On a misty February afternoon, Carol Crawford pulls up to a white single-story building on Main Street of Garden Grove, Iowa. She makes a few trips between her blue Chevy Suburban and the building, carrying books, paperwork and her 12-year-old dachshund, who’s all wrapped up in blankets, recovering from surgery.
This humble building lies in the center of town and serves as city hall, the community center and the library for all 174 residents. The catch? It’s got the square footage of a mid-size gas station.
Iowa is home to a staggering 543 public libraries. In number, it’s surpassed by only three states: New York, Illinois and Texas. But when it comes to libraries per capita, Iowa comes out on top.
This massive number means many rural communities have independent public libraries. And yet, they are struggling to survive.
“Part of what rural libraries are facing is what rural communities are facing,” said Becky Heil, a southeast district consultant with the State Library of Iowa. “People are leaving town. You know, their population is dwindling and they don’t have a big enough tax base to support the community. They can’t support their library as well.”
Heil has dedicated her career to bettering rural libraries. She even helped found the Association for Small and Rural Libraries, which has grown to over 1,000 members across the nation.
For Heil, libraries are vital for community building in less populated areas.
“Their community has all the same needs as anybody else,” Heil said. “But there’s no place to gather, no center, no hub for their community.”
The Garden Grove Public Library is no exception. The staff facilitates community programs related to painting, local history, floral arrangements and even 3D printing.
“It gets people to come into the library and gets them to do other things and make it interesting,” said Crawford, a librarian at Garden Grove Library.
Rural libraries struggle to provide these resources for the community. A lack of funding leads to little to no staff hours.
“What I think is happening is communities and libraries are sort of holding on by their fingernails,” Heil said. “You know, we do more of our volunteer hours or librarians aren’t getting paid.”
Adapting for the Future
Libraries began as a solution for scarce resources. Books used to be unaffordable for many people, so a system of lending was born. But that’s changed.
“Books aren’t scarce anymore,” Heil said. “What libraries have done is sort of shifted to figuring out what is scarce.”
In Garden Grove, that’s the internet.
The library has a high-speed fiber optic connection, providing reliable internet access for residents of the town.
“You’d be surprised by the people, or even the kids, who park out front or sit out front with their devices and use our Wi-Fi connection,” Crawford said. “It’s kind of the back and beyond down here, so sometimes our access is not always as good, unfortunately.”
Wi-Fi access is a persistent issue for rural Americans, who consistently lack connections to home broadband and high-speed internet. The Biden Administration’s 2021 infrastructure law recognizes this issue and establishes several programs to improve access, including a monthly internet discount for some households.
While the Garden Grove Library is only open on Wednesdays and Saturdays for a total of 10 hours per week due to funding, Wi-Fi is always available.
When the library is open, community members can visit the compact space to browse the web or check out books. Inside, there’s enough room for four people to comfortably move around. Immediately inside the door, a desk with a computer faces the wall. A round table with office chairs sits behind it near the center of the room, with the librarian’s desk at the back, ready to greet people who enter. In the back corner, a door leads to the community space of the building. Two packed bookshelves extend out from the wall, while books line the rest of the exterior walls. Various signs in cursive, some printed and some painted, are scattered around the space, giving information or encouraging visitors to read. This singular room is lit by greenish-yellow fluorescent light.
It’s clear that the small size of the library doesn’t come close to equaling the impact it has on the community. The Walmart in Osceola – 20 minutes away – is the closest place where residents can buy books. The nearest Barnes & Noble is more than an hour away in West Des Moines.
Crawford has only been the librarian since January 2023, but she has already worked to secure additional funding for the library.
The Garden Grove Library is part of Tier 0, meaning it receives no state aid. Since the beginning of her tenure, Crawford has worked to move the library to a Tier 1. At this higher level, it would receive money from the state. However, with this funding comes additional standards. Libraries at this level must show their competency in 29 different areas.
The standards largely relate to procedures and positions with the library, including a board of trustees and a paid director. Undertaking this application and submitting it by the deadline at the end of February was a tremendous task for newly-employed Crawford.
Thankfully, she had some help.
Shortly into Crawford’s four-hour Wednesday shift, a library board trustee, Juanita White, came in to help finish the application. Dressed in a sweatshirt with “Genuine Antique Person. Been There, Done That, Can’t Remember” across the front, White has worked to maintain the library as a community center.
The amount of money libraries receive through this program is formula-based, starting at a base amount then factoring in population and other funding sources. However, the State Library only receives a fraction of what they need to hand out, requiring them to adjust their standards accordingly.
For the 2022-23 fiscal year, the association received just 35.27% of the money they needed for tiered funds. This is passed on to libraries, who end up with only a third of the money requested.
For the Garden Grove Library, this will likely mean an influx of less than $500.
“It’s not about the money,” Heil said. “I mean, yeah, that’s nice, but it’s about improving your service to your community, which then improves your community.”
Beyond funding, there is a larger solution. And it’s already happening in other states.
“In Illinois, you’ve got systems that have maybe 15, 20 towns in them, plus all the rural folks,” Heil said. “One thing in Iowa that I’d like to see is more partnerships for sure.”
Heil said multiple libraries in an area could consolidate. Several counties have dozens of small libraries and it would make sense for them to pool their resources.
The Garden Grove Library could play a more major role in the town in the coming years. The town was also home to a junior and senior high school building, part of the Mormon Trail School District. That building closed after the fall 2022 semester and classes moved to the nearby city of Humeston.
“We’re hoping that we can also provide a little more access for the kids that maybe don’t have the opportunity to get into Humeston to the library or school as often as they may like,” Crawford said.
Saige*, a 12-year-old student, goes to the library at least twice a month to read or study. It’s even become part of her future.
“I personally want to grow up to be a librarian, and I love reading,” she said.
Saige also volunteers at the library, cataloging and maintaining the book collection.
While Saige doesn’t attend Mormon Trail, the building’s closing will still affect other teens in town. Students now have to travel further to go to school. They lost access to a learning space as the school’s library closed with the building.
It’s a hard time for Garden Grove, but thanks to librarians like Crawford, community members like White and volunteers like Saige, the community can always count on their local library to fill in the gaps.
*Saige’s last name has been excluded for privacy reasons.