IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

How Small-Town Libraries Are Working to Close the STEAM Gap

Survey data reveals rural libraries are significantly less likely to offer STEAM programming than their city or suburban counterparts. Here’s how small-town librarians are breaking past funding and resource roadblocks.

A student working on a piece of electronics in a classroom.
The same year Twitter was born, and the first Mac Pro was released — a small library in rural Arizona learned it had a significant role in its community’s future in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The lightbulb moment came in 2006 when the Safford City-Graham County Library was approached by a major employer in their community, the Safford copper mine. The company was concerned about the local talent pool.

“They very seldom had people from here that had the skills and the training that they could hire, and they were having to hire from outside of the community,” said Lesley Talley, library supervisor. “They wanted to find a way to encourage kids to get involved in any kind of STEM career.”

The mine funded programming for the library to start an initiative called ScienceCity, where STEM professionals hosted educational sessions at the library once a month. Although the program is still active 17 years later, Talley admits there have been challenges unique to operating it in a rural environment.

“It’s hard to find people out of town that are willing to drive here to present, and it gets very expensive,” Talley said.


According to a 2022 survey from the Public Library Association, rural and town libraries lag significantly behind their city and suburban counterparts in offering children and teen STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) educational programming. The gap is the largest for teen programs, where 90 percent of city library systems are able to offer free education to their users, while only 52 percent of town and rural libraries do the same.
The survey also revealed 77 percent of city libraries have a technology training space, such as a classroom or computer lab. Meanwhile, only 28 percent of rural libraries have one.

There’s also the issue of aging infrastructure. A plurality of town and rural libraries were built or were renovated before 1990. City libraries were most likely to be built or renovated between 2001 and 2010, and suburban libraries between 2011 and 2020. Dated library buildings often make it difficult to provide adequate space and modern technology setups to host STEAM-focused programming.
PLA President Sonia Alcántara-Antoine believes the lack of STEAM programs could create long-term repercussions for rural communities.

“Library professionals and educators know firsthand of the power and importance of hands-on experiential learning for learners of all ages to gain essential skills for college and career,” Alcántara-Antoine wrote in an email to Government Technology. “From astronomy backpacks and virtual reality, to makerspaces and digital media labs, libraries help bridge the access and skills gaps that exist in our smallest towns to biggest cities. All youth should have access to these tools, regardless of what ZIP code they live in.”

To level the playing field, the American Library Association and several other partners launched the STAR Net STEAM Equity Project, a four-year, $15,000 grant awarded to 12 rural library systems to offer bilingual exhibits and STEAM programming. The Safford City-Graham County Library was one of the recipients.
Children Deke and Camille make an animated movie with the STAR Net STEAM Equity Project's "We're Super Creative/Somos Super Creativos" exhibit at the Safford City-Graham County Library.
Children Deke and Camille make an animated movie with the STAR Net STEAM Equity Project's "We're Super Creative/Somos Super Creativos" exhibit at the Safford City-Graham County Library.
Safford City-Graham County Library
The program relied heavily on library staff leading the charge. Employees maintained STEAM exploration spaces, learning programs and outreach kits.

Awarded in 2020, the grant period is now coming to a close.

Government Technology asked several of the recipients what they learned that other rural libraries could use to provide STEAM programming. Here’s what they suggested.


Heidi Blasius, a fisheries biologist with the Bureau of Land Management, standing in front of a table talking to a group of four young students.
Heidi Blasius, a fisheries biologist with the Bureau of Land Management, hosts a "Meet the Scientist" session at the Safford City-Graham County Library. The event allowed kids to talk to women working in STEAM fields in Graham County. Each scientist had a hands-on activity for the kids to try.
Safford City-Graham County Library
In rural western Colorado, Montrose Regional Library District found that a STEAM expert was potentially closer than expected — volunteer presenters could be next door.

“I like to think that everyone has a super power, and everything can be useful in STEAM programming. Ask your friends, neighbors and co-workers what their hobbies are,” said Tina Meiners, head of youth and outreach services for the library. “We can also collaborate with local groups like the forestry service for topographical mapping, the astronomy society with telescopes and a night sky viewing or the treasure club with metal detectors.”


When it’s not possible to get a specific expert to travel to a rural library, staff may be able to host presentations themselves.

“There’s a hesitancy to run programs sometimes as librarians, because we’re not STEM experts, but you don’t need to be an expert to run a successful program,” said Talley. “It’s okay to learn alongside the kids. If they have questions — and they will— it’s okay to say you don’t know, and let’s find out together.”


Berryville Public Library in Arkansas is limited by space; however, staff have made it a priority to offer STEAM programming through non-traditional spaces and maker areas.

A store-bought cart houses their makerspace tools for special programming, and a rolling cabinet has become an exploration station that’s available for patrons to experiment with independently.

“Creating a makerspace doesn’t have to look one way, it’s okay not to have the big fancy maker lab or the dedicated maker staff to be able to call your library a ‘making library,’” said Julie Hall, library director. “Anecdotally, I think we can definitely see we’re making a difference. We’re providing resources and opportunities that aren’t available elsewhere.”

While robots, coding camps and animation labs are quite different from the books in a traditional library system, PLA urges those deciding the budgets for rural and town libraries to view STEAM programming as an essential service, no matter their community size.

“Libraries are at the heart of our communities — a resource for all people to find what they need to help strengthen their quality of life,” said Alcántara-Antoine. “STEAM learning now rightfully ranks among the most common children’s programming in public libraries, alongside summer reading, early literacy and other school-age literacy programs.”

Editor's note: This article has been corrected to clarify the American Library Association is a partner in the STAR Net STEAM Equity Project.
Nikki Davidson is a data reporter for Government Technology. She’s covered government and technology news as a video, newspaper, magazine and digital journalist for media outlets across the country. She’s based in Monterey, Calif.