Comparing Rural and Urban Libraries – A Day in the Life of a Librarian Who Lives In Both Worlds

One of our branch librarians who lives in a community half an hour from Regina also works for Regina Public Library.  She wrote this article comparing and contrasting the two types of libraries for the Sask Library Association newsletter a couple years ago.  Although some things have changed since she wrote it, it's still a good read with lots of insight into the differences between the libraries in a city and small town. 

I meant to post this essay when I was working in some of the communities near Regina because those branches within 30-45 minutes of the “big city” have some unique challenges compared to our more isolated or removed branches. 

I didn't do so at the time for whatever reason but there's no time like the present so here it is…  (Reprinted with permission)


A day
in the life…
Branch Librarian in Milestone, Sk.
Regional Library


of years in this position:
years in this location as a branch librarian, the previous 7 yrs. as an
assistant here.

previous to becoming the assistant in Milestone, I was the branch librarian in
Carievale Saskatchewan, another branch of SERL, which I held for 8 years.

of open hours a week: currently 13


in library work:  In university I was a part-time desk assistant at Saint
Thomas More College Library. I have a B.A. in English. My other classes were
mostly history and drama, which serve me well in library work.

of my library setting: The Milestone Branch library is a good size for a rural
library, aprox. 1000 sq. ft.. We have a large room full of adult materials (
books and magazines, a few videos), a photocopier and three public access
computers, as well as a children’s room (books, magazines) in the rear of the
building.  The library has been housed in this building on Main Street
since 1980 and has undergone some renovation over the years. You would never
guess it used to be a Laundromat! The credit union next door has allowed us to
put a drop box in their lobby for returns when we are closed. The library board
consists of volunteers, who fundraise and help with programs and other library
needs; the town looks after the building and associated costs.  This
library was established in Feb. 1967, so will soon be 40 years old!

part-time Library Assistant
of years in this position: 8
of Library: Sherwood Village Library
of open hours a week: 46 in summer, 49.5 in winter

of town and population: Regina, Saskatchewan, aprox. 200,000

of library setting: Sherwood Village is a large building with  a main
floor full of adult materials (books, magazines, DVD’s, CD’s, spoken word) as
well as juvenile non-fiction, a mezzanine floor with children’s materials,
toys,  and a storyroom, as well as  a basement with staff areas and a
large program/meeting room. This building has always been the Sherwood Village
library, although sometimes the staff wonder if the architects knew what they
were doing when they designed it!  This branch celebrated it’s 25th
birthday February 2006.

did I first find myself interested in library work? Probably as soon as I knew
libraries existed! My parents read a lot, and my grandparents found ways to
squeak reading into their long days of farming also. When I was a preschooler,
all my books would have been purchased, but when I was in grade school, we had
the services of the Provincial Library! My girlfriend and I spent hours
perusing pamphlets of various colors that listed all the children’s books we could
order. We filled out dozens of requests at once so that our mailboxes were
always full of big yellow bubblepacks of books. Eventually, we got a bookmobile
that came to our village. I believe we must have been allowed to go during
school time, or perhaps afternoon recess, as parents did not shuttle their
children to town every day as they do now. In the 70’s we got our own branch
library where my family would visit once a week. When I was in grade 7 or so,
there were rumours that in grade nine you could help in the school library, so
I developed aspirations of becoming a library helper, but I don’t think they
needed anyone the year I was in grade 9. I was not too happy with that!
However, I was looking forward to moving up into high school, where there would
be a new library full of books. Unfortunately, as I discovered early on in
grade 10, all the school libraries in that division were likely supplied by the
same acquisitions personnel, because there was nothing new for me to read
there….Thank goodness for the public library!

I have
to admit, I did entertain thoughts of becoming a teacher, but all I had to do
was take one look at those middle-schoolers and think, nope, not for me! I
enjoyed working with children, but couldn’t imagine having to be in charge of
them all day!  My game plan, upon graduation, was to get my Bachelor’s
degree, and then, because there were no library degrees available in
Saskatchewan, to continue on to take a tech course at Kelsey. I was thrilled to
bits when one of my first-year profs one day mentioned they needed help in the
STM library at the U of S. I shot my hand in the air, and that was the
beginning of my library career. I was sure that would lead to some kind of
library work after graduation.  Of course, I didn’t reckon on meeting my
husband, falling in love, and starting a family. Neither of us expected to go
back to rural Saskatchewan, but my husband got a job way down in the southeast
corner of the province, so we packed up our household and moved in 1982.

Carievale, I tried to get a position in the school library, but I failed the
typing test when the principal loomed over my shoulder. However, when our
branch librarian ( at nearly 90 years of age!) retired, I was likely the only
applicant with library experience. I was on my way! Little did I realize this
would be the beginning of my career in public library service…

think that public library service really is my preferred place to be, due to
the variety that presents itself. Being a reader is what drew me into this type
of work, but wanting to help people and solve problems is what has kept me
here. I enjoy people and you meet all kinds in a public library setting. This
is true of both rural and urban libraries. The excitement of sharing books is
there no matter the numbers of preschoolers in  your storytime or adults
at the circ desk.

the challenges of being a rural librarian? First and foremost, getting those
bodies in the door! In this age of convenience and instant gratification, it is
hard for people to have to wait for their books. Maybe our hours aren’t
convenient or as many as folk would like; maybe they have to wait for our
once/week mail delivery to get their holds. Milestone is in the position of
being half an hour from Regina and Weyburn, so many commuters choose to use the
libraries there. The selection is bigger and the hours more convenient.

there is the problem that all libraries have right now, competition with video
games, television, home computers and so forth. When I was growing up, there
weren’t a lot of choices. One channel of black and white tv could not hold a
candle to the latest Black Stallion or Nancy Drew. There was not the ease of
access to other extra-curricular activities either. In Regina this summer, one
of my regulars, a young teen, was unable to attend the usual programs because
she was skating every day! Children, and their families have to make
choices about how they spend their free time, and sadly, the library is often
not very high on their priority list.  I find this to be a bigger problem
in rural Sask. but it exists in urban Sask. as well.

Another challenge might include being farther from support services, although with
e-mail, fax machines and the internet, it isn’t really very different to be
half an hour from Weyburn’s HQ, than it is to be half a city away from Central
in Regina.  The main difference is that Regina has mail deliveries almost
daily and Southeast Regional has it weekly.

we share many of  the same databases, courtesy of the province, my rural
library  branch does not have the CD’s, movies, audiobooks on cassette and
CD (and now downloadable to MP3 audiobooks!) that Regina residents find so
easily accessible at RPL. Some CD’s , DVD’s, videos, and audiobooks are
available for holds from other locations in the region.  Unfortunately,
those items are unavailable for ILLO out of the region, so while our patrons
who use their Southeast card in Regina can borrow these items, access is not
available for every patron in Milestone. If we were to purchase these types of
items for our collection, the money would have to be fundraised by the local
board and it is felt that the amount needed to keep such a collection current
is beyond our means.  There will always be the question in both urban and
rural systems as to how much money should be dedicated to non-literary

One of
the biggest challenges in Saskatchewan will always be  the big money
issue. Taxpayers in Regina pay much more in library taxes than rural residents,
hence RPL’s ability to have those wonderful collections. Our funds for
purchasing paperbacks and magazines are much smaller in a regional library
branch. Even accepting donations is less easy than it used to be because of the
processing costs involved, although I suspect this is true of all library
systems. Staff time equals money, therefore less money means less time to do
what needs doing. I think this applies to library systems all over Saskatchewan
as our taxpayer base declines, but it is much more noticeable in a small town
as the loss of revenue is immediately seen in a smaller collection or less open
hours.  I do think that non-library users are much more vocal in griping
about their library taxes in the city, but I assume this is because the amount
is itemized on their tax bill, where in Milestone, the amount is not shown.
Honestly, I would think that people anywhere would appreciate that for the cost
of a few books, or a few month’s worth of newspaper subscription, they have
access to a really astounding  library system. Unless they travel,
Saskatchewan patrons have no idea how truly lucky they are to have such
excellent library service and pay so little!

Milestone, one of  my bigger challenges is getting school aged children
into the library for reading material, as opposed to the Public Access
computers. Our school has a lovely large library filled with newer chapter
books; I haven’t the funds to compete with that. In Regina, I understand that
their school libraries are underfunded, so perhaps that boosts RPL.

Regina, we have no trouble getting preschoolers in, but in Milestone it is very
difficult. If a parent has to drive into town for their preschooler to go to
playschool or skating lessons, they are not going to come in at a different
time of day to come to the library.  Also, if your one evening opening
falls on hockey practice night, you are out of luck for getting those parents
or their children in. In Regina, even if your library is closed on Saturday or
a weekday night, there are others that you can go to. Of course, the mobility
of the city patron is also limited by funds; if you have no car, it is not very
easy to access the open branch across town.

my biggest personal challenge, in both my positions, is getting enough time to
get everything done! I think library work is one of those things where 
you can always think of MORE and BETTER ways to be of service and it is
definitely a challenge keeping on top of what the public wants and finding the
time to put new ideas into action.

considering the collections, and the PAC’s, I think that the definitions
of  what public libraries are and what we should offer are undergoing much
change as we move into the future.  Staff members aren’t always very happy
about these changes. It’s hard to know until time has passed whether some
changes are good ideas or not. I believe that the newest trends in audiovisual
items are being provided to help offset the trend in not reading, which is good
for library circulation, but I can’t help but wish that more people would just
pick up a book and read it to their kids! Sometimes patrons in both my
libraries complain that libraries just aren’t the havens of peace and quiet
that they used to be. I have to admit I enjoy the sight (and sound) of families
at Sherwood Village: Mums nursing babies in our cozy new play area while
toddlers play with toys as older siblings and Dads browse for books.

(Having said this, one of the first things I did in Milestone when we got public
computers was to install headphones so I don’t have to listen to all the noise
that most of my patrons seem to discover in their surfing of the net!) Yes,
this is definitely not your father’s library!

is unique about a rural library setting? Well, the most obvious difference is
that I know almost every patron who walks in my door. This allows for
personalized service. Perhaps I might set aside a new book for someone who I
know loves that type of book, or I might make a visit with talking books or
large print to the home of a senior. As in many small town situations (eg.
Needing some help after hours at the gas station) people might feel they can
call you at home if they need something. Last summer, I was walking out of a
gas station in Moose Jaw and one of my patrons from Milestone was walking
in—she asked me if her daughter could book the computer for the next afternoon!
I don’t think that would happen in Regina!

We do
get our regulars at Sherwood Village as well. You can watch some families grow
up in your library, so to speak. Of course, some patrons you can get quite
close to, and suddenly they move across the city and you never see them again.
Some people, though, are notorious across the city branches!  I would have
to say that we get fewer trouble-makers in the Milestone branch. Maybe
threatening to call your mother works better in a small town!

One of
the most gratifying things about working at Sherwood Village is seeing the
number of families who come in together. People in Regina still take out stacks
and stacks of picture books for their preschoolers; middle-schoolers and teens
still come in and take out tons of items for their enjoyment as well as for
school. This does my heart good, because I just don’t see it happening in my
rural library. Most of my regulars are elderly and female. The reading
population here is on the decline and I don’t seem to be able to do anything
about it.

big difference is volunteerism. Rural libraries depend on it. In Regina, there
are no systems in place for a volunteer organization to help the library.
Although last year at Sherwood Village, we did have a patron who took it upon
herself to beautify our weedy flower bed. The problem is, no one did it this
year, so we were back to weeds and rocks. I think in a small town, you may have
more of a sense of ownership. Rural residents know that there is no one else
who is going to do it for you, so if you want your school,  park, or
library improved, you have to take on the responsibility of helping out. 
However, as more and more folks have to take on more paid work to make a
living, they have less time and energy for volunteerism, so this too, is on the
decline everywhere.

Milestone, I am the P.R. Department,  the Outreach department and the
Programming Department, as well as being the accountant, the desk staff and the
reference librarian. The library board is meant to take on those first few
roles, but in reality, regional librarians do a lot of volunteer library work
as well. The workload in running  a public  library is similar, no
matter the size. In Regina, I have a lot of the same duties, but of course,
there are many other staff people to depend on as well.

is a very necessary function of a rural library board, as there are always
things that fall between the cracks of HQ- provided and municipality- provided.
 For instance, prizes for programs, office supplies and extra books/
magazines fall into the fundraising category.  In Regina, this is not the
case, but funds are needed for capital expenses, to replace aging
infrastructure.  I think that Regina Public could benefit by having more
fundraising. The new board of RPL has embraced fundraising for capital funds,
but I also think there would be a benefit from smaller ventures, such as
selling coffee at the film theatre to offset the costs of running it. Most city
libraries have a “Friends” group that fundraises to augment expenses.

In the
question of professional development, I would have to say that Regina provides
a lot of in-house staff training, while in Southeast, it is offered less often.
However, in some cases, Southeast was training its branch librarians in
databases that the desk staff at Regina had yet to hear about. I think there
are more opportunities to put the training into practice in the city though.
More people there are inclined to ask about new services.

Public has more money for outside training, where regional librarians have to
pay out of their own pocket (or the board’s if it has extra funds for training)
to attend SLA workshops or other training. There is also the issue of
traveling. Milestone is close to the city, but many regional librarians travel
2 hours each way to attend workshops. This affects the availability of training
for rural librarians. The new teleconferences seem to be a cheaper, easier way
of getting the training to anyone who needs it. It is easier to take a few
hours out of one day to receive training than to set aside a few days to travel
to a conference. I find this a positive step in a province where the population
is spread out and dollars are declining.

paraprofessionals miss out on jobs and recognition? Perhaps they do—rural
librarians man their posts mostly for the love of what they do and recognizing
the importance of providing library service in areas that have all services
declining. They certainly aren’t going to make piles of money at it, and not
many people will appreciate them until they are gone. There are a few rural
library staff people who go on to work in the cities, but as the criteria for
city library jobs change to require more education, the possibility of job
availability may change. Again, as the economy tightens, it is harder to find
people who are willing or able to work only a few hours a week in a job that
requires quite a bit of training and knowledge as the electronic services
expand. I don’t think your average small town person has any idea of the amount
of things you need to know to run a library. In the old days, you had rural
librarians who stayed at it until retirement and sometimes beyond! I think that
trend is changing as the demands of the job are ramped up. Younger people are
taking their place and often have to find another compatible job to go with it.
The people who want to stay in rural Sask. must be very creative in finding
ways to survive. The good thing about libraries is that as the money gets
tighter, the more people want to use the free services.

and programs provided:

Milestone, we have three Public Access computers that can be booked. At Sherwood
Village we have two. Of course, at Sherwood Village there are four more
computers that can access the catalogue and databases.  As far as programs
go in Milestone, we do a little adult programming and preschool programming,
but our big push is the Summer Reading Program. We do weekly programs for the
school aged children with crafts, games, and reading. They can participate in
reading books for prizes ( more books taken, more points received), wheras in
Sherwood Village, it is  how much time spent reading that earns the
prizes. We all know it is bribery, but it works.

We are
in the process of planning for Sask Library Week, and also the 40th
anniversary of our regional library. We do some outreach to seniors and stay in
contact with the local school. Last winter we provided an Aboriginal
storyteller to the school for a morning’s session of stories.  The main
problem with Library week in the rural areas is that it competes with Education
Week and Co-op week, both of which have bigger audiences. We always try to have
some kind of celebration though, but in Regina, I find it is even more
difficult to attract the public’s attention for the celebration of such a week.
In both places, it is always about preaching to the same congregation and
keeping up the PR in hopes of attracting new faces.

Sherwood Village, where I do a lot of children’s programming, we provide many
programs for all ages. We do school visits and puppet shows and author visits
as well. We do some outreach to daycares and are in partnership with a local
high school. The library building houses a satellite of the Dunlop Art Gallery,
so we do sometimes program in conjunction with an exhibit.   The
funny thing about programming in the city is that you would expect to never
have trouble with attendance, as there are so many patrons, but we have the
same troubles there as in a small town—there is still too much competition for
people’s attention. One difficulty of programming in Regina, is that we need a
long lead time for the advertising. You sometimes have to save your best ideas
for next year because our deadlines are so far in advance. Perhaps it is a bit
more flexible in a small town, because after all, word of mouth is ALWAYS the
best advertising.

One of
the things I do in Milestone to try and keep the library on everyone’s mind is
to place an article in our local newsletter which comes out twice a month. It
seems to be working because I am getting a few new patrons, and some of the
regulars are starting to ask about how to use the e-services more. I also have
a white board in the front window, but I don’t know how often people look at
it. If I could do anything to change what we do at Sherwood Village for PR, I
would have a big rented sign out on the front lawn to advertise our programs.
I’m sure it would do wonders as it works very well for the people who rent our
rooms. I think it all boils down to the same thing in both places, you have to
hit people over the head with your advertising.  I am a very print
oriented person and will read almost every poster or leaflet I run across, but
there are so many everywhere that most people blur right past them. It’s a
continuing battle to promote the library wherever I go, but I find the best
ways are to approach people personally. A class visit, talking to seniors,
mentioning something specifically to your patrons goes a lot farther than
printed advertising. Providing calendars and informational bookmarks also seems
to work well if you are persistent.

when I see the materials that are sold at RPL  booksales (that the school
librarians often used to snap up) I think about taxpayers dollars as a whole
and wish there was a better way to share the wealth. I think the Provincial
databases are an excellent way of equalizing the dollars and sharing the
technology. As Patrons, both rural and urban, become more educated in using the
library’s e-services, it helps make the libraries more viable. No matter where
you live, if you are a mother who just got your kids to bed, you can sit down,
log into your library website and order all the books you like. People may not
have the time to browse as much, or spend time in the library, but they still
can find the time to run in and pick up their holds.

do I love most about my jobs? Job satisfaction! Most of the time, I can find
what people are looking for, whether I am just plucking it off my shelf, or
cruising the Gateway. I find it quite gratifying to winkle out what a reference
question is really about and provide the correct answer. Most patrons act very
grateful for your services and that means a lot to me. I have always enjoyed
interaction with people, and for most of them, talking about books is an
enjoyable thing. I have always loved reading, so it makes me happy when someone
seems happy with their selections. A new book is a bit like a gift on a daily
basis. Seeing little ones turned onto reading makes my day. When you have a
shift full of nasty paperwork or un-cooperative technology or grumpy people,
you might wonder just why you decided to take this job,  but those
feelings can all be negated by a little face smiling up at you with a shiny
picture book in hand. Most days are pretty good ones in a library—in the end it
is all about the people and the books.

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