Deborah Fallows on Libraries in America’s Small Towns

Green Elk Rapids recently sponsored a presentation with Deborah and James Fallows, authors of the book “Our Towns.” The couple spoke at the Historic Elk Rapids Town Hall to a full-house of people who came to hear their observations about the civic and economic reinvention of small towns across America.

In an hour-long presentation, the Fallows shared their experiences and a captivating story of small-town renewal. The couple also responded to audience questions, one of which was about libraries and the role they play in vibrant communities. Deborah took this question saying, “We love libraries; as we traveled around the U.S. visiting different communities, we always made the local library an early stop.”

Deborah went on to describe three important areas where libraries excel in serving their communities: technology, education and community.

Technology

“The first thing you see when you walk into a library are the banks of computer available for people to use, or people using free Wifi on their own computers,” said Deb, adding that they have parked themselves on the sidewalk in front of a library at night, because that was the only place where they could get a connection for their computers.

Deborah said librarians help people use the computers and teach them how to access online resources. “Helping people with online job searches is the number one request made of librarians.”

Education

When visiting a new library, Deborah said she made a habit of asking, ‘What's the most important thing you do in your library?’ “Inevitably,” she explained, “the first answer was ‘It's the children, it's all about the children.’”

Pre-literacy programs are widespread, said Deborah. “These programs not only help teach kids ‘what is a book, what is the alphabet,’ but also they bring the parents into that effort with the children.”

Deborah cited a popular program they’ve seen around the country called Books for Babies. “In Winters, CA, there's a person in the Friends group who is in charge of stroller-spotting; she goes out on the sidewalks and spots the new parents with the new baby in the new stroller and lures them into the library.” The family receives a box with two books (Spanish or English language), a t-shirt, a little hand-knit cap and an application to join the library. “So really,” added Deborah, “it’s a family effort.”

Community

The civic and social life provided in libraries is really a foundational thing, said Deborah, noting their voting location is their local library. She also described communities where the library is the first stop, the “first haven” for refugees, the homeless, or people in need.

The Library is an important point of connection and libraries serve people with a broad array of needs, elaborated Deborah. For a refugee, she explained, that might mean responding to a question that starts with, ‘I'm new in this country and I need a little help.’ She has also heard stories of libraries opening their doors during extreme weather conditions to offer storytime for kids and families in need of a safe place.

In short, said Deborah, as she concluded her remarks about libraries, “We’re fans!”

To read more of Deborah Fallows’ observations and insights into small town libraries, follow this link to read her article titled “The Library Card” published in The Atlantic.