I’ve got a soft spot for rural libraries, and with good reason. 20 years ago, my family relocated from suburban Chicago to the tiny town of Junction City, in the heart of central Wisconsin. My father had a dream of moving out into the country, and that’s exactly what we received. The nearest neighbor was at least a quarter mile away from our house. My siblings and I learned how to milk cows and raise chickens. The closest grocery shopping, clothing stores, and movie theater could be found in Wisconsin Rapids, some 20 minutes drive away (more if you got stuck behind a tractor).
We were fortunate to have dial-up internet. There was no cable, and television reception was spotty. I remember the day my father brought home a Nintendo 64 as a watershed moment for fun and culture in our household. We were voracious readers. Through birthdays and Christmases, we must have acquired every Star Wars novel and Redwall book that was available at the time. Sometime in our Chicago life, somebody had given us a copy of David Wenzel’s graphic novelization of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.I must have read the book cover to cover five times. When a friend from church told me that there was a sequel, I was interested to read it. Off we went to our only avenue to acquire such things: our library in Wisconsin Rapids, the McMillan Memorial Library.
When I borrowed The Lord of the Rings, it was the compendium, three-volumes-in-one version. It seemed like the best option at the time; I could read them all at once. My 14-year-old self was a bit intimidated by the 1,000-plus page tome. I remember clearly that the cover bore a label that said “Soon to be a major motion picture from New Line Cinema.” Well that was pretty cool.
McMillan Library was our lifeline to culture in our region. After diving deep into The Lord of the Rings, it made sense to look for other works by Tolkien, and McMillan supplied us with The Silmarillion. There was always something on the shelf for us. But beyond the books and other media (we were in the middle of the Harry Potter craze at that time) events and other cultural affairs could be had in the library.
I remember very distinctly that we once attended a mime show in McMillan’s large theater room. It must have been 20 years ago now, and I’ve never been able to track down who the artist was. He was very talented and funny, with many different character masks and the ability to make balls and other objects appear to be floating. It made a big impression. I believe we also went to a concert by Lou and Peter Berryman at the library. And of course, on July 4 we would make the trek to Wisconsin Rapids to watch the fireworks from the balcony off the main entrance to McMillan.
Our rural libraries aren’t given enough credit, care, or funding. If not for McMillan, I might not be working in libraries today. Without it, we would have been completely cut off from arts and culture in the rest of the world, and heaven only knows how that might have changed our perspective. As it turned out, I discovered new ideas and perspectives, as well as entertainment and community. Who can put a price on that?
We live in a world where our rural communities still don’t have reliable connections to the internet. When those communities do get connected to the rest of the internet, the online world is populated with misinformation and fake news. Who is better equipped to provide access and serve as an information guide than the librarians in these communities? If we want to combat misinformation in rural America, the solution might legitimately rest in the hands of librarians.
When I began working at a small library in a rural community, I discovered the impact that a library can have on a community. And I saw firsthand that the smallest communities receive less support than the large communities do. It makes a certain amount of sense. We want resources to go to the places they will do the most good, and serve the most people. But I think that there should be a premium on our support for small and rural libraries, because many in their communities simply don’t have other options.