The value of rural libraries: A look inside Odessa’s public library

Public libraries have been in the news a lot over the past few years. There have been calls to ban books, pull funding, or cancel certain events. But not all events or books are controversial and not all libraries are dealing with efforts to censor their collections. Odessa Library in Schuyler County is that kind of library. Last summer WRFI’s Jim Utz and I spent a Saturday morning at Odessa’s Dutton S. Peterson Library.

Outside under a big tent poet and songwriter Carol Mikoda entertained a group of neighbors gathered for an event. 

"I love community. I love to see the community come together," said the library's director, Karen Thomas.

The library's board of trustees. (library facebook page)
The library's board of trustees. (library facebook page)

We moved inside where it was quieter to talk. The library building is about the size of a small house.

"[It’s] about 1100 square feet empty, and it's obviously not empty.  We are full shoulder to shoulder with bookshelves everywhere and we try to have things on the shelf for everyone. We have a large or decent selection of large print books, we have books on CD audiobooks. We're also part of the Southern Tier library system," Thomas said.

Brian Hildreth is executive director of the Southern Tier Library System. It has 48 libraries across Chemung, Alleghany, Yates, Steuben, and Schuyler. If a local library doesn’t have a book or DVD someone wants they can get it from another library in the system.

"Many of our communities have a public library on their Main Street. And in some of those communities other than the post office," Hildreth said. "The public library is the only public institution on that Main Street that provides cultural and educational resources and just places for people to come together and celebrate the way we live our lives in our communities."

Thomas said libraries provide more than books. Wifi coverage is spotty in the area so people come to the library to get internet access and check their email. And one service that might surprise many people.

"Faxing, which is still a thing, and it's still a big thing. We get a lot of people in on a daily basis to facts," said Thomas.

Hildreth said public libraries are democratic institutions, by and for the people they serve.

The Dutton S. Patterson Library, Odessa, NY (from the library facebook page)
The Dutton S. Patterson Library, Odessa, NY (from the library facebook page)

"Like many of our rural communities, they have differences, too. And so those libraries within our region represent the uniqueness and the wonderfulness of each one of those communities. So, as public libraries, they're democratic institutions. So their library boards are run by people that live within the community and their director, in most cases is run by somebody that lives within that community," he said.

Thomas commutes from Elmira. That hasn’t stopped her from becoming part of the community.

"I love working in the community, the longer I'm here. So I've been here three years, it's becoming more and more like my home community every day. I'm learning so much more about the community and their wants and needs and that, I think is important to any small public library is to know what your community wants and what they need and be able to fill those needs. With what budget and space that we have," she said.

The American Library Association reported almost 700 demands to ban library services or materials between January and August last year. The demand related to almost 2,000 different book titles. 20% more than the year before.

Hildreth said attempts to get books banned or access restricted in Southern Tier system is rare. He said they had two recently in Alleghany County.