Rural libraries are essential to their communities

ambrose library front door
The front door of the Ambrose Library welcomes all.

The front door to the Ambrose Library is always open during business hours, red and silver hand-painted letters spelling “Welcome” on one side and “Hola” on the other. From inside the small brick building, you can hear children at the playground next door and the occasional train passing through this south Georgia town of 400 residents.

The library’s three public computers provide the only free broadband access in the community, and three days a week, you can usually find local artist Sule Opro using one of them.

“From the Ambrose Library I can travel the world,” Sule said. “I come here to research my next project, catch up on current events and see countries I may never visit.”

Sule believes that the library is an oasis of resources for him and other community members. “While I’m here, I see people dropping off books and sharing conversation, and kids coming in for storytime and socialization.”

Rural Georgia libraries like Ambrose, one of six branches in the Satilla Regional Library System, address significant challenges in their communities by providing computer and broadband access, building employment skills for patrons and strengthening literacy for all ages. In a place like Ambrose, where the median household income is around $22,000, people can’t find these resources anywhere else locally.

The Satilla system also has partnerships with regional attractions including the Okenfenokee Swamp Park, Jacksonville Zoo, Flint River Aquarium and the Georgia Agrirama in Tifton, allowing patrons to check out passes for free admission for cultural enrichment.

library manager bobbie mcgray

“From this little library, a person can access the PINES system of more than 11 million shared library materials across Georgia, and within a week it will be here. PINES creates equity no matter where you live.” – Nicholls Branch Manager Bobbie McGray.

Ambrose Branch Manager Sue Hepworth enjoys being a part of the small community and wants to keep developing library programming to meet its needs. She hopes to increase Spanish-language materials, introduce computer skills workshops and find ways to better reach the residents who live on nearby farms.

“The town residents and officials here love their library,” she said. “I want this to be a place where everyone feels welcome to learn and read and can access the resources they need to achieve their goals.”

On the other side of the state, the Cherokee Regional Library System serves two rural counties that are divided by a mountain, near the borders of Tennessee and Alabama. Lack of public transportation can be a barrier for potential patrons to access a library, so the system partnered with schools to send a digital library card application home with every child the first week of school.

Their initial launch in fall 2018 reached over 3,000 students and their families, resulting in nearly 500 digital card sign-ups so far. The library has set a goal to have every child in their school system obtain a library card.

“There are many parents and caregivers in our community who are unaware of what the library offers and how it can impact their child’s educational journey,” said Lecia Eubanks, director of the Cherokee Regional Library System. “This project has the potential to make a big difference for many students in our region.”

The e-card allows students to digitally access e-books, the GALILEO research database, Mango Languages, Learning Express tutorials and tests and more from beyond the library walls. A secondary benefit has been increased enthusiasm from students with an e-card to visit a library.

“We recently had a kindergartner and her mother visit the library for the first time,” said Eubanks. “Her mother said the child had been begging to come to the library ever since she had gotten her e-card. She left with a bag full of books – this is exactly the type of response that lets us know we are on the right track with our e-card outreach.”

The services provided by rural libraries are as unique as the different communities in which they are located. In northeast Georgia, the Hart County Library’s single branch serves a county of 25,000 people.

patron using computers at Satilla Regional Library
“Internet access at the library is a lifeline for many residents of Douglas,” said Kandis Mingo, who used Satilla Regional Library’s computers, printers, resources and internet as she obtained her master’s degree in criminal justice. Even though she now has internet access at home, she still visits the library to look for potential jobs or to check out a good book. The Douglas, Ga., population is 11,400.

The library finds creative ways to host programs such as weekly yoga and Zumba – funded entirely through a voluntary tip jar for instructors, a Walking Dead day complete with zombie children roaming stacks of books, and Skype visits from authors to book discussion groups. Their local Friends of the Library group funds all their newspaper and magazine subscriptions, new best-selling books each month and some Summer Reading Program activities.

“Rural libraries often must do more with less,” said Director Richard Sanders. “Our uniqueness is the level of personal, welcoming service we can provide our patrons with a staff of mostly longtime employees. And while we can often be more responsive to requests for materials or programming, budget limitations mean we can’t do some things. Fortunately, with networks like PINES, we can facilitate access to more resources even if we aren’t providing them directly.”

Hart County Library is deeply embedded in the community, with groups meeting there regularly to sew clothes for babies, stitch quilts for charity fundraisers, discuss books by local authors and more. It’s also a critical technology access point.

“The local McDonalds may have Wi-Fi, but they aren’t providing the computer to let people get online or printers for the papers they may need,” said Sanders. “There are plenty of people in rural areas who have no daily access to technology. They may not need it every day, but the library has it when they do.” n