On a hot September afternoon, 16-year-old Jackson Biffar drove west to the town of Pottsboro, a rural community of 2,500 people north of Dallas. He started his journey from Ivanhoe, another tiny town an hour away, just south of where the Red River defines the Texas-Oklahoma border. Along the highway, occasional pump jacks and farmhouses are swallowed up by rippling fields, green even in the last days of summer. It’s a 44-mile drive Biffar knows well: He made it every Saturday in August.
His destination is the Pottsboro Area Library. Just off Pottsboro’s Main Street, a sparse strip of buildings occupied only by the fire department, police station, and town hall, the library might not look like much. Its one-story, red-brick exterior is about the size of a single-family home. But inside, the Pottsboro Area Library is bustling with visitors from North Texas and Oklahoma. They come because there’s so much here: video games, a community garden, access to remote doctor visits, and books, of course.
In a town like Pottsboro—founded in 1876 as a stop along the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, a community so small that the city manager himself digs ditches when water lines need to be replaced—the library isn’t just a social center. It’s a key piece of civic infrastructure, a bridge for Texans to cross the chasm between offline and online. That’s why, in large part, the library has also become a place of refuge for residents in a region that’s been ravaged by COVID-19.
Inside the Pottsboro library, rows of gaming computers support the town’s high school e-sports team, which competes through the North America Scholastic Esports Federation. What was once a storage closet is now a state-of-the-art telemedicine room, used for virtual doctor appointments. In the library’s parking lot, a tower beams high-speed internet to 40 students and teachers who would otherwise rely on poor cell connections for distance learning.
The initiatives are the work of Dianne Connery, the library’s director, who has been focused on bringing technology to her rural town since 2010. “Digital inclusion is critical to participation in society,” she says. Throughout 2020 and 2021, as the pandemic sickened 1 in 9 people in Pottsboro’s Grayson County, those investments in digital infrastructure proved to be not only prescient, but urgently necessary.
On Wednesday night, Biffar took a seat at one of the dozen computers lining the library’s back corner. He queued up a Minecraft server and helped a younger boy get logged in; meanwhile, other children played in virtual reality, shooting lasers with an Oculus Rift headset. It was game night at the library, an initiative to gather local kids around computers, helping them become familiar with technology. “It’s good to have somewhere you can go to learn that in your free time,” Biffar says.
When Connery moved to Pottsboro in 2010, she discovered that the library was on the brink of closure. The question wasn’t if the library would shutter, but when. Connery couldn’t let that happen, she says. “I just saw so much need, and so much potential.” She joined the library’s board as president in 2011. She and a friend set about applying for grants, and since 2013, the Pottsboro Area Library has won more than $500,000 in grant funding.
The money financed a 100-plot community garden, a rainwater collection system, and a “library of things” where bicycles, lawn chairs, ice cream makers, and more can be checked out, as well as the e-sports and telemedicine programs. The programs may not be novel, but it appears as if they have strengthened social ties between residents in Pottsboro, facilitating a shared sense of purpose and camaraderie. As the library began to succeed, it received city and county funding too. The library’s resources are free to everyone, no strings attached.
The Pottsboro Area Library launched its telehealth initiative at the height of the pandemic, answering the need of locals who were unable or too afraid to visit a doctor in person. It also reduced staff occupancy and spaced out computers, disinfecting and cleaning throughout the day. Connery’s top priority was ensuring digital access remained available, she says.
In small towns, the presence of libraries can make a big difference, Connery says. “It’s this great atmosphere of innovation. I love ideas.”