Little Library with a Big Heart
Of the 175 public libraries in West Virginia, the Southern Area Public Library (SAPL) in tiny Lost Creek is the smallest, with a service population of 498. In activity, energy, growth, and community engagement, however, it ranks with the state’s best and brightest. The library is directed by the dynamic Mary Beth Stenger, whose 20-hour workweek probably means she gives three times that much effort to SAPL, Lost Creek, and the surrounding area.
Under Stenger, SAPL has been transformed from a good, traditional public library into a modern, bustling center of community activity, information, and learning. All of this on a 2013 budget of just under $35,000 and the labor of a staff of two, a band of 20 volunteers, and a small Board of Trustees.
That transformation of SAPL convinced the judges that it is the Best Small Library in America 2013, cosponsored by Library Journal and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Likewise, they are confident that SAPL will make even more significant progress with the $20,000 that comes with that award.
Immediate goals are to have six days of service a week by opening the library on Monday. The trustees have already embarked on a plan to get funding for that upgrade, but the proceeds from this recognition will make it possible immediately. Another crucial goal is to attract more people to SAPL programs.
Promotion efforts and activities to increase the visibility of SAPL in Lost Creek and its environs are under way. Stenger has made SAPL a participant in the Geek the Library campaign, a nationwide program sponsored by OCLC to raise community awareness of libraries in which thousands of American libraries participate. Simultaneously, SAPL has launched its own Big Heart Campaign with the slogan “Southern Area Library, the Little Library with the Big Heart.” SAPL will select and help a different charity each month.
The first opportunity, last October, was to outfit local children with the boxes to collect money for UNICEF. In its January Big Heart effort SAPL collected items to create many “Birthday Party in a Box” gifts for a Clarksburg Mission for homeless children who have to stay at the shelter on their birthday.
The library provides after-school snacks for the many latchkey kids that school buses drop at SAPL every weekday it is open. The snacks—mostly healthy fruit and other foods—are donated by several local families. Frequently, adults come to sample some of it.
While at the library, children get homework help and computer support. High schoolers get essential assistance with their student résumés and college applications, including editing and proofreading. One local college freshman wrote her essay about a person who changed her life—and chose Stenger.
Meanwhile, SAPL is known in the area as “the homeschool library” for the programs and services it provides for the many homeschoolers. There are art classes and other tutoring at SAPL during the school day, and homeschoolers can and do attend. The county’s homeschool geography and spelling bees were held at SAPL, along with shelves of donated books to help the many local homeschooling families. No stranger to the practice, Stenger homeschooled her own children, three of whom are either in college or graduate school, with one working on a science Ph.D. The youngest Stenger daughter, age ten, schools at home.
The January schedule
Typical of the engagement and hustle and bustle at SAPL is the full schedule of events that Stenger sends regularly to the local media. To keep these programs going, the 20 volunteers Stenger recruited work hard for SAPL. There were none when she began.
For example, January 17 was a card-making class. The new Fiberart Addicts group meets on the second and fourth Friday of each month and gives instruction for projects, plus charity work such as caps for premies, field trips, and more. The big Winter Party for elementary school students and preschoolers was on January 24, with food, fun, stories, and games.
For the entire month folks could sign up for upcoming computer literacy classes, addressing beginners and intermediate students, with two instructors for one-on-one instruction along with larger classes later. There were many other programs in January.
All told, since Stenger’s appointment in 2010, patron visits to SAPL have increased from 3,094 to 7,945. Programs have grown from 28 to 227 last year.
Budgeting for SAPL
“Salaries and utilities are the killer items in our budget,” says Stenger. “We can’t change them very much, and no one wants to fund them.”
Harrison County support for SAPL amounts to about $11,000 and is based on the service population of 498. The Board of Education pays another $11,000, while Lost Creek pays about $2,000 of the library costs. From the state through the West Virginia Library Commission (WVLC) comes another $2,500. With other sources, the SAPL budget that ends on June 30, 2013, totals just under $35,000.
Two staff, one salary
Besides Stenger, the only other employee at SAPL is Wilma Bennett. Stenger’s predecessor ran the library solo, and when it hired Stenger, the board planned to bring in only one person. In her interview, Stenger told the board that she didn’t want to work alone with no backup.
“Of course, the budget does not allow us to hire two people for all five [open] days, so I recommended that the board hire me to work 20 hours, and my assistant to work the remaining 15 hours to complete the 35 hours SAPL is open,” says Stenger.
The board hired the assistant; the first person in the job left to take a teaching post. “I needed a new assistant, someone from the community who uses the library, so we advertised only in the library,” Stenger reports. She selected Bennett, a loyal reader who visited the library several times a week, often borrowing 20 books at a time. A local high school graduate in her 30s, Bennett “has blossomed,” recently completing cataloging training to help SAPL’s volunteer cataloger. After a year, Bennett was promoted to children’s librarian and runs all of SAPL’s children’s programs, including a Christmas party.
“She has given me time to pursue funding and other vital needs I couldn’t do with so many hours each week devoted to preparing and presenting programs for children. I could sing [Wilma’s] praises all day,” says Stenger.
The technology mandate
Adding new technology to the library’s services and administrative processes was part of Stenger’s mandate when she was hired. First SAPL started circulating materials through a computer system for the first time. Now an overdue file in the system handles the records, and the library can quickly call to remind folks to return materials. A few patrons complain that they miss the book cards; Stenger tells them to make a pencil mark in an inside corner of a book to help remind them they have already read a particular title. The system runs bills, overdue notices, and interlibrary loans, and all libraries in the Northern Library Network can share books, run circulation statistics, issue new cards, and much more.
“Now we all share that same yellow card…. We were the last of the more than 45 libraries in our network to use the system for circulation, but I honestly believe we are now one of the few libraries that uses all the statistics,” says Stenger.
Two new computers from Work Force and WVLC and tables bought with funds given by the legislature will bring the SAPL computer total to eight. They are constantly in use, in rural, low-income Lost Creek.
In her first year, Stenger taught SAPL’s basic computer class. The next year SAPL hired a local, tech-savvy man who also helps keep SAPL computers up-to-date and working.
“We need a new tutor this year,” Stenger says and is looking for one. The local Nutter Foundation gives SAPL the $3,000 to support the technology tutoring. A Wi-Fi café with a Keurig coffee machine and supplies was donated by what Stenger calls “an appreciative community leader.”
Fundraising at SAPL
One of Stenger’s simplest fundraising tactics was to put a jar on the circulation desk with a sign suggesting that users contribute. Many patrons were surprised by the SAPL policy not to charge overdue fines. “We want to encourage patrons to read without the worry of owing money they don’t have,” Stenger says.
“Many just say, ‘OK, I’ll just put some money in this jar.’ We are sure we get more in donations than we would from fines, and we get the added good feeling from patrons because we didn’t fine them,” says Stenger.
Another “easy fundraiser” is SAPL’s regular prize drawings. Local patrons donate new items, often gifts they don’t need or want. When SAPL has five or more items, they are grouped in a display, and users can enter the drawing for the lot. Entries are acquired for cash donations or donations of time volunteered on SAPL programs and projects.
“Giving our volunteers entries in the drawings for their work at the library is one way we thank them without spending scarce library funds,” says Stenger.
Meanwhile, the Friends of Southern Area Library (FOSAL) has two events each year to raise money for SAPL. It organizes the book sale during Lost Creek’s annual Fall Festival in which the library has a table. Likewise, Stenger develops a list of adult nonfiction titles the library needs for the “Adopt a Book” program, and they are listed on ornaments on the library holiday tree. Patrons will then pay the library the amount listed on the ornament for that title. SAPL puts the donor’s name on a bookplate in each adopted title.
Stenger is encouraging FOSAL to undertake a more ambitious “Signature Event” to add to its fundraising efforts.
With the same persuasiveness, the SAPL director has convinced the trustees to undertake a more exacting fundraising effort. She gave each member of the board a copy of Andy Robinson’s How To Raise $500 to $5000 from Almost Anyone: A 1-hour Guide for Board Members, Volunteers, and Staff. They have already decided to use the idea of a 10-10 fundraiser from the book to try to raise the $2,000 to keep SAPL open on Mondays.
The SAPL trustees are very active in library affairs all the time, with many board members helping out around the library and otherwise volunteering their time.
“We don’t hear too much from Mary Beth’s board, and that is one way we gauge how good the library is,” says Karen Goff, state librarian and secretary and 40-year veteran of WVLC.
Goff was the first professional appointed by the legendary Fred Glazer (1937–97), who ran WVLC for more than 25 years until 1996. Glazer’s initiatives brought library service to more than 150 unserved West Virginia communities.
SAPL in Lost Creek is one of hundreds of libraries in the state that have grown and strengthened from that time. Stenger—who has developed her library skills on the job at SAPL—seems to many old-timers to possess Glazer’s spirit and creativity.
Stenger was awarded a WVLC “scholarship” to attend the Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL) 2012 conference in Raleigh, NC. She found inspiration and dozens of ideas there, networked with staff from libraries like SAPL from all over America, shared best practices, and brought much of what she absorbed back to Lost Creek.
“She was like a firecracker at ARSL. Mary Beth has an ‘honorary doctorate’ in networking,” says Melissa Brown, program and planning consultant at WVLC. “When I came to West Virginia, I wanted to build a network of the most rural and isolated libraries. I discovered that Mary Beth was already doing that.”
“We all agree that what makes this library really, really good is the director. It is her commitment to the community, her knowledge of that community, and her unwillingness to concede limitation by saying, ‘We’re too small,’ ” says Goff.
“I believe the best way to direct a library is to passionately pursue new ideas, new programs, and new partnerships,” Stenger says, adding, “We are a small town with a hot dog place and inside a gas station a sandwich and pizza place. There are no small businesses in the town proper except for the pharmacy, two beauty shops, the bank, a day care, a therapist, and the feed store. Yet our library has pulled together members and organizations throughout our town as well as surrounding towns to build lots of programs, buy books and other materials, and collaborate on all kinds of projects,” Stenger says, in a proud summing up of SAPL’s success.
Best Small Library in America 2013 Finalists
The two finalists this year both hail from the Lone Star State, chosen from among an impressive array of nominees and following a lively selection process by this year’s panel of judges. Both libraries selected as finalists demonstrate similar winning criteria in their innovation, technology usage, model programs, and responsive service. They are:
Bell/Whittington Public Library, Portland, TX
RoseAleta Laurell, Director
Serving a population of 15,099 in a satellite community near Corpus Christi, this library does an awful lot with the $29 per capita budget at its disposal. The judges noted innovative outreach that can easily be duplicated by other libraries, while judge Julie Hildebrand called it “amazing considering the size of their staff,” just three full-time, four part-time. The library’s recent record of programming with high attendance numbers and a strong focus on technology is well demonstrated by the “Seniors in Cyberspace” program held in partnership with senior centers and other community sites such as the local Dairy Queen restaurants. Attendance for the course reached 1,758, with evaluations showing 100 percent rate of achievement in signing up for new email addresses.
Alpine Public Library, TX
Paige Delaney, Director
The 9,232 people in Alpine, a very remote town near Big Bend, benefited greatly from the opening of the new public library in 2011. Community engagement shepherding the efforts of local businesses and individuals drove the fundraising for most of the $1.4 million needed, and it continues in operations through robust volunteerism. The varied population that includes Spanish-speakers, the homebound, and the incarcerated are aided by a variety of impressive outreach programs. Meanwhile, the library is savvy about technology in-house, with 11 public access computers for adults and another three for kids, and an impressive “online [Geographic Information System]–based map-interface catalog” that allows patrons to locate materials in the region by clicking on a map.
About the Best Small Library in America Award
LJ’s annual award, sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was created in 2005 to encourage and showcase the exemplary work of libraries serving populations under 25,000.
The winning library receives a $20,000 cash prize from the Gates Foundation, conference costs for two library representatives to attend the 2014 Public Library Association (PLA) Biannual Conference in 2014 in Indianapolis, and a gala reception at PLA. The two other finalist libraries will each receive a $10,000 cash award, conference costs for two library representatives to attend the 2014 PLA meeting and award celebration, and more.
For guidelines for the 2014 nomination, contact Michael Kelley at email@example.com; 646-380-0740; or go to features.libraryjournal.com/awards.
JUDGES LJ thanks the following library professionals who volunteered valuable time to help select this year’s winner:
Andrea Berstler President, Association for Rural and Small Libraries; Director, Wicomico Public Library, Salisbury, MD
Julie Hildebrand Director, Independence Public Library, LJ’s Best Small Library in America 2012
Ralene Simmons Research Analyst, Global Libraries Program, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Marcia Warner Director, Grand Rapids Public Library, MI; Immediate Past President, Public Library Association
The panel also includes LJ/SLJ editors John N. Berry III, Matt Enis, Josh Hadro, Michael Kelley, Rebecca T. Miller, and Meredith Schwartz