This past weekend, I had the opportunity to hear Verlyn Klinkenborg, member of the Editorial Board of The New York Times, speak about the changing rural landscape. What, you might ask, does The New York Times know from rural? Well, in Mr. Klinkenborg’s case, there are years growing up on an Iowa farm and a family still on the land. Mr. Klinkenborg is also the author of Making Hay and The Rural Life, so he knows something about which he speaks from a personal and a scholarly perspective.
What I heard Mr. Klinkenborg describe was not altogether new material for any inhabitant of a Midwestern state. He documented a decline in the number of farms and an increase in acres per farm. He described the decline in farm families and shrinking population of rural counties and communities. We’ve heard these numbers before.
What Mr. Klinkenborg added to the story was a note of parallel decline in the number of such things as hardware stores, PTAs, bridge clubs, membership in local meat lockers, home gardens, school bands, local banks, entries in the county fair and fraternal organizations. Whether Mr. Klinkenborg’s data was anecdotal or research based, I do not know, but my initial reaction to his illustrative list was, “well of course, one would likely follow the other,” but then Mr. Klinkenborg hit upon his theme that the decline of this assorted local enterprise can be equated with a real loss in diversity. America may be the story of the melting pot, but it has also been the story of diversity, a history of many voices, a place of strength built on the complexity of taste, endeavors and ideas. I was happy to hear Mr. Klinkenborg acknowledge that even the smallest town can be complex and rich with human uniqueness. I was also intrigued, and a little disturbed, by his prognosis.
While I’ve never actually lived on a farm, or even a small town, I have accepted, at some level, that what has often been said of rural Kansas, rural Iowa, and the rest of the Midwest is somehow true: that these places are, in the aggregate, the heartland — that much of what is good about the country can be found there and is nourished there. I’ve long been aware of data showing steady decline in rural populations; what I hadn’t considered was what the loss of population may also mean in a decline in diversity and what that decline may mean for those communities and for rest of us. Diversity, Mr. Klinkenborg explained, is important in all life. Just as it’s critical to plant a variety of tree species in a park, it is important that diversity be present in most cultures. In many ways, diversity is the collaborative and competitive spark that moves us forward.
Mr. Klinkenborg’s remarks naturally made me think about libraries and their role in rural communities and has caused me to see rural libraries with a little different clarity. The library is a place of great diversity. In fact, that may be the library’s most important and noble role. The library, even in its smallest manifestation, is a route to the most creative human output on the widest array of topics, told from a seemingly limitless world of perspective.
Hearing Mr. Klinkenborg’s presentation also reminded me that several weeks ago I joined a NEKLS-sponsored bus tour of ten of its member libraries. What I saw on tour were libraries of a wide variety in size, collection and services. One library offered cooking classes for young children, another sponsored French language classes for local residents. I saw new libraries that were stunningly beautiful and engineered for functionality. I visited with librarians who were excited hosts of upcoming book discussions and libraries that were employing clever ways of delivering information to local residents where and when those residents wanted it.
With no attempt to diminish the seriousness of Mr. Klinkenborg’s message, or even the slightest suggestion that the local library can substitute for the loss he documents, I have to say that those ten vibrant libraries, and libraries like them elsewhere in the state, were, for me, testament to the enthusiasm of their staffs, but also testament to how much the local residents of those communities trust and appreciate the diversity of riches the library brings to their community.