The Edge Initiative and Small and Rural Libraries

Small and rural libraries comprise the dark matter of the American civic universe. Within the space beyond the bright lights of urbanity, they underpin the cultural energy of communities.

In 2006, for instance, they constituted – according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) – 78% of all library administrative units; they served then nearly 51 million people. They have continually attracted those seeking computer access, e-government resources, jobs, entrepreneurial support, educational training, health and wellness information, and cultural content. For many persons, such libraries – 62% nationally according to the Libraries Connect Communities: Public Library Funding & Technology Access Study, 2011-2012 – have remained the sole provider of free Internet access in their communities.

Even before the commencement of the Great Recession in fall 2007, small and rural libraries were part of a professional matrix with significant funding challenges. As noted by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in a 2006 booklet entitled “Keeping Your Community Connected:  Why Our Public Libraries Need Technology,” times for such libraries were already quite tough. While 99% of America’s public libraries were then bridging the Cultural Divide through connections to the World Wide Web at no charge for patrons, four out of five libraries in 2006 lacked enough computers; half said connections were too slow; and three-quarters were failing at updating outmoded hardware. Then, the Great Recession hit, and things became increasing ever more difficult  as shown here on the American Library Association’s Library Infographic: 23 states – and over half of them rural ones – had experienced cuts in state funding to public libraries in 2011. At my library, in Georgetown County, South Carolina, we lost, for instance, over half of such funding for our technology and for our books and other circulating materials within two years!  ALA noted on the Infographic that over 40% of states had reported cuts for three years running.  In the United States overall, 57% of public libraries had flat or decreased budgets. Concurrently, usage was up substantially nationwide in technology classes, electronic resources, computers, and Wi-Fi access.

Someday, these bad economic times will end. The Great Recession will be over. Happy days will return. But will the public library profession – and small and rural libraries in particular – be prepared then to advocate well for increased funding for public technology services?

The new Edge Initiative may help.  The Edge Initiative is being developed now by a coalition of 13 top library and governmental entities with funding by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It aims to develop a set of benchmarks that we public librarians can use to evaluate the quality and to demonstrate the value of our public access technology and services. The initiative’s guiding principles are that the Edge benchmarks will be a voluntary tool; that it will inspire us to achieve more by providing a path for continuous improvement; that it will help us to promote our achievements; that it will offer clear gauges of value for us and for community leaders, including elected officials. Work on the benchmarks began in March 2011. During summer 2012 and beyond, the benchmarks and support tools will be tested in pilot communities; version 1.0 will be rolled out; public input will be solicited; widespread adoption will be encouraged; and processes will be established to improve the benchmarks continually.

The Edge Initiative is being well-designed for most small and rural libraries. The language is clear and concise, avoiding jargon. The assessment questions are grouped in three commonsense categories:  “Community Value;” “Engaging the Community & Decision Makers,” and “Organizational Management.”  Under each of these categories are just a few benchmarks with several indicators under each one. It’s streamlined and uncomplicated. If you can prepare a tax return or a budget, then this will be quite easy for you. The focus is on the basics:  hardware and software in the most general sense; on e-government, on jobs, on education, and on health and wellness. Personally, I am hoping for a section eventually on digitization of historical images and documents and also on the usage of digital arts in the community. I’ve considered digitization to be a key function of 21st Century Libraries since the Institute of Museum and Library Services focused on “Connecting to Collections” in summer 2007.

Of course, no public libraries should be left behind in this effort. Sadly, some of the very smallest may find even a well-designed assessment to be challenging due to lack of time and expertise. Two ways could address this:  an abridged assessment tool could be created for such public libraries, or state library staff could help targeted libraries intensively to complete and to use the assessment.  In any case, the Edge assessment is a welcome tool now in the arsenal of all US public libraries – especially small and rural ones.   

Dwight McInvaill

Director, Georgetown County Library, SC