I enjoy traveling through rural Arkansas, and I love libraries. So I've spent a lot of time in recent weeks with a book from the University of Arkansas Press that combines those passions. "Remote Access: Small Public Libraries in Arkansas" celebrates rural libraries, the people who work in them and those who come there to find books.
Photographers Sabine Schmidt and Don House combined their talents during a three-year period to document the state's smallest libraries. Schmidt shot color images of communities, and House shot black-and-white portraits of library patrons and staff members. Both wrote essays about the places they visited.
The 355-page volume takes us to the St. Paul Public Library and Kingston Community Library in Madison County, the Greenland Public Library and West Fork Municipal Library in Washington County, the Carnegie Public Library in Eureka Springs, the Twin Groves Branch Library in Faulkner County, the Calhoun County Library at Hampton, the Smackover Public Library in Union County, and the Cotton Plant Branch Library and McCrory Branch Library in Woodruff County.
Other libraries featured are the Marked Tree Public Library in Poinsett County, the Cabe Memorial Public Library at Stamps in Lafayette County, the Tollette Branch Library in Howard County, the Horatio-Garner Memorial Library in Sevier County, the Norman Library in Montgomery County, the Millie M. Brooks Library at Wrightsville in Pulaski County, the Driftwood Library at Lynn in Lawrence County, the Parkin Branch Library in Cross County, the Ashley County Library at Hamburg, the Conway County Library Bookmobile at Morrilton, and the Charleston Public Library in Franklin County.
The book is part of a series called The Arkansas Character, which is jointly sponsored by the Center for Arkansas and Regional Studies and the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History at the University of Arkansas. The photo used on the dust jacket is of the tiny library at Norman. I hail from southwest Arkansas, and that building has been a favorite of mine since childhood.
"If ever architectural placement indicated a community's attitude, it does in Norman," Schmidt writes. "The town on the Caddo River has had a library for well over 80 years. The building measures 14 feet by 22 feet and sits by itself in the center of a town square that appears a bit out of scale for the size of the community. The one-story structure is dwarfed by trees and surrounded by a rock wall that delineates the central public space.
"This is no branch library; it belongs to no larger system. It receives no funding from the state or local government. While it is beloved and supported by the people of Norman, it is not technically a public library. It's simply the Norman Library, and as such, it made its way into the Guinness Book of World Records as the smallest freestanding library in North America. Walking up to it from one of the four entrances to the park, one would never doubt the veracity of that claim, although a Canadian library has since taken the title."
The building was constructed as the town's pump station in the middle of an undeveloped space surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. Norman was founded as Womble in 1907 as the railroads moved in and logs from the area's virgin pine forests began to move out.
"In 1921, a Presbyterian preacher named Dr. John Barr organized the first accredited high school in Montgomery County," Schmidt writes. "The private college prep school, Caddo Valley Academy, grew out of an existing public school. Wealth created by the timber industry, combined with support from the Presbyterian Synod, paid for a large new classroom building and a dormitory for boarding students in 1924. The school library with 1,200 volumes was one of the largest in the state.
"The dormitory later became a children's home connected with the academy, and the school joined the public Norman School District in 1931. In 1925, a woman donated a massive sum of $25,000 to support Caddo Valley Academy. In gratitude, the town changed its name from Womble, the name of the land speculator who had started it, to Norman, the donor's last name."
Marie Pinkerton, the wife of a lumber company executive, decided to create a square and recruited 15 women to help. The Norman Garden Club collected books and converted the pump building into a library. "Remote Access" is filled with other such colorful stories.
Schmidt's work has appeared in publications ranging from Rolling Stone to National Geographic. She won the 2021 Artist Award from the Arkansas Committee of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. House has been shooting photographs of Arkansas people and landscapes for decades. He's the author of "Buffalo Creek Chronicles," "Not a Good Sign" and the children's book "Otto's Great Adventure."
The book's lengthy introduction was written by UA professor Robert Cochran, director of the Center for Arkansas and Regional Studies.
"Schmidt and House undertook 'Remote Access' in generally hard times that got harder with the onslaught of the covid-19 pandemic," Cochran writes. "Everywhere they went they encountered communities and community institutions under siege, even as their research into local history often added temporal depth to visible and invisible traces of stress and trauma."
In a state that's rapidly becoming urbanized (53 of 75 counties lost population between 2010 and 2020), it's important to capture these rural stories while we can. With photos and words, House and Schmidt have done that job well.
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.