Of the 14,000 public libraries in the United States, not a one is like the tiny, 6,000-book operation in Elsinore, Utah. The library in this community of 600 ranchers, farmers and booklovers is run by a 12-year-old boy who hasn't yet learned the meaning of hopeless, as in hopeless cause. He knew only that if he didn't take action to get some books on the local shelves no one would.
The energies of 12-year-olds are boundless, but Jason Hardman, the librarian of Elsinore, hadn't planned on expending them before Congress. He turned up the other morning before Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D-Calif.) and Sen. Mark Andrews (R-N.D.) at a joint congressional hearing on the information needs of rural America.
Jason wore a blue suit and was bright of eye. He shared a storybook story. The Elsinore Literary Club, it seems, had once run a library but it didn't last. The books were packed away in a storeroom of what Jason called the town's "cultural hall." Looking at the books the way other kids in big cities look at cartridges for video games, Jason announced that he'd like them all.
At the congressional hearing, he explained: "I talked to the Literary Club and it gave me permission to use the books if I could get the city council to let me start a library. This didn't prove too easy. I went to several city council meetings but they wouldn't give me an answer. Later, I found out that they didn't believe I would stick it out and sooner or later would give up the idea. They were also afraid the library would end up costing a lot of money which the city didn't have."
Jason, aspiring to a high calling, became a civic nuisance. He phoned "the mayor every night until I drove him nuts. Finally, out of desperation from my continued harassment, he gave in. The city council, out of pity for the mayor, gave in also."
For the readers of Elsinore, Utah, Jason Hardman's success story is one for the books. But for the rest of the country, including the joint congressional committee, Jason's efforts typify the struggles of rural towns in need of adequate libraries.
Even the facts of the struggle, like books out of print, are easily forgotten. Eighty-two percent of the nation's libraries are in towns with populations under 25,000. In one survey, 14 percent of the responding librarians in towns under 2,500 said they were without phones.
Rural libraries average collections of only 16,000 books, which is well less than half of the 40,000 new titles published each year by American publishers. In Pennsylvania, the state with the nation's largest rural population (3.6 million people), per capita support of rural libraries is $3.25, while libraries in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh received $8.15 and $7.35.
The anti-rural bias that small-town libraries labor under is part of the overall pattern, from health care to transportation. But the bias is harder and harder to justify. We are no longer a people on the move to the cities. The last census revealed the historical first that more citizens were leaving the urban areas than entering.
The needs for information that were once met by sophisticated computer and communications technologies of the big-city library are beyond the budgets of the rural library, at least as long as policymakers insist on seeing the rural library as only a place for pleasure readers.
With more than four out of five of the nation's libraries in small towns and more people moving to these towns, almost a reversal in thinking is needed. Bernard Vavrek, a professor of library science and coordinator of the Center for the Studies of Rural Librarianship at Clarion (Pa.) State College, told Rep. Brown that "unless rural American communities are assured better information services than they now have through some combination of private sector-public sector support, they will not be able to fully develop."
The professor is saying that in a few years Jason Hardman and many more like him will be evolving from mere avid book readers into aggressive information gatherers. They will be discovering that citizenship itself is linked to access to information, knowledge and wisdom.
Soon enough, Jason will be demanding on-line data bases and videotext systems for his library. He deserves to have them, if we want him to be a knowing citizen.