Rural Libraries Help Bridge the Digital Divide
Who needs libraries these days? With the internet and smart phones, the world’s wealth of information is available at your fingertips. However, in much of rural California, libraries are still playing a vital role in accessing information and building community. For 100 years, the Tuolumne County Library has been a community focal point. Recently, however, it has also become an essential place for many people to access the internet, because phone service and the internet are still not available everywhere.
In this rural Gold Rush county in the center of California, the library system just celebrated 100 years of “connecting people to the world of ideas through organized access to resources, and through services that inspire a love of learning for life.” (Mission Statement) In order to provide service to as much of the county as possible, we have the main library in Sonora, three branches, and the bookmobile, which reaches areas without libraries.
Internet services are now vital to daily life, but many residents are without Internet access at home, so they turn to the library for help. And even for people who have a smart phone and cell service, there are some things that can’t be done on a phone. Our public computers are used for improving employment skills, job searching and applications, school reports, entertainment, social media, printing local markets’ coupons, and hundreds of other things.
Recently, for example, a library patron conducted a job interview via Skype in a quiet area of the main library. Librarians at the information desk help patrons with limited computer skills make email accounts, sign up for computer classes at the library, and download eBooks. Of course, they also answer standard research questions. Branch libraries near tourist destinations answer different questions, from directions to Yosemite National Park to the best place to eat in town. Out of town visitors are grateful for the availability of 24/7 Wi-Fi service, provided by the libraries in our small towns.
For everyone, from babies to retired people, visitors and locals, the Tuolumne County Library, has been a positive force in the community. We help families encourage their children to read with our Born-to-Read program, story and craft times, movie day, and after school programs. Children from the local elementary school hang out in the afternoons. Retired folks enjoy programs such as book clubs, crochet and knitting clubs, game day, and they meet informally around the newspaper table to catch up on events. We collaborate with other local agencies for computer classes and outreach programs from pre school visits to delivering books with Meals on Wheels.
Volunteers are vital to the library’s success. We have at least 120 volunteers working in all branches and many areas of service. Friends of the Tuolumne County Library and its three chapters are another essential part of service and funding. Their book stores in each branch, annual book sales, and other fundraising activities provide for eBooks, Summer Reading Program funds, and many special projects. They recently held the Million Penny Challenge which provided over $15,000 to purchase children’s materials. Friends of the Library helped organize the recent anniversary celebration, too.
The internet has changed things for libraries, no doubt. But in Tuolumne County, we have been keeping our library current and relevant for one hundred years, thanks to the staff and volunteers who are committed to meeting our community’s needs.