Rural librarian works to turn small-town library to hub of learning

Jul 3, 2013

This week, a sweet story from a library in Oregon County, just north of the Missouri-Arkansas state line.  

Credit Casey Fleser / Flickr

Rachel Reynolds Luster is the librarian at the cozy, one-room library in Myrtle, Missouri:  population around 150. There’s one gas station and a small post office, but no grocery store or bank.

Upon reporting to work on day one, she realized there was going to be one major challenge: there were hardly any modern books.

“The librarian before me really liked paperback romance novels. So we have lots of those. It’s about a third of our inventory,” she says.

Nor could she see any works from the other end of literary timeline. She set out to find the one book she thought all libraries should have:  the Greek epic “The Odyssey.”

“And I looked. And we didn’t have one. No library in our system had one. So, I got that and processed it today. And So I’m excited to be able to put that on the shelf,” Luster said.

The librarian before her, whom Luster praises for keeping this little haven of literature alive, also worked here for nearly four decades…and still considers it her baby. She stops by nearly every day, Luster says.  

“It’s been interesting working this transition with her.  She was quite upset that the cooking magazines were gone.  But we recycled them all. And we kept some holiday cookie editions,” she said.

Luster has a vision for this little haven of literature, and for the community that frequents it. She wants to transform it into a vibrant place of community and learning.  It’s one of the few places that can even get broadband internet. And before Luster came, the Myrtle library only has two storytimes a year. She wants that to become a weekly event.

“There are quite a few kids in the area, and there’s just not a whole lot to do. Other than going to the river or hanging out with friends and family, there aren’t public activities. We don’t have a movie store. We don’t have parks. We don’t have a lot of public spaces,” she said.

I ask her to show me some of the outdated children’s books.

She shows me the pile of children’s books she most recently “weeded” from the circulation. One is a book on Ewoks from Return of the Jedi.  Another looks like it’s from the 1950s.  One called “Sam’s Country: A Small Town in the Midwest” portrays a town much larger than Myrtle.

She does have a budget from Oregon County. It’s $200 a month…but that covers all books, magazines, and activities.

“Like, a Friends of the Library in a city can crank out money fairly easily.  We’re not in that situation here,” she said.

There’s a tiny, 7-foot long section for adult non-fiction, but that’s about half cookbooks from the 1980s.

After beefing up the children’s section, she wants to expand the adult non-fiction shelf. But another challenge, she expects, is finding actual space.

“You really have to pick and curate and think, ‘So, if I’m going to have one Brooks Blevins book about Ozarks culture, or one Don Harrington novel or one Daniel Woodrell novel, what should it be?’”

Luster spent time studying in New York City; she has two Master’s degrees, and before long, she’ll be able to scribble “Ph.D.” after her name. She says feels a very strong responsibility to use whatever talents or skills she has to make the resources in her community the strongest they can be.