Given Chatham’s vast landscape, are library services accessible to all?

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In Chatham County, where nearly 13 percent of the population is Hispanic and income inequality sequesters access to information to parts of the county, three library branches work to supplement the county’s literacy needs. 

Wren Memorial Library is located in Siler City. Chatham Community Library is in Pittsboro, and Goldston Library serves Goldston patrons. All three locations are within 30 minutes of each other, but this triangular network of facilities is hard to reach by the northeastern part of the county. 

Karen Howard, a member of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners and liaison to the Library Advisory Committee, said pockets of poverty prevent equal access to the library. 

“The library continues to be one of those resources that is a potential benefit,” Howard said.

Volunteering as a literacy mentor at Virginia Cross Elementary, Howard said libraries can be ideal for students with no native English speakers at home or for those who underperform with literacy in their native language.

“It’s sad that people that need access to literacy tools and reading tools are the people that have the most challenge getting to it,” Howard said. 

This barrier to county libraries that Howard describes pertains not just to language but to transportation, too. 

Just consider this map showing the wide distances between them:

Map created by Charlotte Ririe/Our Chatham

A Hispanic Community Needs Assessment spearheaded by the Latino Migration Project and the Hispanic Liaison in Siler City, collected a series of complaints filed by members of the community. Some complaints said public transportation was nonexistent. 

Respondents included non-U.S. citizens who said they hesitate to drive their own vehicle for fear of police and traffic tickets or inability to get a license. 

Unlike the counties surrounding the Research Triangle Park, Chatham County’s transit system operates only one fixed route, the CT express, which begins in Siler City with stops in Pittsboro and continues to Chapel Hill. None of the stops on this route include one at a public library. 

This route does not run on weekends or on holidays. Hours of service are also 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., leaving out transportation opportunities for jobs with late-night hours.

The other fixed route was discontinued in 2017 due to low ridership, said Anna Testerman, Chatham Transit Network’s executive director. 

Alternatively, the network’s primary service is a demand-response system that picks up and drops off riders at any location within the county with rates depending on distance, Testerman said. Riders can call the office to request a ride. 

But this system of transportation has its limitations. Testerman said two bilingual staff work in the office during the work week. There are also five bilingual drivers. 

Additionally, the on-call pickup fare is based on mileage. A five-mile trip would only cost a rider $2, but an estimated 25 percent of Chatham County residents commute outside the county for work. 

There is also an age limit that restricts unaccompanied riders below age 13, so some elementary and middle school children would not be permitted to use the Chatham Transit Network unless they had an older sibling or adult present, which can prove difficult for working families. 

Testerman also said the majority of her clientele is low income.

Linda Clarke, director of the Chatham Public Library, along with Howard, cited an isolation from library proximity in the corners of the county. 

“The three [library] locations are located in cities; they might be very small cities, but they’re a municipality,” said Clarke. “One of the things about Chatham County is it’s geographically very large, and a good portion of our county is very rural.” 

The issue in meeting this demand, according to Testerman, stems from funding. Testerman said the biggest reach for resources has been getting enough vehicles on the road. She also said there are loose plans for reinstating a fixed route that would potentially include a stop at Wren Memorial Library. But keeping ahead of the rapidly changing needs of Chatham County as it grows makes concrete planning difficult. 

Howard said the libraries in Siler City and Goldston are more centrally located, but in the northeast and northwest quadrants, where there aren’t library branches, it is more difficult to localize patrons to library resources.  

“It’s more of a challenge for the library in Pittsboro than anywhere else because that one is not proximate to anything,” Howard said. “There’s no easy walking from that library.”

“If you spread out people, then it’s harder for them to come and take advantage of [the library],” Clarke said. “You could have the best programming in the world, but if they aren’t able to attend, then it’s very frustrating for everyone.”

But the nearest library is also not always the one with a patron’s needs. For patrons with limited English, interacting with a bilingual staff member is crucial, if not necessary, to feeling represented and relaxed during visits. 

Part of the outreach to supplement limited bilingual staff was the bookmobile that brought library services to individual communities on a rotating schedule, said Angie Brady, outreach coordinator for the Chatham Public Library. But Brady said it was discontinued, though some public suggestions have asked for it to return. 

What does make an appearance in future plans is space for a library near Briar Chapel, but according to the 2019-2025 Capital Improvement Plan, the plot is currently being used for a new health sciences building. A fourth library branch could shrink library commutes, but the need for finding staff to reflect the needs of Hispanic patrons would be stretched.

“When a person comes into the library and they are, of ethnicity, Hispanic, but if they look at the desk and see someone who looks more like they do, then hopefully that can help right away with breaking down barriers,” Clarke said. 

Howard said that her experience as a literacy volunteer connected her to families that were nervous to use the library. She said that she considered the library to be free entertainment for her children, but after interacting with families who didn’t know the same resources were available to them, she emphasized the importance of outreach.

“There is an extent to which if you are not part of it already, if you’re not part of the club, you feel like everybody knows something you don’t know,” Howard said. “In order to make it more welcoming, it has to feel like a place where anybody can walk in.” 

The issue reflects not an outright lack of bilingual resources, but sometimes rather an awareness gap. Access can look empirically equal, but the way a library is presented doesn’t always reach the target group. 

Physical resources can be printed in Spanish. Programming led by native speakers can be booked on a calendar. Initiatives to circumvent proof of residency for a library card, like allowing public school I.D. numbers to serve as library accounts, can be pioneered. 

But feedback from the community is how a library can remediate unintended disparities in inclusivity, said Clarke. 

One thought on “Given Chatham’s vast landscape, are library services accessible to all?

  1. We need the book mobile going to locations all over the county at least once a month. A bi-lingual volunteer or intern could be riding with the librarian or library assistant. This service is part of a solid democracy. How mu

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