Home Away From Home: The Unique Role of Rural Libraries

Rural communities have unique needs and challenges that not everyone may understand. But as Tracy Lowe, Branch Services Lead at Sheet Harbour Public Library, knows, the local library is often the heart of the community, offering much more than just books. Having worked at the library for 14 years, Tracy sees firsthand how community needs have evolved over time.

"The Library still fulfills people's need for literacy and the love of books like when I first started," she shared. "But our Library has also stepped up to meet the needs and wants of the community, from offering play-based children's programs, adult book clubs, and celebrations for various cultures, to listening to the community when they tell us what they need."

And this is happening all across our rural branches and Library Offices including Sheet Harbour Public Library, Musquodoboit Harbour Public Library, J.D. Shatford Memorial Public Library, Preston Township Library Office, and the Musquodoboit Valley Library Office. In 2022-23, these locations had 119,247 visitors, and 16,819 program attendees.

The neighbourly way

To Tracy, the Sheet Harbour branch is the hub of the community: "We offer a safe comfortable spot to relax, socialize, learn, explore, and gain information for free." As a lifelong resident of Sheet Harbour, Tracy recognizes the importance of knowing your neighbours and supporting the community. The Library offers space for Sheet Harbour residents, and anyone passing through town. As Tracy says, "When we open the doors in the morning and someone is waiting to print, or needs a coffee—they are always so appreciative and thankful. This free, dignified access to our services really does make a difference in the daily lives of our fellow community members."

As Sheet Harbour residents for the past three years, Andrea St. John-Ford says she and her family feel grateful to be so close to this community resource. “As homeschooling parents, the Library for us is a place for the kids to play, learn, and socialize. They love ordering books and love the programs for the kids,” such as the annual Summer Reading Club.

A reliable hub

The Library's impact on the Sheet Harbour community has only grown over the years, with successful partnerships and popular programs that bring people together. Of course, challenges exist, too: Tracy recognizes that rural libraries face struggles like poverty, lack of public services, and isolation for vulnerable groups. But despite these challenges—and often, in fact, in response to them—the Library remains a reliable resource for those in need.

"The triumph we share in rural branches is knowing most of our customers and all of the local resources," Tracy shared. "That enables us to fully service their needs with compassion and empathy."

For those like Robyn Murphy, a local teacher and super-user of the Sheet Harbour branch, the Library has been a valuable resource for both her professional and personal life. Robyn noted that “the Library in Sheet Harbour is a hub for the community, for children, adults, and seniors alike. I work as a social worker in the local school and have also had the opportunity to create several partnerships with the Library staff, from co-facilitating programs for students to hosting a Stocking Stuffer Drive during the holidays.” Robyn continues, “To me, the Library could be summed up in one word: community.”

In a world where everything seems to be digital and fast-paced, rural libraries offer a sense of community and connection that can't be replaced. As Tracy says, "Halifax Public Libraries branches are the hubs of the community in which they serve." And that's a sentiment that rings true not just in Sheet Harbour, but in many rural communities.

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This story was originally created as part of Halifax Public Libraries' 2022-23 Annual Report. Read the full report here.