Rural library challenges

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, April 25th. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

KENT COVINGTON, HOST: And I’m Kent Covington. There’s an institution in American life that helps people right where they live. This place bridges a gap between home and school. It provides stable and free access to the internet. Professionals often use it as a remote office. 

REICHARD: If you guessed we’re talking about the local library, you’d be right. Yet, according to Pew Research, 1 in 5 American adults have never stepped foot in one.  And nearly a quarter hadn’t read a single book during 20-16. That explains why libraries, even those in very small towns, must adapt to change. Paul Butler visited one local library in Northern Illinois and files this report.

PAUL BUTLER, REPORTER: Recently, I met up with Charm Ruhnke, a lifelong librarian.

RUHNKE: I like knowing everything. We tell people we don’t have to know everything, we just have to know where to find it.

Rhunke is the library director in Peru, Illinois. A town of about 10-thousand residents two hours west of Chicago. She’s been a librarian for more than 30 years… and dislikes some of the common stereotypes.

BUTLER: What are the most common?

RUHNKE: That we say “sush” all the time. Marian, the librarian from the Music Man has a lot to answer for. In my experience over 30 some years, it’s usually the librarians, the library staff who are told to please be quiet, you’re getting to noisy.

Rhunke’s library is housed in a split-level building overlooking a wooded ravine with deer and other wildlife. The north wall features huge windows,and it’s a popular place for patrons to sit and read. The library averages 2-hundred-12 visitors a day.

BUTLER: What is the role of a community library?

RUHNKE: Oh, to serve. The police, their role is to serve and protect, ours is to serve and educate, serve and support…

And that support comes in many forms.

RUHNKE: We have grandparents who were suddenly the caregivers for grandchildren and they are pulling their hair out. What do they do? Well, you bring them in, sign them up for some of the programs and, and suddenly you can handle being a caregiver to a grandchild, because it’s not all on your shoulders…

Others see the library as a community.

RUHNKE: For some of our patrons who live alone…oftentimes we are their only human contact during the day. They may go 3 or 4 days without talking to anyone except for us. We have some who are going through a variety of crisis at, at home, and we are a safe place, a non judgmental place.

Families with young children and homeschoolers tend to be big library users. Literacy programs are a key aspect to what most libraries do. Because of that, Charm Rhunke encourages reading at least 15 minutes a day with your kids:

RHUNKE: That was something my parents did. They didn’t time it, but dad would read me the sports page. It does not matter if you read well or not. Read to your child, talk to your child, explain to your child what you are doing now…

Now some people stay away from the library because it’s not convenient or seems irrelevant, especially if they don’t consider themselves readers.

RHUNKE: My grandmother always said she was so ashamed that she wasn’t a reader. My grandmother took at least six magazines and two newspapers, which she read. She was a reader. She just didn’t use the library.

Charm says anecdotal evidence seems to suggest another constituency that avoids  libraries are young adults and teenagers, and that’s because many libraries failed to grow with them as they aged out of summer reading programs.

RHUNKE: …We did so much work with them when they were younger as, as infants and, and first-second grade and then when they hit maybe eighth grade there was nothing, and there was this huge desert.

That’s why local libraries are looking for new ways to reach these young adults. The Peru Public Library offers regular book discussions and public film screenings. But you can check out hot-spots for home use as well as robotics and other educational materials. It loans out CDs, DVDs and offers access to millions of songs and audio books online.

AUDIO: Coffee bar sound

It even has a coffee bar so patrons can carry in beverages with lids. Even so, one big cultural change that’s affecting the face of the library is the internet. As Google and Siri have become the new reference librarian, Charm Rhunke no longer has to answer the simple questions:

RHUNKE: What are the seven wonders of the world? What are the six reindeers plus Rudolph? Those always came in about 10 minutes before we closed. We don’t get the prom afternoon phone calls of how do I tie a tie?

And she’s glad about that change–but she is troubled by another one.

RHUNKE: When I was back in college, my reference teacher talked to us about where people got their information, what he called the invisible college. You got your information over your back fence talking to your neighbor, and libraries needed in some ways to counteract that because not all that information was correct or current.

And the internet has made that problem more acute.

RHUNKE: In many ways with the internet, with the blogs and Facebook and all that it’s easier or faster to get information, but for librarians we still have to be able to show or prove that it is, what is the accurate information. 

So at least some things at the library never change.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Paul Butler reporting from Peru, Illinois.

SONG: I’m Going Down to the Library 

(Photo/Paul Butler)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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