Small Libraries on the Edge

If you’ve been following this blog, you have an idea of the scope of the Edge Initiative.  It’s a big project, with a lot of to-do items:

  • Develop benchmarks to help public libraries assess and ultimately improve public access technology for their communities;
  • Develop both practical and aspirational benchmarks;
  • Develop levels of achievement to reward libraries and motivate their communities to reach higher;
  • Create assessment and training tools;
  • Pilot the tools in selected libraries;
  • Make adjustments and roll out the project to America; and,
  • Evaluate, evaluate, evaluate for future versions.

That’s quite a list, and each item has required months of research, committee meetings, development activities, surveys, analysis, and Edge Initiative member discussions.

In the quest to help local communities excel in information technology, state libraries have a special concern, and it’s a concern that has been voiced often by representatives of these libraries who are a part of the Initiative—the Oklahoma Department of Libraries (where I work), the California State Library, and the Texas State Library.

Our concern is about our small and rural public libraries. Will they be able to fully participate and achieve goals by using the Edge benchmarks and tools?


I should tell you that state libraries always worry about their small libraries. These little gems have limited funds, staff, and time to accomplish services for their communities.  Larger libraries work with us on advocacy efforts and statewide projects, but small and rural libraries need their state library for more. We're their advocates, their trainers, their cheerleaders, their summer reading headquarters, their grant funders, and their e-rate application consultants. We are here for them if we are here for anyone, because we serve all of our citizens and we try our best not to leave anyone behind.

A few decades ago, there was a vision to bring information technology—computers, Internet access, and online resources—into our small libraries. We have succeeded thanks to state, federal, and private resources; and thanks to the determination of local communities and library staffs.

Now we are developing a new vision with these benchmarks. At the same time, state libraries are seeing their budgets cut left and right. Municipal libraries are also seeing budgets slashed as local governments work to divvy up the remaining pie.

So, we worry. Many of the benchmark indicators may not be accomplished in many small libraries without state or federal investment. In Oklahoma, much of our state and federal funding is already dedicated to that previous vision via statewide reference databases and updated ILL services.

Despite these concerns, there are heartening signs as we travel toward implementation of the Edge Initiative:

  • Members of the Edge Initiative are committed to making the benchmarks inclusive. They have shifted gears and made appropriate turns along the way to make sure all sizes of libraries can benefit from the process.
  • Past public library initiatives have built a foundation for success in many places. For example, one of the Oklahoma libraries piloting the benchmarks commented that she was able to answer “yes” to many of the indicators because of services already put in place by the Department of Libraries.
  • National and state Broadband initiatives can serve as a springboard to Edge participation. In Oklahoma, a large BTOP grant is adding 1,000 more miles of fiber optics to the state’s broadband backbone in rural areas of the state. The Department of Libraries is also using a BTOP grant to not only increase Internet speeds at 44 public libraries, but to also provide videoconferencing equipment and learning software. Partnerships with workforce development and health initiatives are also part of this grant.
  • Small libraries are optimistic about the benchmarks. Time and again, at conferences and meetings around the country, representatives from small and rural libraries tend to highlight the positive aspects of the Edge Initiative. They see it as a tool to improve their services.

Improving services. That’s really what Edge is all about. The people who work at small libraries don’t need to be sold on that idea. They are more apt to have a connection beyond the library with the people they serve, and that can be a powerful motivator.

So small and rural libraries will investigate this “Edge thing,” assess their services against the benchmarks, talk about it with their community and their library colleagues, and see how they can use it to make a difference.

We won’t be surprised if they’re successful. We’ve seen it too many times in the past. But I can assure you that the next time a new national initiative or opportunity comes along, the worry stones will be taken out of drawers at state libraries across the country. We’ll be concerned. We’ll fret. We’ll ask: “But what about the small libraries?”

Bill Young

Public Information Manager

Oklahoma Department of Libraries