After working for 26 years as academic librarians, we have reached a point in our careers where we are right-sizing professionally and personally. This year, we requested and were granted a nine-month contract, enabling us to pursue our dream of cycling across the United States, from Washington, D.C., to Astoria, Oregon. Along the way, we are visiting public libraries, taking photos, and making notes about library services and programming, and in particular, services available to bicycle tourists and other non-resident patrons. Although our careers have been in academic libraries, we are big supporters of public libraries: one of the few welcoming and safe spaces that offer services to the public at no cost. Serving as advocates for public libraries, we are writing about our library visits, sharing photos, and tracking our progress cross-country.
As bicycle tourists, libraries provide a refuge and a personal connection. Crossing Kansas and Eastern Colorado, with 102-degree afternoon heat, libraries allowed us to get out of the high temperatures, spend time working on the computers, or log in to the library WiFi to conserve our cellular data. In talking with the librarians throughout our trip, we created a personal connection with the towns, learning so much more about the local history, the people that live there, and services and programs provided by the library.
Currently, our route follows the Adventure Cycling Association’s (ACA) TransAmerica Bicycle Trail, a route that originated in 1976 as the Bikecentennial Route. On their maps, ACA lists amenities (camping, hospitals, grocery stores, etc.) for towns situated along the 4,240-mile route. Around 2001, cyclists traveling on the route requested that ACA include sites providing internet access. ACA recognized potential problems with listing internet cafes due to their transient nature and decided the logical place for connectivity was public libraries. Since that time, ACA has included more than 1,500 public libraries on their maps.
As of late June, we have visited over 20 public libraries, and bicycled 2,300 miles. Our approach is to introduce ourselves to library staff and ask them questions about library services for bicycle tourists such as ourselves and other non-residents that may stop at the library. We still are uncertain if they are more surprised (excited too!) that we are bicycling across the country or that we are both librarians.
Many of the libraries along our route provided services to bicycle tourists passing through their towns. The Kiowa County Public Library in Eads, Colorado is situated on the TransAmerica Bicycle Trail and created a visitor guide specifically for TransAmerica cyclists with useful information such as where to eat, shower, and camp, where to find ice cream, the grocery stores, and the swimming pool. The Council Grove Library in Council Grove, Kansas has created a Local Information space, a corner of the library that highlights the history, attractions, and businesses of the area. They serve as a second Visitors Center for the community, particularly since the library is open more hours.
We were also impressed by the ease of access to computers and WiFi for non-residents. At least four of the libraries we visited allowed anyone, regardless of residence, to obtain a library card with full borrowing privileges. All that is necessary is a government-issued ID and a piece of mail with your address.
In addition to the ease of access to library materials, all of the libraries that we visited had engaging summer programming, welcoming spaces, and personable staff.
In Hartsel, Colorado, a town of only 60 people, the community created the Hartsel Public Library in 1999. Books were donated and the library is staffed entirely by volunteers. The library is housed in a historic building built in 1899 surrounded by a picket fence, and recently received a grant to renovate the interior, creating a cozy and friendly space for community members and visitors.
Brownstown Branch Library in Brownstown, Illinois (population 750) houses its library in an old bank, using the vault as a children’s reading area. The library employs two part-time staff members. They each hold two jobs: one is a librarian/firefighter and the other is librarian/Mayor of Brownstown.
In 2018, the Robert Hoag Rawlings Public Library in Pueblo, Colorado, received both the National Medal for Museum and Library Service (IMLS) and the Leslie B. Knope Award (community favorite/social media award). In winning the Knope Award, Pueblo beat out Beth’s hometown library, Lawrence Public Library in Lawrence, Kansas, during the final four voting. Having visited both of these libraries this summer, we were blown away by the library buildings and outdoor spaces; their creative and plentiful programming, and the obvious love and support they received from their communities. Both of these libraries are outstanding examples of the library as the heart of a mid-size city.
Libraries are not immune from the challenges faced by communities; in fact, they are often an important resource for connecting people in their community with services and support. In speaking with public librarians, we heard about the opioid problem, lack of jobs, and food insecurity among their patrons. One librarian told us they fear that one day medical intervention will be needed in the library or come too late for addicted patrons. Many libraries provide resume writing clinics and help patrons submit job applications online. Other libraries are providing free summer lunches to youth, age 1-18.
The most appreciated services we found for bicycle tourists and other non-residents in the library were the simple things often taken for granted: a welcoming space with air-conditioning; electricity to charge our devices; internet connection; and the hospitality demonstrated by the library staff. One particularly hot afternoon, we witnessed bicycle tourists camping at the city park. As we passed the park several times that day, we were puzzled why anyone would choose to sit in 102-degree temperatures while there was a wonderful library only three blocks away. Now, whenever we meet other bicycle tourists in town, we let them know that a library is just minutes away.
Featured image credit: “Brownstown Branch Library in Brownstown, Illinois” by Beth Cramer and John Boyd. Used with permission.