How This Small Town Library is Personalizing Experiences

June 29, 2023

Libraries mean a lot to communities large and small. They are places where kids can go after school, where students can study, and where members of the community can find books on just about any subject.

A local library can mean even more to a small community, especially when it offers personalized experiences. But small-town libraries also face unique challenges.

The entrance to the Tumbler Ridge Public Library.

Overcoming Distances

Paula Coutts is the Head Librarian at the Tumbler Ridge Public Library in Tumbler Ridge, British Columbia.

“We’re considered to be an isolated community, so our library experiences some of the challenges that come along with that. Getting deliveries can be challenging, for example. We get our book shipment from a particular supplier and the courier for them changed a few years ago and they stopped coming to Tumbler Ridge. We had to scramble and the company had to pay more to arrange for another company to deliver to us,” explains Paula.

This also means that sometimes they have to go to larger towns an hour away to pick up shipments.

But with a population of just under 2,000 people, the community of Tumbler Ridge is very supportive of its local library.

The front desk of the Tumbler Ridge Public Library

Personalizing Experiences

“We have a captive audience in the sense that we know who our users are. We get to know who they are and what they like. We’re able to plan our collection development around that. It makes it a little more personalized and I think that surprises people sometimes,” Paula says.

As Paula and her team get to know the people who visit the library, they’ll even give them a call when a book comes in that they think they will like.

“When I buy books, I consider what I think people will want to read and what they may end up leaving on the shelf. Every now and then, we do a temperature check and make sure we don’t have anyone who is reading an author that we previously thought no one had any interest in,” she explains.

Paula says she and her team have developed a great collection of books, which is something they really enjoy doing. From this, they’ve started a book club which has participants from all over the world.

Library staff post recommendations online as well.

Extending Their Reach

“We started it just before last Christmas. We started it because there were some people who visited us last summer and they really liked the suggestions we were giving them for things to read. They didn’t want to lose that when they went back to their home library. So they got in touch with us and from that, we now have more than a dozen book club members joining us virtually, some of whom are from Ontario,” she says.

After inviting several authors to attend the book club, they have also welcomed members from Scotland, Florida, Colorado, California, and other areas.

Every Monday morning, members talk about the handful of books they’ve read since the last meeting.

“It’s a passionate group filled with voracious readers. It’s interesting to hear them discuss the books and to hear about what they like and what they don’t like,” she says. 

The library is well known regionally as well.

“We do a lot of interlibrary lending because of our extensive collection. We lend to nearby libraries and to ones all over the province. Sometimes we get requests from Ontario and the East Coast as well,” she says.

Members of the book club read several books each week and meet every Monday to discuss their thoughts.

The Importance of Small Town Libraries

“We have gone through a few years of budget cuts in the past. We rely primarily on municipal funding so if we lost it, we would definitely lose the library. I think if we ever had to close, there would be an outcry. The library is the main hub of our community,” she says.

Offering more than books, the Tumbler Ridge Public Library helps members of the community one-on-one in many other ways as we’ve covered in our previous story. But recently, they’ve started hosting government services.

“We don’t have a provincial or a federal office in town so quite often, we become the bridge between the community and those provincial and federal services. Anyone who is applying for a disability pension or disability allowance they don’t know how to approach it online, we can help them do that,” she explains.

The library is now hosting Service BC once a month so they can be on site to help people. There are plans to have Service Canada visit in the same way to help residents apply for or renew passports.

Human Connections

Along with the practical benefits to having libraries in small towns, there’s also a social benefit.

“A lot of what we do is social. Sometimes we see people who just want to talk to another adult. Even though pandemic restrictions are gone, I still see people who just want to socialize. People who live alone still come in just to be able to talk to someone,” Paula explains.

Noticing a need for interaction, Paula and her team have invited library users to get a sneak peek at the new books that are coming in.

“When a new box of books comes in, I invite people to come in while we unpack them outside of our regular hours. Quite often, I’ve already read a lot of the books when they come in so people can ask questions about them and I can speak about those books. Because of that, we were signing out a lot of books before they had even gone on the shelves,” she explains.

Back to Their Roots

After managing budget cuts and pandemic closures over the past few years, the Tumbler Ridge Public Library is getting back to focusing on what they’re all about: reading.

By personalizing experiences and extending their reach beyond Tumbler Ridge, Paula says they are now working on getting back into promoting reading throughout the summer.

She’s also working on encouraging kids to explore the books in the library’s collection.

“Summer is huge for us. We’re gearing up for our Summer Reading Club. We are the only free regular program in the summer for kids in Tumbler Ridge. We get a lot of local kids, but we also have kids who are in town visiting family and we usually have more than 100 kids sign up. Every day during the week there are crafts and reading activities for them,” she says.

Kids are encouraged to read throughout the summer to help maintain and develop their reading skills while school is out. 

“We have prize draws, points for how many minutes they’ve read, and lots of other incentives and prizes for them,” she says.

Connect with the Tumbler Ridge Public Library online by visiting their Facebook page.