on the institution that runs the library, it is important to remember that there are other means of funding. For some, those other funding sources might be the Friends of the Library. Seeking out grants is also a possibility, though the time required to do so may conflict with other challenges of small and rural libraries. The primary method to help lessen the impact of funding cuts is to be creative with the resources and services that are provide. Maybe look toward open access when possible. As with staffing it is important to also remember that while we in libraries generally would like to provide services for everyone, we cannot be everything for everyone.

Professional Development

Professional development is very important to librarianship. One of the things that limited staffing affects is access to professional development; limited staff creates an inability to leave the library to attend conferences and other programs. Being able to attend professional development programs, whether in person or online, is very important to the continued growth of the library because it allows librarians to learn from others and even collaborate for the betterment of the community.

What are some ways to learn about what is being done in other institutions? In the event that conferences or workshops are outside the realm of possibility, there are many other options for professional development. You can join local or regional library associations. In addition, there are national organizations that are focused on small and rural libraries. [1] Some of these organizations provide online resources for further research. They also provide a local network that you can pull on to learn about what is happening in local libraries. While it can be time consuming, join library listservs. There is a listserv out there that will meet your research interests. It may be difficult to do but schedule in time to do a little professional development every week to keep up with what is happening in the library world.


Resources often suffer due to a lack of staffing and not being able to get enough professional development. Resources go beyond databases and books. While collection development can be difficult when there is limited time, many companies make getting and evaluating resources much easier and quicker. Resources, however, like new technology, new services, and even things like makerspaces are a different story. Many librarians find out about these new resources through research, professional development, and collaborations, which is limited, and require additional funding.

As with professional development, one way to find out about new resources is to join library listservs as well as local organizations. It may be that you want to slowly incorporate new technologies and services in such a way that it does not strain library staffing. Continuing to be aware of and adding new resources and services is very important for any library.


In small and rural libraries one of the issues that comes up is the lack of leadership development and succession planning. Due in part to small staff and usually flat organizational structures, there is often very limited ability to learn leadership from those within the institution. Some organizations are lucky and have a strong leader within their ranks, but what can you do if that is not the case? Indeed, this is an opportunity to become the leader in your institution. Admittedly, this is very easy to say and very hard to do. Librarians may feel ill-equipped to be leaders and many MLIS programs do not provide much training in how to lead once students go into libraries. There are, however, leadership programs within library organizations. In addition, this can be a chance to make use of local and national connections to work with a mentor to become a leader within your organization. Having leadership within the organization allows the library to have a better footing to address issues.

Why Keeping Up Is Important

Why is it important to keep up with developments within the library world? How do you do it when there are so many pressures from staffing to leadership affecting your everyday work life? Staying current with developments within the library world is vital to ensuring that you are providing the best service you can to your patrons as well as making your work life as manageable as possible. Some ways of keeping up with developments that have been mentioned are joining local, regional, and national library organizations, joining library listservs, and scheduling in a weekly research time. It takes less time to keep up with developments and to keep your library current than to become outdated and have to make sweeping changes later. 

In addition to librarians within small and rural libraries keeping up with developments, librarians at larger and more urban libraries can gain from following what other librarians are doing. As has been mentioned, small and rural libraries do a lot with a little, and as budgets in all types of libraries shrink, this is becoming more important. Librarians in smaller and rural libraries are also called on to be more creative with how they do things, which can bring new resources and processes into the library world.


Only some of the challenges facing small and rural libraries were address above. Each library is going to have its own challenges to address. The main thing to remember is that as much as we want to be everything to everyone, we cannot. Those of us who work in small and rural libraries have to be extra creative and think outside the box to provide resources and services to our patrons with fewer resources to work with.


[1] A large national organization for small and rural libraries is the Association for Rural and Small Libraries,, there are also smaller organziations such as the Iowa Small Library Association at and the Wisconsin Small Libraries a section of the Wisconsin Library Association at

Learn More

Here are some resources for learning more about what is happening in small and rural libraries.