The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Rural Libraries

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Rural Libraries
Edition of 1920. See also Library on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

RURAL LIBRARIES of the present are largely an outgrowth of the general library movement in the United States for the past 40 years. Nevertheless, many of these libraries are due to earlier educational movements. The desire for self-education which has characterized the United States ever since the colonial period stimulated the growth of societies devoted, like Franklin's Junta, to the improvement of their members. These spread to the small towns throughout the original colonies. The isolation of these small communities, due to wretched transportation facilities, made these societies play a large part in the community life. Libraries were a recognized part of the activities of many of these societies. Even when the society dissolved, the library often persisted to become either the predecessor or the direct ancestor of a modern public library. Many of the libraries of New England, New York and the Atlantic seaboard originated in this way. The lyceum movement, which was influential throughout the North and West from about 1830 till after the Civil War, through its lecture courses and public discussions caused the formation of many society libraries. Even the villages, too small to maintain lecture courses, had their local “literary” or “debating societies.” Many of these maintained small libraries for their members. School libraries became fairly common. Many of these like the “school district libraries” of New York State (authorized by law in 1834) served as rural community libraries also. Sunday-schools became very common everywhere. A small library was considered an essential part of nearly all of these, whether urban, village or in isolated church or schoolhouse. These libraries served an excellent purpose in familiarizing the rural sections with the library idea even though their books were usually confined to the mediocre or evangelistic types.

Massachusetts in 1890 established a library commission which took for its purpose the founding of a free public library in every town in the State. Other library commissions were founded. In every case the founding and maintenance of rural libraries was one of their chief duties. Through the traveling libraries maintained by these commissions the number of rural libraries was greatly increased and the number and quality of their books and periodicals materially improved. The commissions have also done excellent work in attempting to put the small rural libraries in touch with larger libraries and other library activities of their respective States.

Coincident with the rise of library commissions, the University Extension movement, which was imported from England in 1887 and flourished in the United States for more than a decade afterward, promoted the formation of “extension centres” and study clubs. The need of library facilities for the use of these groups soon became apparent and, in many cases, led to the formation of rural libraries free for the use of the entire community. Later educational reading circles and other extension movements of universities or State departments of education, have done much to show the need of rural libraries. Rural community centres also usually have a small library as part of their equipment.

Rural libraries, like rural schools, are probably only at the beginning of their adequate development. In many cases they will, in all probability, be merged with the rural school library. In the larger villages the rural library will probably he independent of the school library, though co-operating with it in every practicable way. Virtually all the State library commissions, many of the State departments of education and the Federal Bureau of Education are increasing their efforts to obtain good library facilities for all residents of the State, whether in the city, the town, the remote hamlet or the isolated farmhouse. The rural school has been made possible only through State supervision and State support. It seems probable that the rural library as well is destined to receive a greater share of State support than it now gets. Closer organization of rural library interests has been begun in some places through district libraries which act as reference and distributing centres for the small libraries of their districts. In many States the county has been adopted as the district unit. The first of these county libraries was the Brumback Library of Van Wert, Ohio, which became the library centre for Van Wert County in 1894. The best-known State system of county libraries is that of California.

Many rural libraries depend almost entirety on voluntary “library associations” or educational and social clubs for their support. In an increasing number of cases the library is aided by the tax funds obtained from State and local sources. The rural libraries entirely supported by funds raised by public taxation are as yet in the minority. This, however, is the only logical means by which library facilities can be supplied adequately to rural districts and State support of libraries must increase with a growing interest in rural education. Trolley lines, better roads and the automobile have made it easier for the smaller towns and villages to act as library centres for the surrounding rural population. Book-wagons with definitely planned routes have been used to supplement the work of the local library (e.g., at Hagerstown, Md., and by the library commissions of Connecticut and Delaware).

Rural libraries are of great educational significance because of their direct contact with the people they serve. The material they circulate becomes a force in the community to an even greater extent than it does in larger places. Numerically, the rural library exceeds any other type. No library movement which does not take into account the rural library can have more than partial success.

The great needs of rural libraries are more money for more and better books and for the payment of salaries which will attract and hold librarians who are not only socially-minded but who have education and book sense enough to get the books most needed for the specific communities the libraries serve.

The State library commissions are aiding the small libraries to get better books, through bulletins, book lists and other publications whose purpose is to advise the library in the selection of suitable books. The Wisconsin Free Library Commission regularly includes in its monthly “Bulletin” a “Selected list of current books.” The New York State Library issues an annual ‘Best Books for a Small Library.’ The Booklist of the American Library Association serves a similar purpose for larger libraries. In the matter of salaries, the chief force at present is a growing realization, on the part of rural library boards, of the need of competent librarians. This is aided by a tendency, clearly apparent at present, toward the requirement of definite minimum educational and professional qualifications for all librarians engaged in public libraries of all types.

Bibliography. — The literature of rural libraries is relatively scanty. Valuable material is listed in Cannons, H. G. T., ‘Bibliography of Library Economy’ (London 1910) and in ‘Library Work’ (cumulated, Minneapolis 1912). The Library Journal and Public Libraries contain much material on the subject of rural and other small libraries. The most direct source of information is often the bulletins of the different library commissions, since these are chiefly devoted to the interests of small libraries.

Frank K. Walter,
Vice-Director, New York State Library School.