To read this content please select one of the options below:

Rural Public Libraries in America: Continuing and Impending Challenges

Rural and Small Public Libraries: Challenges and Opportunities

ISBN: 978-1-78743-112-6, eISBN: 978-1-78743-111-9

Publication date: 10 November 2017


This chapter analyzes major trends in rural public libraries, beginning with a discussion of changes in service offerings since the advent of the Internet. These outlets are now better able to help patrons with their employment, education, and civic engagement needs than they have been at any point in the past. However, rural public libraries still lag behind their peers in broadband speeds, technological infrastructure, and various forms of service and training offerings that use these technologies. The difference in public offerings is not only due to problems of technology, but also limited funding for staff, aging and small buildings, and a lack of state and regional support to allow these libraries to achieve economies of scale. As libraries nationwide shift to focus more on public programming and digital offerings, these factors will be barriers to rural outlets keeping up with modern trends in the field.

This study uses Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and Digital Inclusion Survey data to analyze trends among rural public libraries. The authors returned to the original data sets from these studies to find nuance between types of rural outlets, primarily dividing this information based on libraries’ distances from more densely populated areas. These statistical data are supplemented through qualitative interviews with professionals in the rural library field. Key findings include:

  • Rural public libraries have made major strides in improving broadband quality and increasing related service offerings since the advent of the Internet in the mid-1990s.

  • Rural libraries still lag behind those in more populated areas in terms of technical infrastructure and training offerings, and this becomes more acute among those located farther from population centers.

  • As the public library field places a greater emphasis on public programs, rural libraries’ small and aging buildings will likely be a barrier to them keeping up with their peers.

  • The lack of regional consortia and strong state libraries in some parts of the country limits rural libraries’ abilities to achieve economies of scale and negatively impacts the range of services they can offer their patrons.

Rural libraries have often been combined together in statistical analyses of their service offerings. This chapter shows nuance between these outlets, demonstrating that libraries that are distant and remote from population centers face more difficulties than those on the fringes of cities and suburbs. Likewise, while much of the advocacy surrounding rural libraries has focused on the need for improved broadband and technological infrastructure, this study moves on to study how building infrastructure, low staff funding, and a lack of mechanisms for collaboration will hinder libraries’ abilities to keep up with modern changes in the field.




The authors would like to thank Larra Clark, deputy director of the American Library Association’s Office for Information Technology Policy and the Public Library Association, for guiding the original research report that led to this chapter.


Real, B. and Rose, R.N. (2017), "Rural Public Libraries in America: Continuing and Impending Challenges", Real, B. (Ed.) Rural and Small Public Libraries: Challenges and Opportunities (Advances in Librarianship, Vol. 43), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 37-59.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2018 Emerald Publishing Limited