The results summarized here represent one of many research components in our project, namely a mailed and online survey directed at five communities in our study of rural libraries in Kansas and Maine. The survey was available in online and as well as hard copy formats. The sampling frame is registered voters (N=7000) in selected regions of those two states – including six communities in which the local public library had offered a hotspots to patrons. We chose communities in which roughly 70% of more of the population was in fact registered to vote (one county was lower, at a 64% voter registration rate). Within those communities, every registered voter was contacted in four ways: with an initial postcard informing them about the survey and providing an online link at which to complete the survey; with a full questionnaire and information form; with a reminder postcard; and finally with another final full mailing with a questionnaire. Our response rate is roughly 13.3%, quite acceptable for a mailed survey.
The items in the survey concern connectivity, social capital and library roles in communities. We replicated several items from a national survey From Awareness to Funding conducted by OCLC and the ALA earlier in 2018 whose mission was to assess public support for funding libraries. We offer some comparisons between our “small town” results and the national survey periodically in this document.
Rural Perceptions of Libraries
A majority of rural area residents see great benefits to their public libraries.
Our analysis shows that 70% of the respondents believe their library to be a great resource for students to get help with homework, and 57% said that it is a vital resource to small businesses. From this, it should come as no surprise that 94% of rural Americans said it would be a great loss to their community if their public library closed down.
While 84% of the rural respondents have visited a library in the past year – over half of them reporting they visited at least a few times that year – comparable national data report that 70% of voters have visited a public library at least once in the last year (Figure 1).
Interestingly these rural residents valued the library for many reasons. In addition to being a source for books and reading material, libraries also serve as a resource for business and education. Indeed many saw their public library as a locus of community gatherings and said it enhanced overall quality of life.
Rural and National Attitudes Compared
In 2017, OCLC teamed up with the American Library Association (ALA) and the Public Library Association (PLA) to study the underlying reasons voters support library funding. The study sampled two populations, one of US voters living in areas with a population fewer than 300,000, the other living in areas with greater populations. Their results showed little variation in public attitudes toward public libraries based on population size.
However, in Table 1, we compare their results to the rural public attitudes captured in our survey of exclusively small rural communities. These results illustrate that small communities value public libraries much more for their free access to books, their ability to provide resources to students, their ability to enhance local quality of life, their ability to help locate trusted information, and their importance for local small businesses compared to larger communities. However, rural respondents are significantly more likely to agree that Internet-based research is easier than doing research in the library and they register slightly higher agreement with the statement that the public library is “not top of mind” for regular visits.
|National Survey||Cities with populations <300K||Cities with populations 300K+||IMLS Rural Communities Survey|
|Free access to books||65%||66%||63%||93%|
|An excellent resource for students to get help with homework||53%||52%||55%||68%|
|A place to turn to for help in disaster situations||41%||41%||41%||38%|
|Enhances the quality of life in a community||57%||58%||56%||83%|
|Helps people find trustworthy information||62%||62%||62%||90%|
|An important resource for small businesses (by providing space, WIFI, business expertise and resources, etc.)||46%||45%||49%||57%|
|With the Internet, the public library has become obsolete||25%||24%||28%||6%|
|My public library is not top of mind – I just don’t think to go there||26%||25%||28%||30%|
|It’s easier to do research on the Internet using search engines like Google and Yahoo! than in the local public library||38%||39%||36%||63%|
Rural inhabitants strongly value local libraries, and use them for many purposes. In comparison to the OCLC National Survey, we see a strong and positive difference between how rural people value public libraries compared to the rest of the country. This suggests that despite the growth of digital information technology that is often used in the home, public libraries continue to play a significant role for rural communities. A rural town’s library can provide information and services of all sorts through its Internet connection, computers, and knowledgeable personnel. In addition, rural survey respondents indicate that their library provides benefits beyond access to information, Internet and digital technology, enhancing the community’s quality of life. In short, the role of the public library in rural communities has not waned and in fact may be escalating as more digital resources and digital expertise reside in the public library.