Engines of Belonging & Innovation

Building the Collaborative Institute for Rural Communities & Librarianship for the Common Good

R. David Lankes, Margo Gustina, Kimberly Silk

DRAFT 5/30/2023

The Vision 

Imagine a network of hundreds of rural libraries partnering with top universities, state agencies, funders, associations, and innovative companies to create a national and international network of action dedicated to improving rural life. A network dedicated to building capacity in libraries as anchors of rural communities. Anchors building digital literacy, supporting health and well-being, providing civic forums to tackle difficult conversations, and fostering democratic participation in the rural and indigenous communities throughout the United States and the world. Imagine even the smallest library having access to technology expertise, policy guidance, and a peer mentor learning network that crosses boundaries. Imagine every rural librarian trained, supported, and respected with credentials as unique as their communities. The Collaborative Institute for Rural Communities & Librarianship (CIRCL) seeks to coordinate and amplify the work of partners into a rural library movement for the common good.

The Goal

A network of thriving rural and indigenous libraries that are engines of belonging and innovation in their communities. Structure to support initiative coordination between skilled library staff on issues relevant to their communities like workforce development, health, broadband adoption, and literacy. A structure to smooth the “new initiative” funding roller coaster library decision makers ride year in and year out. Librarians that weave together diverse social groups and foster the free flow of ideas based in community action research. A network of libraries as unique as the people they serve.

The Ask

This proposal seeks partners in the establishment of a Collaborative Institute for Rural Communities & Librarianship. This includes a commitment to plan the institute’s administration, develop rural librarianship’s research & policy agenda, and design the means of ongoing support.

The Proposal

This document is a starting point for discussion. It is meant as an invitation to help create the institute, and outline sufficient details to show concrete first steps. This proposal is divided into two parts:

  • Part 1: The Big Picture – an overview of the need for an institute focused on rural libraries, both in the United States and internationally, and the general shape of such an institute.
  • Part 2: Structure – A more detailed first take on anticipated functions and governance of the institute.

Part 1: The Big Picture

The Situation

“Four out of 10 libraries in the United States are located in rural communities and rural Americans visited their libraries 117 million times in 2017.” These rural libraries are often struggling to meet demand. They tend to lag behind in connectivity, many have tenuous funding, and many are staffed by dedicated librarians who lack formal library education. Even with dedicated volunteers, staffing lags behind the need, making innovating or expanding programs nearly impossible. While seen as trusted and vital services in their communities, supporting new initiatives in broadband, wellness, workforce development, and education are stymied by lack of institutional capacity.

The Opportunity

Rural libraries can, however,  support sustainable development of their communities. There are no other agencies with the reach of public libraries that have the trust of their communities nor any other place that provides the vital 3rd space where every person is welcome and without expectation of cost, nor pressure of politics. Rural libraries have built a strong connection to their unique communities over decades. An investment in these public libraries can be the most efficient and effective means to serve the rural community.

When rural libraries are supported with funding, yes, but also with mentorship, partnerships, and with simple recognition they thrive. Look at the Pottsboro Public Library (Texas, US) that offers innovative service with digital guides for the elderly, e-gaming for teens, and wireless broadband for all. Even without consistent monetary resources, public libraries like the Pueblo de Abiquiu Library and Cultural Center (New Mexico, US) offer a range of vital services like teen mentoring, confidential support for victims of domestic abuse, and cultural literacy education.

As different organizations seek to support rural communities, be it in health, workforce development, business creation, or democratic engagement, rural libraries are the logical agency to partner with. Libraries that center the community in their work, and seek to expand beyond the basics of reading literacy to digital, health, and financial literacy are powerful agents of change. Libraries that have the capacity to both develop local solutions and can adapt programs from local, regional, state, national and international sources. However, not every library is at that point.

In the current mix of under-resourced and unsupported rural libraries, initiatives often fall short of the broad community impact desired. Precisely what makes rural libraries so attractive to potential partners and funders–being the last civic institution serving a rural community– is why they are so challenged to engage initiatives designed outside their service community. For decades and decades rural communities have lost grocery stores, schools, banks, and hospitals. Their libraries have lost regional cooperative collection, delivery, and consulting support. And in the midst of an international crisis of rural wellbeing we turn to the last open building, with an unpaid or underpaid staff person, and ask that they fix what years of inattention has wrought.  

Here we offer an initiative designed around structured and targeted actions to create long term capacity for local investment. By taking a step back from current targeted activities (mental health, workforce development, broadband adoption) and focusing on building a ready and able network of rural belonging and innovation, future targeted investments will have greater impact with greater efficiency.

The International Scope

While every rural community is unique (demographics, economy, legal structure, etc.) they share many concerns not only nationally, but internationally. Conditions such as changing populations, access to education, workforce development, and types of services span geographic boundaries. CIRCL will seek to partner with international networks, indigenous communities, scholarly expertise, and institutions to provide a broad look at the challenges and power of rural libraries in connecting communities. 

The Institute

A Collaborative Institute for Rural Communities & Librarianship that is a large-scale capacity-building initiative that brings together state agencies, tribal governments, philanthropy, academia, library advocacy organizations, library associations, library support services, with local government to implement evidence-based support models, innovative professional development, and a sense of legitimacy through credentialing. This institute will be a dynamic forum where rural library staff and local government work with each other and experts in librarianship, law, architecture, community engagement, health, and more. A forum where the rural librarian finds learning, support, and the passion to invigorate their communities. A network of rural library staff across the globe devoted to creating libraries as diverse and unique as the people they serve.

In order to see the benefits of engaging rural libraries in their communities, the capacity of rural librarians, and the libraries they manage, must be strengthened. Transformation of rural libraries into engines of belonging and innovation will not come through short-lived cash for materials or tasks. Instead, it requires targeted investment over the long term to achieve strategic outcomes. 

It is the library director and the library workers where the potential power of community engagement is located. By supporting their shifts toward practices that leverage a wider sweep of local resources, each rural library can become part of a regional and global network of advancement supported by the Collaborative Institute for Rural Communities & Librarianship. It is this network that will amplify investments in mental health, workforce development, literacy, democracy, and innovation. It is a library director with a strong sense of legitimacy working on behalf of their communities that can usher in rural broadband to support telehealth and expanded education opportunities. A librarian who speaks as part of their community can facilitate tough conversations on issues facing their community thus supporting strong democratic participation.

What is needed now is an institute that:

  • Builds a peer learning network of rural libraries for mentoring, advocacy, and innovation
  • Direct supports rural libraries through cooperative IT and administrative support
  • Conducts participatory action research on the issue of rural library capacity building
  • Provides professional development and certification in rural librarianship
  • Facilitates cross-border discussions on commonalities and differences in rural contexts

These areas are expanded in Part 2 of this proposal.

The Partnership

The Collaborative Institute for Rural Communities & Librarianship will be a joint effort of key stakeholders in rural libraries. It will build rapidly on a foundation of existing initiatives and investments. Inaugural partners will be:

Public & Tribal Libraries

  • Pottsboro Public Library
  • Jarrell Community Library & Resource Center
  • Orangeburg Public Library


  • Association of Small and Rural Libraries

Support Systems 

  • Heartland Library System

State Libraries

  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • New York


  • Syracuse University
  • University of Texas Austin
  • UNC Greensboro
  • Louisiana State University
  • Texas Woman’s University


  • Public Libraries 2030
  • Brightsail Research
  • KB Royal National Library of the Netherlands

The initial partners represent a mix of resources including grants, students, scholarship, consulting, and training. The Collaborative Institute for Rural Communities & Librarianship will focus these resources, and more importantly, aid rural libraries to use these resources in service of local initiatives and the development of hyperlocal solutions to the problems of rural communities. The institute will be about listening and supporting rather than the development of high-level best practices to be implemented. 

More important than the initial set of institute partners will be a growing network of rural libraries and community leaders. The institute will provide resources for grant writing and administration, joint IT support, regional services such as methods of broadband deployment, and facilitation of a growing peer learning network where librarians share approaches and insights.

The Conclusion

Rural communities seek to thrive in a society marked by rapid advancements in medicine, technology, and energy, but also ideological division, growing mental health issues, and massive existential challenges from growing climatic risk. 

Rural libraries, developing local innovation, working together, and using community connections to ensure equitable opportunities, can be the engine for belonging and innovation for the nation and the world. This proposal seeks to marshal the considerable resources and expertise of the government, indigenous nationals & communities, nonprofits, philanthropy, and most importantly, local rural agencies to create the Collaborative Institute for Rural Communities & Librarianship. This shared institute will be a platform for learning and innovation, and a forum for ongoing dialogs on improving life in rural communities.

Part 2: Structure


This proposal seeks to invite partners to join in the establishment of a Collaborative Institute for Rural Communities & Librarianship (CIRCL). The first function of partners is to review, comment upon, and shape the proposed specifics within this proposal and agree to sign on to the revised proposal.  Once approved by the founding partners, organizations shall:

  1. Sign an MOU to commit to the collaboration.
  2. Identify existing projects, resources, and funding that can be used to demonstrate the potential of the institute.
  3. Collaboratively seek funding for the institute.
  4. Seek and support additional partners and, especially, rural libraries to join the CIRCL.

Functions of the Institute

The functions of CIRCL will evolve over time and expand based on available funding. The major areas of effort will be:

  • Building a peer learning network of rural libraries for mentoring, advocacy, and innovation
    • Cohort building with regional peer library staff so no librarian feels isolated and all librarians feel like they are part of a larger library community.
    • Develop joint marketing efforts to highlight the importance of rural libraries as anchor institutions centered on the community.
  • Direct capacity building with rural libraries.
    • Providing logistical, administrative, and funding support to rural libraries 
    • Pooling funding and IT support for rural libraries
    • Programs that build broadband capability and expertise to support local internet access needs in telehealth, personal growth, and alternative educational attainment.
    • Develops a long-term structure of consulting access to rural librarians for emergent issues that require just-in-time support rather than just in case workshops – like human resources, legal challenges, facilities planning, and donor development.
  • Conduct participatory action research on the issue of rural library capacity building
    • Ongoing research into state, national, and international advances in librarianship that can identify programmatic ways to increase belonging for every rural community member and innovation for thriving local development through skill leadership, literacy, and democratic participation.
    • Track and synthesize important issues in rural librarianship including models of sustainability; key state and national policy initiatives such as rural broadband; support on issues of materials challenges and censorship
    • Builds and tests evidence-based models of sustainable library service in the dynamic rural environment.
    • Tools to use local, regional, state, and national demographics and other statistics to assess and demonstrate the effectiveness of library services in a local context
  • Provide professional development and certification in rural library staff
    • Voluntary university backed credentialing that provides rural staff with a sense of legitimacy; essential when supporting the free flow of ideas in a community.
    • Support minoritized communities getting formal degrees through scholarships, postdoctoral positions, and creating cohorts across library programs.
    • Develop and deliver professional development to rural library staff
    • Provides access to existing training and new forms of professional development for librarians and local government.
  • Facilitating cross-border discussions
    • Produce open international forums for rural library staff to meet and discuss key topics of interest. 
    • Support cross border site visits and residencies. 
    • Support visiting faculty and student exchanges focused on the topic of rural development and librarianship. 
    • Support shared academic courses in hybrid format across universities. 


The vision for CIRCL encompasses a joint program of research, services, and marketing focused on problems and issues in rural librarianship. By joining efforts across CIRCL rural libraries, universities, governmental agencies, and companies, a collaborative CIRCL will gain wider recognition, stimulate a richer research agenda, and become more appealing to funding agencies. In this era of dramatic shifts in rural communities, a joint institute can create a larger effect and better shape national and international efforts related to information policy, provision and research.

Membership in CIRCL will be through the adoption of a master agreement in the form of a Memo of Understanding (MOU). This MOU will lay out agreed upon policies including pre-negotiated funding terms; marketing; conflict of interest procedures for funders and funded; and the use of funds. Joint projects between constituent members of the institute will be guided by a series of letter agreements. These agreements will augment this master agreement. Letter agreements will list specific contractual obligations unique to a given project. Letter agreements will also designate primary institutions for any given projects. These primary institutions will have operational control of a project, act as point of contact for the given project, and negotiate for the project on behalf of the collaborative institute.

CIRCL will also have associated individuals. These will be librarians and key community members who don’t necessarily have or represent an institution (such as students, scholars with shared research interest, tribal leaders).

The administrative structure of the Institute consists of governing and advisory boards, administrative staffing, and, most importantly, a peer network of rural libraries working together to increase capacity of rural libraries and better serve rural communities.

  • CIRCL Oversight Board – representatives from the supporting partners, this board makes large scale policy decisions.
  • Director – university faculty that guides overall operations and oversees the research agenda of CIRCL
  • Associate Director – staff responsible for logistics and accounting oversight of the institute.
  • Rural Library Network – Partner rural libraries that provide direction, on-the-ground perspective and participate in CIRCL activities. The network elects an increasing share of the CIRCL Board beginning with 1/3. 
  • Board of Advisors – The advisors have three formal roles. The first is to provide field-wide perspectives on the work of CIRCL and provide their expertise in planning institute activities. The second is to annually review, modify, and approve the competencies for the certificate programs. The third task is to act as ambassadors for the work of CIRCL and to identify members of the rural library network.

Partner Inventories

An early task in the formation of CIRCL is to complete partner inventories. An inventory is a list of relevant extant projects, publications, services, and relevant experts. The goal is not to claim these as CIRCL activities or claim some kind of credit. Rather the goal is to demonstrate the expertise coming together. The inventories will form the basis for the initial CIRCL website, and will be used in seeking funding and support for CIRCL activities.

Authors’ sample inventory:

  • Adaptive capacity library service models
  • Bowden Capstone Scholars
  • Bowden Certificate
  • Community engagement course
  • Program Evaluation Training (Brightsail)
  • Rural Libraries & Social Wellbeing tools, mentorship, research
  • Social Value Frameworks (Brightsail)
  • Salzburg Curriculum