There's one state highway running through Myrtle, Mo. It's a sleepy town in the Ozarks, population about 300. There's no bank or restaurant here, but enormous oak and persimmon trees loom over a small stone building right next to the road. Half of it is a post office; the other half, a one-room public library.
Rachel Reynolds Luster took over this branch four months ago with the goal of creating a learning hub. She calls herself a curator, not just a librarian.
Her first task? Filtering out some of the favorites of the previous librarian.
"It's been interesting working this transition with her," Luster says. "She was quite upset that the cooking magazines were gone. But we recycled them all, and we kept some holiday cookie editions."
Luster scanned her shelves for the one book she felt every library must have: the Greek epic The Odyssey. "I looked, and we didn't have one — no library in our system had one," she says.
Connecting Rural Communities
While the Myrtle library receives taxpayer money, it only gets $200 a month for books and supplies. So Luster has used social media to garner donations from people around the state. She's already secured about 1,000 new books.
She's one of thousands of rural librarians trying to bring a sense of community, learning and connectedness to their isolated areas. The Institute of Museum and Library Services estimates that nearly half of America's public libraries are rural, and many of those are staffed by only one or two people.
"Often, the library is the only place in a small community that people can go to access technology, to fill out job applications, to continue their learning," says Tena Hanson of the Association for Rural and Small Libraries.
She says libraries in remote places are lifelines for rural communities, because the Internet doesn't always reach towns with rugged terrain.
Adventures In Reading
The Myrtle branch is only open three days a week. So far, Luster has hosted bake sales, book fairs and weekly story time for kids. That's in addition to her duties as a mom, the parent-teacher organization president, the fiddle player in a band and a Ph.D. candidate.
One of Luster's patrons is 10-year-old Blake Brooks. His dad is a truck driver, and his mom stays at home with their five kids.
Before discovering this library, Blake's favorite pastime was digging up worms and beetles. Now, he steps off the school bus, finishes his chores and homework, and just ... reads. He says he likes to imagine he's in the books he reads.
On this day, Luster has a thick green book waiting for him. It's The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. Blake has never heard of it before.
He checks out the book, tucks it under his arm and heads off to start his next adventure.