Digital Disruption in a Small-Town Library

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On Commercial street in Kincaid, Kansas, I only remember seeing one identifiable business — a somewhat decrepit restaurant and bar called Crickets. “The last census counted 93 or so people within the city limits,” I’m told by Jennifer Gum-Fowler, the librarian at Kincaid Public Library, “many of whom are living below the poverty line. We’re part of Rich Township, about 300 people, but not that rich.”

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The library is in the old high school, which now houses city hall offices and a nutritional program for older adults. Upstairs, along a hallway lined with lockers painted bright red, is a medium-sized former classroom. It’s a neat, brightly decorated, welcoming place with a 3-workstation computer bay, a play/reading area for children, and shelves bearing 2,261 items, according to a recent funding-related petition submitted to the Kansas State Library.

“That [petition] was the final step of being a stand-up, big-boy library,” Jennifer says proudly, “with actually being able to say we’re funding ourselves and moving forward now.” Up until 2014, the library was more like a “book depository,” a gift from the school’s alumnae with a collection that was untended and unsupervised. Sensing the community’s need, she and other citizens formed a board and filed the paperwork to make the library an official project, funded by taxes.

Citizen-librarian Jennifer Gum-Fowler helped found and now runs the Kincaid public library. 

Citizen-librarian Jennifer Gum-Fowler helped found and now runs the
Kincaid public library. 

As part of the library’s development, Jennifer “took on” the position of librarian. Her degree in History and Political Science from Washburn University had been intended to qualify her for law school. “Then,” she laughs, “life happened.” Jennifer and her husband, an over-the-road welder and machinist, have three children and have lived all over the state, wherever his work takes him. She also describes herself as “a big Dr. Who fan.”

How did she acquire library skills? “It’s touch-and-go,” she says, “but the Southeast Kansas Library System is awesome.” In addition to its state library, Kansas has a unique system of seven regional library organizations that each assist dozens of municipal and county libraries to improve services, qualify them for federal and state funding, and in some cases, train citizen librarians like Jennifer. “We’ve got a Share-It program through them, and a courier service through the state, so we can get books and materials from all over.”

The library serves a population of over 300 with 24/7 Wi-Fi, even though the building is only open 15 hours per week.

The library serves a population of over 300 with 24/7 Wi-Fi, even though the building is only open 15 hours per week.

The Kincaid library might not be big, but it provides a wealth of services to its patrons, including books for all ages, adult computer classes, a summer reading program, movie nights, weekly story time for children, and a Wi-Fi service that’s on 24/7. “People sit on the steps or in their cars in the parking lot, doing e-mail or downloading movies from their Netflix subscription for the weekend.” She also volunteers a lot of time all over the community as part of her library duties. Crickets runs a game night to help raise money. There’s a flyer on the wall for Zombie Day, a scavenger hunt for local teens and pre-teens, with local volunteers dressed up as undead nemeses. For all of that, their funding only allows them to be open 15 hours per week. Last year, she had over a thousand visits.

Local poverty-line citizens use the library to access Social Security and unemployment, although Jennifer says many have difficulty learning to do so. “If you’ve never done it or you’re terrified of doing it, it’s overwhelming. But if you don’t have access to the internet, you don’t have access to those services. We’ve held classes on how to sign up for the Affordable Care Act. I have one lady in her 70’s who’s selling her stuff on Etsy. It’s a really daunting task for her, but if you don’t show your wares that way, you get left behind.”

“[Digital disruption] causes a whole underclass that is lost. Coming from Topeka and having lived in Western Kansas and here, there’s a whole group of people who’re getting left behind.”
— Jennifer Gum-Fowler, Kincaid, KS Public Librarian

What does digital disruption mean to her library? “It causes a whole underclass that is lost. Coming from Topeka and having lived in Western Kansas and here, there’s a whole group of people who’re getting left behind. If they don’t have access, they don’t actually understand what’s happening around the world. And they don’t see the world the way the majority of people do.  And it’s a real tug-of-war when you talk to them, because you’re trying to discuss thoughts and ideas that they’re not exposed to.”

She talked about how her two sons are home-schooled and learn everything online. “When I’m at the grocery store, I text them to ask what they want and they’ll send me a picture of the item,” she laughs. "But there are other kids here who aren’t in that environment and they don’t even have that concept. Calling someplace to have pizza delivered to your house? These kids have never had that happen.”

The library's 20 DVDs for kids have been checked out 90 times in the past year. "You know the kids can recite them by heart."

The library's 20 DVDs for kids have been checked out 90 times in the past year. "You know the kids can recite them by heart."

Misconceptions about internet access by outsiders have disrupted the library’s funding. “We’re losing our E-rate [a federal program] grant for our landline phone, because they think everyone has cellular, but you can’t do that in rural America, because we don’t have good service here.” The Kincaid Library budget is now just under $15,000 per year. Jennifer’s applying for a $1,200 collection-development grant through the State Library with which she hopes to augment her DVD collection for kids, which currently numbers 20. “They’ve been checked out 90 times in the past year, so you know the kids can recite them by heart.”