Letters from the Road - Day 8

ALA Holding Space, a national conversation with libraries. August 5: From Interior to Border: Libraries Reaching Rural Communities, Cordes Lakes, AZ

Hello from Cordes Lakes, Arizona.

Continuing its westward journey, our bus traveled to the Cordes Lakes Library for an important discussion, “From Interior to Border: Libraries Reaching Rural Communities,” of the rural library’s unique role in keeping residents connected and cultivating community relationships.

Libraries are essential in rural areas like Cordes Lakes, where the library has seen a 60-percent increase in the number of visits. It is so heavily used that an expansion was necessary.

It is more than a place for books or movies. It is a place for community events like Star Wars days, as well as a place where residents can get documents notarized, avoiding a one- or two-hour trip.

We learned about the resourcefulness of rural libraries.

Corey Christians, Director, Yavapai County Free Library District, said rural libraries have banded together to achieve savings by joining a newly formed COPPER consortium, which takes on the role of procurement for its members.

Yavapai County Supervisor Thomas Thurman shared with us how the Friends of the Library helped with the expansion of the Cordes Lakes Library by providing the funds for a parking lot.

We gained valuable insights into how libraries serve rural communities along the U.S./Mexico border.

Star Wars Day celebration at Cordes Lakes Public Library

Amber Mathewson, Director, Pima County Public Library District, said It is not enough to have programs in Spanish, libraries need to go out to the community and connect with people where they are. She said that with LSTA funding, she was able to hire a consultant to conduct a survey that helped the library design services for Spanish-speaking people. The library also added a Latinx program manager.

Amadee Ricketts, Director, Cochise County Public Library District, said the library in Cochise County, which has 130,000 residents in its 6,000 square miles, serves as a community hub and offers for many the only public internet. Over the summer, its rural branches partnered with local schools to serve more than 500 healthy lunches for students. She said its series of “frank talks,” presented by the Arizona State Library and Arizona Humanities at the Douglas Public Library, less than two miles from the port of entry with Mexico, brought more than 60 people on a rainy day to have a deeply felt, but civil discussion about the border and the wall and its impact on the community.

We heard from John Walsh, who is President of the Arizona Library Association and Director of Library Services, Cochise College, which has campuses in Douglas and Sierra Vista. Walsh, whose college in Douglas, Arizona, is a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) and sits one mile north of the border, said many students have to cross that border every day to get to class.

Ofelia “Liz” Zepeda, Library Director, O’ohana Ki: Tohono O’odham College Library and Marla Price, Library Assistant, Navajo Technical University, shared their experiences working in rural libraries located within tribal nations. The Tohono O'odham nation is in the southern part of the state but it also overlaps into Mexico, sharing 62 miles of the border with Mexico. Price said her students travel long distances and cannot access the library on weekends because of Navajo nation curfews. She said she tries to help as much as she can from home.

State Senator Lisa Otondo, who has the second largest district in Arizona, told us the digital divide is a huge issue in her district. Many don’t have access to broadband because it is cost prohibitive. So the libraries have become the community anchor to address that gap. The library has also become an important hub for Census activities, so rural communities can get the funding they need.

Otondo said that lack of access has disproportionately hurt low-income families, tribal nations, and rural areas and needs to be addressed. She said there was hope that a special session would help address the issue. But now it appears these areas will have to wait until 2021, unless the governor can direct some CARES funds to libraries. She said we have to make sure that students who live in rural and tribal areas aren't left behind.

State librarian Holly Henley discussed how the state library fills a badly needed gap for rural libraries by assisting with grants, including a construction grant through State Grants-in-Aid that helped secure funding for the Cordes Lakes Library.

Ribbon-cutting ceremony at Cordes Lakes Library

Nicole Umayam, Digital Inclusion Library Consultant, Arizona State Library, raised some significant points about the huge digital divide that exists today. Accessibility, she said, is a matter of equity and justice. It is not enough, she said, that a library has wi-fi access, when it is a challenge for people to travel to the library. She also pointed out that some rural library buildings don’t provide service that meets the FCC’s definition of broadband service.

She cited a sobering statistic. There are 1.3 million households in Arizona that don’t have broadband internet access at home.

And while many libraries provide parking lot access, even that can be a problem in Arizona, she said, where temperatures reach 118 degrees Fahrenheit.

This was my eighth stop on an exciting 12-stop virtual tour, Holding Space: A national conversation series with libraries. My goal is to spotlight how libraries of all kinds across the country are addressing the needs of their diverse communities and engaging stakeholders to advocate for libraries.

Support America’s libraries by urging Congress to support the Library Stabilization Fund Act. Take action to keep #LibrariesStrong.

Also, it is not too late to join us for future dynamic discussions. Visit the Holding Space website to register or follow #ALAHoldingSpace for tour updates.