Rural Libraries and Communities: Providing Better Services through Creation of Social Capital
Susan E. Russell and Jie Huang


This paper provides an analytical overview of literature on providing library services to rural communities through creation of social capital. The concept of “social capital” is introduced. Marketing techniques and outreach ideas are identified and discussed. Through introducing the concept of social capital and examining ways of marketing library services to rural communities, the authors hope that rural librarians can have effective ways to bridge the communities they serve with the services they provide and to ensure the library’s value is communicated to the community at large.


The rapid advancement of new technologies brings many benefits to our society, but at the same time presents many challenges, especially for rural communities. Lacking adequate resources, up–to–date equipment, and necessary training, many residents in rural communities and remote areas fall behind. As our society depends more and more on advanced technologies, bridging the digital divide and equalizing information accessibility in rural communities become important issues for the libraries who serve them. To play a critical role in bridging the digital divide and to act as equalizers for information accessibility, rural libraries must demonstrate their value as an essential element in community life through outreach to the rural communities they serve and by meeting individual user’s needs. The important way to succeed is providing services through the creation of social capital.

Concept of “Social Capital”

The term social capital can be interpreted and used in a variety of ways. During the twentieth century, the term was used to describe several distinct but somewhat interrelated conceptual frameworks. In her 1920 work, “The Community Center” Lyda Judson Hanifan stated that social capital was necessary for community building and defined it as:

that in life which tends to make these tangible substances count for most in the daily lives of a people; namely, good will, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse among the individuals and families who make up a social unit, — the rural community, whose logical center in most cases is the school. In community building, as in business organization, there must be an accumulation of capital before constructive work can be done. (p. 78)

Robert Putnam (1993) used the term social capital to describe connections among individuals and how this interaction enables people to build strong, functional communities through a sense of belonging, defining it as “social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them” (p. 167). Wikipedia defines social capital as “a sociological concept used in business, economics, organizational behavior, political sciences, public health and the social sciences in general to refer to connections within and between social networks.” More specifically, social capital refers to the bonds that link people and organizations that are alike, and the bonds that bring people from different backgrounds together, by creating a sense of identity and common purpose (Kranich, 2001; Woolcock, 2001; Asu and Clendening, 2007).

Social capital develops in two distinct ways. Bridging social capital creates ways for people to connect across social distance, while bonding social capital brings together individuals and groups with common needs and goals (Jewiss and Pickard, 2010; Johnson, 2012). In her previous study, Johnson (2010) also pointed out that social capital exists at both the individual and community level. Individual social capital refers to resources a person accesses through social connections, while community social capital focuses on the ways people come together to improve their environment.

In today’s society, libraries must actively remain visible in their communities by offering programming with a community–wide perspective. Public libraries are gradually shifting their focus from the collection itself to a wider view that considers the diverse needs and interests of their particular community. Boaden (2005) suggested that inclusion of cultural planning in library programs at both local and regional levels generates individual social capital that enriches the user experience.

Another shift in focus is the philosophy of library as meeting place. Community social capital increases as public libraries begin to redesign their physical space to include rooms for meetings and workshops, activity centers for children, gallery space for exhibits, and common spaces where various groups can meet and interact in general (Boaden, 2005; Jewiss and Pickard, 2010; Johnson, 2012).

Social capital can help a library develop concepts beyond its traditional role and capacity. As Kranich (2001) pointed out, “the library is an institution rich in social capital and poised to usher in a new era of civic awareness and community revival” (p. 40). There is currently a growing focus on the positive aspects of libraries as contributors to the development of new social capital and the strategies available to librarians who readily embrace this concept (Hillenbrand, 2005; Drueke, 2006). However, little research has been conducted to date on the use of this powerful tool in the field of librarianship (Varheim, 2007, 2009).

Social capital theory can be applied in any setting and the rural community is particularly well adapted because the targeted group is smaller and more clearly defined. Personal contact, both formal and informal, is a key component to building influence, and by living and actively participating in the community itself, the rural librarian will be able to build relationships more quickly, and gradually gain recognition as a leader in the community (Taylor, 2007).

Studies have shown that rural residents have a variety of information needs besides the common ones. However, due to the long distance and high illiteracy rate in many rural areas, some residents may not think about using the library to acquire the knowledge and obtain the information they need. Bourke (2005) emphasized the need for librarians “to look beyond the concept of librarians as custodians of knowledge to librarians as facilitators in a knowledge society” (p. 71). While keeping pace with technology is important, one of their most important roles is to help build an inclusive center in the community that gives isolated and excluded people links to knowledge and information that meets their needs.

A philosophy of lifelong learning is essential to successful community development, and library programs and services can greatly influence the implementation of this mindset by helping people to “clarify their information needs and develop skills to search for information” (Asu and Clendening, 2007, p. 8). As Prentice (2004) concluded, it is essential for the library to specifically plan its programs for the needs of its users at target ages because “only then will libraries be viewed as critical community centers for lifelong education” (p. 85).

Approach to Building “Social Capital”

How do librarians build social capital that emphasizes the library’s role in the community and makes the library responsive to and representative of its local users? A successful approach has three main elements: marketing, outreach, and advocacy.


Marketing is an important aspect of building social capital for libraries because it is “a process that creates value” by defining a target audience, anticipating their needs, and then planning specific strategies that will make them value, use, and support the services received through their library (Taylor, 2007; Schachter, 2008). Much of the available literature on efficiently marketing library programs and services discusses ideas and techniques that have traditionally been productive for all types of libraries over the years. Some of the most common techniques are surveying local needs, sponsoring displays and exhibits, recruiting well–known individuals as guest speakers or attendees, and utilizing print–based publicity like posters, flyers, table tents, postcards, and signs. In rural areas, participating in civic meetings and organizations, visiting families, and meeting people in informal settings like local markets have also been quite beneficial (Withers, 2005; Taylor, 2007; Schachter, 2008).

Primary information collected from users is the most beneficial means of assessment when done correctly, and customer surveys are the most preferred method. It is important that the survey encompass all types of users to ensure that services are designed to benefit as many users as possible. That means it may be necessary to survey different age groups separately in order to get a more accurate sampling of the overall population. Gathering users’ feedback and responding appropriately helps libraries develop a good working relationship with their users, and builds social capital throughout the community as users share their satisfactory experiences with others. However, libraries must continue to assess their overall effectiveness periodically to ensure that their programs and services continue to be relevant to their users.

Some of these typical ways of building community social capital may be less effective for libraries serving remote rural areas with low population density that is widely dispersed. In this case, working to build individual social capital may yield better long–term results. Most of these marketing techniques could be modified to work within a home visit program. Individual marketing kits could be assembled that contain complimentary items along with print–based publicity materials for distribution. User surveys could also be taken along and filled out during the visit to ensure marginal users are included in the data. This would also provide an opportunity for answering the survey orally.

Targeted approaches can also be used to maintain the library’s visibility in the local community and encourage people to use library services. One such approach, for instance, is to develop a logo and color scheme unique to the library that will be easily recognizable around the community. Sponsoring a local contest where designs are submitted by members of the community and voted on provides a further opportunity for bonding. Useful reminders like complimentary pencils and bookmarks advertise the library on a daily basis. Likewise, simple cloth book bags that can be given to regular users, or possibly earned through reading contests, continually advertise your library every place the person carries it.

The library can also create a monthly newsletter about current events. Each newsletter can include articles written by local students and teachers, along with a few book reviews. These can be sent home with students or library visitors, distributed during home visits, and picked up at designated sites.

In rural communities where other media resources are less readily available, partnering with the local radio station can be very beneficial in reaching a widely dispersed population. Certain times can be set to announce upcoming library activities, such as mini “what’s new at the library” or “featured book” spots. If possible, a “reading aloud” feature program can be developed to incorporate guest readers, young and old.

Another very useful way of marketing is to put up displays and exhibits both in local common areas like schools, markets, etc., and in the library. Displays and exhibits that attract patrons visually can be about the library and its services, or about local historical and cultural significance. For example, public libraries in rural Mississippi, which is located in the southern United States, engaged local artists to create murals on the walls of their libraries reflecting the culture and spirit of their communities, along with subjects from popular children’s literature, to make the environment more visually appealing to their clientele (Edwards, 2008). Libraries can also showcase local students’ academic work and achievements by displaying students’ papers, artwork, etc. These types of exhibits will bring in parents, grandparents, and other adults who may not typically visit the library.

Inviting well–known individuals as guest speakers or attendees at library–hosted functions also attracts a larger audience. Book signings by guest authors are popular, especially with children. In more remote locations where it is less feasible to schedule physical visits by well–known guest speakers and authors, it is still possible to provide modified exposure to these activities. For example, it might be possible to host an interactive Webinar presentation or, in areas with less technological capability, a videotaped lecture could be shown. Arrangements could be made to order several copies of autographed books from an author to pass out after a presentation.

Most importantly, the library should always photograph library events and activities and maintain a library scrapbook. Besides sentimental value in later years, a well–documented history of the library can be a valuable advocacy tool. Meanwhile, having a collection of digital camera photographs makes it easy to quickly create a mobile slideshow that can be taken anywhere and shown via laptop.


Many activities and programs are relatively simple to start, with little expense involved compared to the benefits gained. Establishing clubs and organizing activities and competitions, such as chess games, are ways of drawing in individuals who are not currently utilizing library materials but will be informally introduced to them while participating in the activities. It would also open up opportunities to interact with other libraries and/or communities in the area by arranging chess tournaments, etc. Including a junior club for children not only provides activity, but will also indirectly support the school curriculum as studies have shown playing chess from an early age often helps improve academic performance by developing reasoning and critical thinking skills.

One way of reaching out to isolated and excluded people within the community who may not respond to being physically drawn into the library building (i.e., the elderly, frail, lacking in mobility, etc.) is providing home library delivery service. Materials could be dropped off and picked up before or after work, through another family member or close neighbor, or even a student who passes nearby on their way to and from school.

On a larger scale, a bookmobile delivery system can be used to further extend a rural library’s outreach. While the idea of bookmobile service is not new, it can still be very effective today in reaching out to excluded populations in remote areas, as well as isolated groups within urban settings (Jewiss and Pickard, 2010).

For instance, Book Aid International has been working with the Forum of African Women Educationalists in Zambia (FAWEZA) to support their three mobile libraries for mixed–sex secondary schools in the areas around Lusaka, Kabwe and Ndola. The goal of this service is to demonstrate that access to books will improve examination results and to ensure that girls have equal access to information. Mobile libraries based on this Zambian model have also been launched with Book Aid International partners in Uganda and Kenya.

For remote areas that are difficult to access by road, many countries have creatively adapted their mobile library programs. In 1996, Kenya began their Camel Library Service to transport books in English, Swahili, and Somali to remote northeastern areas inhabited by nomadic pastoralists. Zimbabwe’s Donkey Library operates four mobile cart libraries pulled by donkeys to provide information service to some rural communities. Thailand uses a variety of methods to provide mobile library service including a floating library and elephant libraries. The floating library has also been adopted in Norway to provide services in areas more easily reached by boat.

As the world moves further into the technological information age, the bookmobile concept is being modified to bring state–of–the–art technology services to marginalized populations through “cybermobiles” in an effort to lessen the digital divide (Green, 2002). For example, the donkey–drawn book carts in Zimbabwe now have solar panels installed on the roof of each cart. The carts can be connected to renewable solar energy facilities fitted with television and radio receiver sets, which enable them to play educational videotapes, audio tapes, and compact discs. The Floating Library and the Elephant Libraries program in Thailand are equipped with computers or video and CD players, even satellite dishes and generators, to offer technology–based services.

In the United States, the Cybermobile Project is a bookmobile that has been upgraded to help provide educational skills, computer knowledge, and library usage to underprivileged Americans in East St. Louis, Missouri (Brown, 2000). In Brazil, the major bus company Itapemirim partnered with well–known local cartoonist Mauricio de Souza to sponsor a similar program. It began serving the Sao Paulo region in 2006. Their goal is to eventually have one mobile library bus for each of the country’s 27 regions. While mobile libraries provide services to the larger population, exposure to technology could also be arranged via personal visits to remote areas with a laptop.

Rural librarians can employ outreach activities that focus on local and cultural interests for all age groups, especially for the pre– and elementary school students, so that literacy begins at an early age. Developing information literacy skills at an early age will also help to influence and support the concept of lifelong learning for these children. Working in conjunction with local classroom teachers, librarians must first provide instruction that develops information literacy skills, and then help to ensure continued skill development through the provision of opportunities where these newly acquired skills may be utilized. Studies have shown that newly acquired reading and literacy skills will gradually decline, and may even be lost, if not used on a regular basis, making it imperative to have continued access to reading materials.

In the northeast United States, the small rural state of Vermont has developed a set of strategies for improving literacy. Two very successful activities, community “book reads” and an annual literacy fair, have increased multi–generational participation in literacy activities. These community–wide opportunities to focus on books, arts, and the humanities, encourage residents to read, discuss, and develop a pattern of lifelong learning (Jewiss and Pickard, 2010).

In Uganda, the National Library has organized an annual book week festival since 1997. A variety of activities, like reading tents and book exhibitions, are held across the country. Collaboration between local governments, public and community libraries, and local booksellers make this national event possible.

In addition to reading and writing proficiency, today’s literacy programs must ensure that users become functionally literate in a digital information society through mastery of both print and non–print information sources (Edwards, 2008). In communities where schools are smaller and have fewer resources at their disposal, the library can bridge this lack of resources by collaborating with teachers and students to supplement and enhance their curriculum needs through targeted collection development. Sponsoring activities that complement their studies like reading competitions, essay contests, and giving book talks to generate reading interest across genres, are also beneficial. Organizing and assisting with a “Book Buddy” program that pairs a younger and an older student during the school year, who meet once or twice a week to read a book together, gives the older student an opportunity to mentor and the younger student to learn.

Offering activities specifically for preschool children and their parents is an important outreach area, as it stimulates early interest in visiting the library and using its materials. Lessons and learning games based on preschool concepts and readiness skills can be presented in the library. Some libraries have assembled several preschool kits, which consist of a large bag containing a few books, puzzles, activity sheets, and other learning activities, that can be checked out for home use and brought back to exchange for a different bag, so that the same early learning materials can be used by many children. Being able to rotate the kits among the children also keeps the activities fresh since they don’t see the same materials as frequently. Story time sessions are also very valuable and can take the format of a book being read aloud or oral storytelling. This also offers a venue to draw in older members of the community by utilizing them as storytelling guests or to speak on subjects of personal expertise.

For instance, in a rural region of South Africa, The Family Literacy Project (FLP) began a project in 2000 which offered a series of workshops for parents and care–givers of pre–school children, with the aim of providing instruction and support for adults, to enable them to develop early literacy skills in their children using activities that were easy to replicate in homes with limited resources (Aitchison, 2006). Most of the participants were women with low levels of education and literacy, and over the next three years, they not only learned valuable techniques for supporting their children’s education, but had also improved their own skills in reading and writing Zulu enough that they had begun to study English as a second language. Three libraries that could be used by any member of their respective communities were also established as part of the initiative. While the program was very successful at stimulating frequent library use among adults and primary school children, it was less effective with secondary school children, making a clear argument for beginning development of information literacy skills at an early age. However, it also illustrated the value of offering adult education and literacy programs.

In many cultures, particularly those in rural communities, oral tradition has continued to take preference over written tradition especially in areas where literacy is lower. Storytelling and reading a book for pleasure are simply different ways of doing the same activity. While reading a book alone can be an enjoyable experience, listening to literature read aloud is an effective way of sharing an appreciation of books and their authors with a group of people. It also provides inclusion for reluctant readers and individuals who may not be able to read on their own. “Readers Theatre” is a participatory technique used in teaching literature, where an oral interpretation of a piece of literature is prepared and read in a dramatic style. Since it does not require costumes or scenery and props, it can be done in the classroom or library. This method can be utilized with students as a way of leading into literature discussions, and provide an avenue for presenting books orally to their peers and elders. Most genres of literature, including non–fiction, can be adapted for “Readers Theatre”, and these presentations provide both participants and audience with a different experience from reading silently or listening to someone read aloud. Development of critical thinking, creativity, reading fluency, communication skills, and cooperative learning strategies are all enhanced through utilization of “Readers Theatre” (Post, 1974; Fredericks, 2007).

It is also important to provide programs that are responsive to the needs of the adult population. Sponsoring seminars, talks, and how–to lessons on subjects relevant to their daily lives is important. Many times community volunteers — including other organizations — with special knowledge or skills that meet local economic, agricultural, and other needs, can be utilized through cooperative efforts. By familiarizing themselves with the types of agriculture that are prominent in their community, librarians can also become better equipped to understand and support the particular information needs of local farmers. Then they can conduct workshops that acquaint farmers with the different types of printed literature relevant to their particular information needs, and arrange to bring in guest speakers to give “how to” talks, either in person, or through video recording.

In addition to the typical print–based material, rural libraries should provide and maintain collections of more temporary materials like brochures, pamphlets, unpublished reports, simple do–it–yourself instructions and manuals, and newspaper clippings, which are often easier to understand and more current than books. To remain useful, these collections require more frequent weeding.

Providing meaningful library services in a culturally diverse community can sometimes be more challenging. The state of New South Wales is one of the most culturally diverse communities in Australia. Their public library system embraces and supports this diversity through development of a community language collection. Library materials in several community languages are collected and cataloged at the State Library and then made available for loan through the public libraries. In addition, the State Library compiles and maintains a list of public libraries that have local community language collections, the languages collected by each library, and how many items are held in each of these languages. Public libraries can access this list on the State Library website to assist their patrons. The State Library also maintains an English as second language (ESL) collection for loan to public libraries (Acevedo and Bresnahan, 2005).

Community members should also be encouraged to record information in both print and non–print formats to be made available for local use and to help preserve oral histories for future generations. As early as the mid 1970s, Sangamon State University (now University of Illinois at Springfield) carried out its Black Community Project. The project collected oral histories from the members of the African–American community of Springfield, Illinois. The collection includes descriptions of the local members’ childhoods and family backgrounds as well as social life in Springfield. The Oral History Project of the Greenwich Library in Connecticut collected more than 800 interviews with people who have helped to make or witnessed the local history since 1890.

Audio and audio–visual media collections are very useful in providing information even for those who are illiterate. Audio books are particularly well–adapted for use while carrying out other activities such as weeding or harvesting crops, cooking and doing laundry, traveling, etc. CD–ROM databases and other digital materials can be extremely useful in areas where computers are available without access to the Internet.

Moreover, the library can establish special holdings within their main audio–visual collection that showcase their local community just like libraries do within their collections of print material. Nowadays, with advanced technology, creating audio and audio–visual materials about local history and events has become much easier. For instance, a digital camera can be used to record both photographs and videos of local events and activities, which can be kept on file in the library to be accessed by the community. This could include a variety of things like presentations and lectures by guest speakers, sporting events, and all kinds of musical (singing, instrumental, dance, etc.) performances at programs, festivals, and competitions.

In Martinez, California, the Oral History Project of Martinez and Alhambra Creek Watershed contains many audio and video recordings of interviews with long–time residents of Martinez and adjacent rural areas. The recordings are archived and preserved at the Martinez Museum and available on the project’s Web site, making the local history more accessible and easier to search.


Lack of adequate funding and/or staffing in small communities can sometimes be alleviated by combining public and school libraries. Staffing shortages can be relieved to some degree by training volunteers from the community. For instance, a library assistants program could be established where older students are trained to work in and for the library and are able to earn incentives such as a dictionary, calculator, or some other educational tool that will, in turn, assist them in their own studies.

Development of a liaison or “friends of the library” group can also be very beneficial in connecting the library with the community–at–large, by creating a group of advocates who will spread the mission of the library and promote its programs and services among their respective peer groups, and through vertical connections between children and parents, children and grandparents, parents and grandparents, older and younger siblings, and friends. Moreover, this same team of advocates will reach outside the immediate community through contacts with relatives and friends in neighboring communities.

Rural librarians should attend professional media conferences whenever possible to exchange ideas, learn new concepts and policies, and display their library’s programs and services. Besides regional and national opportunities, international programs are available like Yale University Library International Programs, and Mortenson Center for International Library Programs, which offer professional development programs for visiting librarians from all over the world. Meanwhile, they can look for opportunities to develop partnering relationships among neighboring villages, and between urban and rural settings.

For instance, China’s National Cultural Information Resources Sharing Project, which began in 2002, was undertaken by public libraries with a focus on enriching the cultural life of villagers in underdeveloped rural areas through digital resources that provide an increased level of literacy in traditional culture, farming culture, cyber culture, and video culture. Through a large electronic service network, a wealth of digital resources, including films, music, lectures, fine arts, pictures, e–books, and more, can be shared across the countryside (Huang and Xu, 2009). This project offers training at all levels to ensure that librarians and other staff have the necessary skills to participate.

Another example is the Dragonfly Project, which is a collaboration between the Chilkoot Indian Association and the Haines Borough Public Library in Alaska. Created in 2001, this program teaches technology skills to at–risk students, who then share their knowledge with other community members. As a result, several hundred people now have technology literacy skills (Coventry, 2008).

Besides building partnerships among libraries and other information services, librarians also need to gain support from the local government by meeting with local politicians and officials (Coventry, 2008). They should also look for opportunities to invite both local and state government officials to tour their libraries and attend their meetings and exhibits.

At the seventy–fifth IFLA Congress, Tang and Wu (2009) presented a paper which discussed advocacy by the Library Society of China to influence government policies and regulations pertaining to libraries and their constituents. They concluded, among other things, that it was essential to establish good public relations with the government at all levels to gain more opportunities, and to show libraries’ effect with concrete evidence to get the government’s investment (Tang and Wu, 2009).

While rural librarians’ primary focus is at the local level, they should also promote rural library services to their constituency at national and international levels whenever possible. Being active at the national level is important for them to align their services with established and newly introduced national policies and programs. At the same time, it provides them with the opportunity to advocate the mission of their libraries and the needs of the rural communities they serve. In turn, it gives their national professional organization the chance to better understand its rural communities and consider their needs when making policies that affect both urban and rural populations.

Additionally, some excellent opportunities exist to partner with international non–profit organizations. These organizations are particularly helpful in establishing and maintaining technology. For instance, Dream Corps International works to promote rural education and economy by helping to establish libraries as public spaces in rural communities, donating books and other educational materials to help build up and enrich library collections, and providing technical support and advice.

Book Aid International increases access to books and supports literacy, education and development in sub–Saharan Africa. One example is their collaboration with CODE Ethiopia, a local organization working to improve child literacy. Book Aid International has assisted them in establishing rural village reading rooms in several areas throughout Ethiopia. They have also partnered with the National Library of Uganda to provide materials that are culturally relevant to selected communities through the Local Book Purchase project.

The Education and Science Society (ESS) is a non–profit educational organization consisting of volunteer staff in both China and the U.S. working cooperatively to enhance the quality of basic education in rural China through their “adopt a rural school library” and “adopt a rural public library” programs which assist in establishing rural library and information centers that provide free use of computers and free access to Internet.

China Evergreen Rural Library Service (CERLS) partners with public school libraries in rural communities to provide free access to information resources by establishing and supporting computer technology centers that are open to all members of the community as a way of bringing technology into marginalized, rural areas.


Libraries must continually assess their overall effectiveness to ensure that their services and programs are relevant to their users. It is not enough to have an excellent library program and hope that users will come. Librarians must actively pursue their users by building a network of social capital throughout the community they serve. The most successful approach incorporates a combination of marketing, outreach, and advocacy. It is also important to recognize that, while desirable, it is not essential to have completely new tools or high levels of funding to accomplish goals. It is possible to adapt and use traditional tools in new and different ways to provide some additional services and technologies.

Through introducing the concept of social capital and discussing techniques for marketing library services to rural communities, the authors hope that rural librarians can discover effective ways to bridge the communities they serve with the services they provide and to ensure the library’s value is communicated to the community at large.


An earlier version of this paper appeared in “Inspiration from Best Practices: the proceedings of the Fourth Information Technology in Education Conference (ITIE2010)” (Kunming, China: Yunnan University Press, June 2010).


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About the authors

Susan E. Russell is Associate Professor of Bibliography & Cataloging Librarian at the University of Oklahoma Libraries in Norman, Oklahoma.
Direct comments to: serussell [at] ou [dot] edu

Jie Huang is Associate Professor of Bibliography & Cataloging Librarian at the University of Oklahoma Libraries in Norman, Oklahoma.

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