ALA Annual Conference – Part 1

STEM and Rural Libraries

This year the American Library Association (ALA) met in New Orleans. It was quite the event with around 20,000 librarians in attendance. Part of my reason for going was to present at a poster session. As President of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL), I was invited by the ALA Office of Diversity and Library Outreach Services to talk about rural and small libraries. During the poster session, I highlighted a few of the challenges small and rural libraries face and the differences between larger urban libraries and their small and rural counterparts.

For instance, the average member of ARSL comes from a library with

  •         a community of 8,000 or fewer folks
  •         a total staff of 2 or 3 people
  •         fewer than 25,000 total volumes (books and media)
  •         total revenue of around $250,000

There are over 50 libraries in Colorado that meet these criteria. Actually, of all US public libraries, roughly 1/3 serve an area with fewer than 2,500 people, have 1.9 employees and occupy a 2,592 sq. ft building. Often at larger conferences like ALA Annual Conference, librarians from smaller rural libraries have to scale and translate the information given by presenters. No, a staff of 2 doesn’t have a marketing department nor a tech team. They have Ethel, the volunteer who will teach a computer class and make a poster for it…unless her grandkids are in town. It is with this perspective I attended several presentations at ALA.

The first session I attended was about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). STEM is an important area for rural and small libraries. A report published by ALA in July of 2017 showed that while 48.9% of urban libraries have STEM events, only 19.7% of small and rural libraries held similar programs. I went to the presentation hoping to glean a resource or information that I could take back to ARSL and disseminate. I think there are a few barriers for rural and small libraries when it comes to STEM and to tech issues in general. The first is staff. With a staff of 20, there is bound to be one librarian who is more tech inclined, who feels comfortable talking about science and might even enjoy learning to code.  With a staff of 2, the odds are not in our favor. To jump into a STEM event requires either a willing volunteer from the community or a leap of faith by a librarian that they don’t need to know or have a passion for science, technology, engineering or math in order to help others find and explore STEM.

Another barrier for smaller libraries, especially in rural areas, is internet access. In 2015 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) updated home broadband standards to what we call “high-speed” (25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload). 39% of rural residents (roughly 23 million people) lack access to internet at that speed, and 1 in 5 are unable to subscribe even at speeds greater than 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. It isn’t that people don’t want it, often it just isn’t able to be provided with the infrastructure in the area. Similarly, it is not uncommon for schools, libraries, and hospitals in the most remote rural areas to lack high-speed broadband access or to have to pay many times the national average to secure high-speed broadband service. This makes some online STEM resources hard to use and non-functional.

One of the resources mentioned in the presentation was the ALA Initiative, “Libraries Ready to Code” (  “Libraries Ready to Code” is sponsored by Google and stresses computational thinking. Computing jobs are projected to grow at twice the rate of other all other jobs (source:, so it is important for today’s youth to have a solid start on what may get them a job in the future. “Libraries Ready to Code” is intended as a guide for library staff to develop skills and knowledge so they can effectively facilitate Computational Thinking learning opportunities through the library.

Three other resources are paired with “Libraries Ready to Code”: CS First (, Applied Digital Skills (, and Be Internet Awesome ( All three can be useful in small and rural libraries. CS First and Applied Digital Skills provide curriculum that can be used for teaching a class, hosting an event, or a project-based program. Applied Digital Skills easily fits adult learners as well as middle-schoolers and everything in between.

Next week, I will talk about a few of the other presentations and speakers I saw.

Kieran Hixon
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