History of ARSL

“The Voice of Small & Rural Libraries”

The Association for Rural & Small Libraries (ARSL) is a professional network dedicated to the positive growth and development of libraries serving rural and small communities.  ARSL believes in the value of our libraries and strives to create resources and services that address their national, state, and local priorities.

Timeline of Major ARSL Organizational Milestones

  • 1982: The Association of Rural and Small Libraries founded as part of the Center for the Study of Rural Librarianship at Clarion University
  • 2007: The Association formally disaffiliates from Clarion University; name changed to The Association for Rural and Small Libraries; ARSL headquarters relocated to Lexington, KY
  • 2008: ARSL becomes an American Library Association Affiliate Organization
  • 2012: ARSL gains recognition as a 501(c)(3) organization
  • 2017: ARSL headquarters relocated to Whitehall, MI
  • 2020: ARSL hires its first Executive Director, Kate Laughlin; ARSL headquarters relocated to Seattle, WA

 Foundations of the Association, 1982-2007

The oldest document on record for the Association for Rural & Small Libraries (ARSL) indicates that the Association was established in 1982.  Its founder was Dr. Bernard Vavrek, Director of the Center for the Study of Rural Librarianship (CSRL) at Clarion University in Pennsylvania. In its early years ARSL’s membership consisted primarily of library and information science students. Each year that membership grew and broadened to include librarians and library workers from rural and small libraries throughout the country.

National Growth, 2007-2020

ARSL  was “home” at Clarion until 2007, when it moved away from the University to its new headquarters in Lexington, Kentucky. ARSL Board Members held a meeting in January 2007 at Clarion to determine the new “shape” of ARSL.  Discussions included enlarging the Board, revising the committee structure, and reviewing guiding documents as a foundation for future services.  As an outgrowth of that strategic planning meeting a course was set and, since then, the strategic plan is updated annually to reflect member needs and remain relevant to the ARSL Mission and Objectives. 

At that time the group made a small but important change to their name: from the Association of Rural and Small Libraries to the Association for Rural and Small Libraries. This reflected their openness to welcoming members from beyond the immediate professional sphere of rural and small librarianship and their increased focus on providing professional development tools for the entire rural and small library community. In 2008 ARSL became an official American Library Association (ALA) Affiliate Organization. In 2017 ARSL headquarters was once again relocated to Whitehall, Michigan.

Evolving Leadership, 2020-Present

In the fall of 2017 the Board of Directors issued a request for proposals to assess their organizational structure and make recommendations for improvements. The board’s action was precipitated by growing concerns about the sustainability of the association in the face of rapid growth. ARSL’s 14+ person Board was at that time responsible for all strategic decisions and almost all operational functions, with Board members chairing all of the major committees.

In May of 2018 Primary Source, a small agency in Washington state that provides consultation and services specifically for libraries and library-support organizations, was retained by the ARSL board to provide the requested analysis. Through that analysis the Board decided to realign their leadership structure to better serve the needs of the Association’s members. The Board hired ARSL’s first-ever Executive Director, Kate Laughlin, to manage the administrative operations of the Association in January 2020. The Association’s headquarters were moved from Michigan to Seattle, Washington as part of this change. They also adjusted their Board structure, shrinking from 14 members to 9 and replacing the generic Member at Large seats with four Regional Directors to help ensure more nationally representative leadership. Responsibility for policy development and program implementation was delegated to the major committees.

In April 2021 the Board voted to adopt a new mission statement: ARSL builds strong communities through advocacy, professional development, and elevating the impact of rural and small libraries. This new mission captures the foundational commitments of the Association to our members in their role as fundamental parts of the communities they serve, as well as our renewed focus on their development and growth as library professionals.

Presidents of ARSL, 2007/08 - Present

  • 2023-2024 - Patrick Bodily
  • 2022 - 2023 - Jennie Garner
  • 2021 - 2022 - Bailee Hutchinson
  • 2020 - 2021 - Kathy Zappitello
  • 2019 - 2020 - Jennifer Pearson
  • 2018 - 2019 - Lisa Lewis
  • 2017 - 2018 - Kieran Hixon
  • 2016 - 2017 - Judy Calhoun
  • 2015 - 2016 - Jet Kofoot
  • 2014 - 2015 - Donna Brice
  • 2013 - 2014 - Tena Hanson
  • 2012 - 2013 – Andrea Berstler
  • 2011 – 2012 – Becky Heil
  • 2010 – 2011 – Sonja Plummer-Morgan
  • 2009 – 2010 – Timothy Owens
  • 2008 - 2009 – Patty Hector
  • 2007- 2008 – Don Reynolds


With a focus on practical, "out of the box" workshops, presentations are geared toward the small and rural library audience. Practical, hands-on, and how-to formats are preferred. Prior to ARSL’s formation, the Center for the Study of Rural Librarianship at Clarion University in Clarion, PA sponsored conferences that were held throughout the US (1990-1999).  From 2001-2007, ARSL’s annual conference was held in Columbus, Ohio, and depended heavily on the Center for financial and logistical support.

For three years (2004-2006), conferences were held in conjunction with the Association for Bookmobile and Outreach Services (ABOS). In response to member requests and to provide greater access by more rural library participants, the decision was made in 2007 to hold the annual meeting and conference in different states and geographic regions.

The 2020 conference became ARSL’s first ever fully-virtual conference as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was originally scheduled to be held in Wichita, KS.

Conference Locations and Partners, 2008 - Present

  • 2008 - Sacramento, CA | California State Library
  • 2009 - Gatlinburg, TN | Tennessee State Library and Archives
  • 2010 - Denver, CO | Joint Conference with the Association for Bookmobile and Outreach Services (ABOS) | Colorado State Library, Colorado Library Consortium, Bibliographic Center for Research
  • 2011 - Frisco, TX | University of North Texas
  • 2012 - Raleigh, NC | State Library of North Carolina
  • 2013 - Omaha, NE | Nebraska Library Association, Iowa Small Library Association
  • 2014 - Tacoma, WA | Washington State Library
  • 2015 - Little Rock, AR | Arkansas Library Association
  • 2016 - Fargo, ND | North Dakota State Library, Minnesota Department of Education State Library Services
  • 2017 - St. George, UT | Utah State Library
  • 2018 - Springfield, IL | Illinois State Library
  • 2019 - Burlington, VT | State Library of Vermont
  • 2020 - Virtual (previously Wichita, KS)
  • 2021 - Reno/Sparks, NV
  • 2022 - Chattanooga, TN 
  • 2023 - Wichita, KS