One for the books: a decade-long journey to transform rural libraries

Erin Dreiling Great Grant Stories, Publications 0 Comments

When Steve Kendall was growing up, the highlight of his week was the family trip to the local library. At an early age, his parents taught him that knowledge was power, easily found in the pages of books. He and his wife, Laraine, attribute much of their success to their lifelong love of reading.

That shared love of reading led the Kendalls to start the Georgia Rural Library Initiative (GRLI), a decade-long series of investments in rural county libraries in partnership with the Community Foundation. Intrigued by research showing better outcomes for children who were able to read on grade level by third grade, they wondered what rural libraries in Butts, Hancock, Morgan, Putnam and Seminole counties could do if they were empowered with focused funding to get children excited about reading.

Each of the libraries received transformational grants – $140,000 each over 10 years, plus $100,000 in scholarships for residents seeking an education degree to teach in a rural Georgia county.

The funds were partially matched with local dollars and spent according to local priorities, with a focus on improvements to the children’s section. Funds were used for a range of projects that built upon each other – building improvements, computer stations, staffing for longer operating hours, summer reading programs, storytelling and literacy events, adult literacy and advocacy.

The outcome? During a period when libraries experienced big cuts in state and local funding, juvenile attendance and circulation increased in GRLI counties. More parents read to their kids. The community was invested and involved and local awareness was sparked. And children across our region discovered the power of knowledge.


“You don’t learn in one day. Learning takes time. We realized that this effort was like planting seeds and seeing them grow. It could not have been a one-time grant – we needed to see what happened to the kids. We provided the rocket fuel, but the community got the rocket off the ground itself.” – Steve Kendall

“The support has made a huge impact for not just Morgan County but also surrounding rural counties.” – Colby Hunter, Library Manager, Eatonton-Putnam County Library


By the numbers

In Morgan County, kindergarten readiness increased from 65% in 2012 to 90% in 2016 according to the DIBELS test.

Average graduation rates for GRLI counties improved from 74.8% in 2009 to an average of 91.7% in 2017, compared to the Georgia state average of 85.8%.

Each GRLI county library was able to create a dedicated child-friendly space and increase children’s collections by at least 10%.

78 students received college scholarships in their pursuit to become educators in rural counties.

To learn more about GRLI, read the white paper here.


This story originally appeared in The Giving Life, our printed newsletter.