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An Enduring Role for Rural Libraries

At a bank of desks near an arched window streaming sunlight, a farmer does Internet research on one of the computers at the Carlock Public Library. Another patron reads the newspaper in one of the newly- remodeled reading areas. The scent of fresh woodwork and new carpeting fills the room.

These days, many public libraries face cutbacks in funding or even closure. That's not the case in the small farming community of Carlock,  population 569, near the border of McLean and Woodford counties. 

Carlock's library  has nearly doubled its space in a $650,000 million renovation project that allows the facility to offer most of the high-tech amenities available at libraries in much larger communities.

The project marks both the beginning and end of an era. On April 22, the town will celebrate the renovation's completion with public tours and family activities. At the end of the month, residents will say goodbye to Linda Spencer, who has been the library's director for the past 32 years.

Carlock didn't even have a library until 1979. That year, the family of Carey E. Burdette purchased a former bank building on Washington Street in the town's commercial district. Burdette was a Carlock native, career officer in the Air Force and avid reader. He died at the age of 59. His widow donated the bank property, now known as the Carey E. Burdette Building, for the purpose of establishing a municipal library.

"It was a total blessing because we wouldn't have been able to start without a building," Spencer said on GLT's Sound Ideas. "Before that we had relied on a book mobile that came for a short time."

One of the additions is a new history room, which houses old Carlock Chronicle newspapers and other documents, like an 1888 broadsheet that reports the town's founding.

Spencer says small town libraries play an important role.

"I think of a small town library as more of a community. You get to know (patrons) and their families, and what is going on in their families. It's more personal," Spencer said.

"In a small town we don't have a lot of businesses, so this is a gathering place, and statistics show people are coming back to libraries. We have constant growth each year. Even the millennials are coming back to the libraries," she added.

Technology has changed many of the library's offerings. With so much research information available on the Internet, the library gave away its encyclopedias during the renovation, and the card catalog is a thing of the past. E-books and DVDs are popular, but Spencer says patrons still crave the feel of a hand-held book.

"A lot of people like e-books but I hear many people say, I like the feel of a book in my hand, and I agree."

Over three decades, Spencer has seen many of the library users grow from children to professionals in the community. "Some of the older people have become very dear too. Some have passed away and we miss them," she said.

Despite its modern amenities, the library retains a small town feel. It doesn't charge late fees for books returned past due dates. Few patrons abuse the rules, Spencer said. "They might be a day or two late, some of them."

This is the second major expansion for the library. In 2000, it purchased the old Steve's Grocery next door, which added several hundred feet of additional square footage.

The renovated facility includes between 6,000 and 7,000 square feet. The project was funded through a $600,000 loan from the Heartland Bank and about $50,000 in private donations. 

Last December, the library put up a Christmas tree with a wish list of items it needed for the new facility and residents donated most of them.

That kind of response makes Spencer optimistic about the future of public libraries.

"People come in to look for jobs on computers, and I think as long as libraries keep meeting the needs, especially in technology and in the programming and in the things that are important to people, I don't think they'll be an issue. I think we're important."

The open house to tour the facility will be from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. April 22. Spencer's last day as library director is April 28 to include additional information.

Editor's Note: This post was updated April 17.