Building a Living Library
“Lots of libraries are there for the community, but here in Bayfield, the community built the library,” says Amy Dodson, director of the Pine River Library (PRL), CO, selected as LJ’s Best Small Library in America, 2014, cosponsored by Library Journal and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and recipient of the award’s accompanying $20,000 prize. Hired by the PRL trustees in May 2013, Dodson was awed by not only the support for PRL in the very diverse Bayfield community but also the community’s willingness to donate hours of volunteer work as well as lots of important gifts in kind and then vote the funds to pay for a strong staff and an experienced and innovative director.
She also credits the PRL staff for the ideas, innovations, and leadership in executing tremendous growth and change at the library in the last two years, to fulfill the PRL motto, “connecting people to possibilities.”
Since 2011, PRL has grown in physical space, expanded services and programs, and created new partnerships. In response, the library’s circulation of 111,638; physical visits, at 319,679; 271,896 virtual visits; and huge attendance at programs and special events have all exploded.
That recent growth was built on an already strong foundation. “When I arrived, I was very impressed with how advanced this small library is. I’ve worked in all kinds of public libraries, and here the library was out there on the cutting edge in technology, in programs and services, and in innovations,” Dodson says. “PRL is the library that has pushed the farthest the limits of what a library can be. I walked into a great situation.”
Dodson bases her observations on her work experience in Nashville; Riverside County, CA; Louisville, KY; and other libraries. She earned her MLS at the University of Kentucky.
PRL is the beneficiary of a common funding mechanism in Colorado, the special taxing district. Located in Bayfield, PRL serves the 8,749 people in an independent district that has identical boundaries to those of the local school district. From the total annual budget of $582,000, or $66.52 per capita, $47,408 goes for materials, and the rest keeps PRL open seven days or 62 hours a week and pays for a full-time staff of 8.5, of whom 17 percent are professional librarians.
Room to grow
Some of PRL’s growth was physical: a 5,000 square foot addition to PRL’s building, completed in February 2013, provided more space for the collection, a larger room for community meetings, additional places for patrons to use personal laptops, ereaders, and other devices, a new teen zone to host after-school activities, additional Wi-Fi access points, and more. It brought the total PRL space up to 13,000 square feet.
In using that new space for the collection, Dodson seized the opportunity to reorganize. “We moved everything around and then went Deweyless, using an arrangement for the collections based mostly on BISAC [Book Industry Standards and Communications]. The Deweyless concept was new to me; I was really skeptical. Now I love it, and our patrons love it,” says Dodson.
Other features of the renovation include a new seating area with an indoor/outdoor fireplace, new restrooms, and new solar panels. A new garage door opens up the space so overflow crowds from programs can now be accommodated, and, together with another entrance to the building, make things much more flexible.
The Living Library
PRL expanded outside as well as in, unveiling its “Living Library” last October. This 17,000 square foot outdoor space features a 24-bed community garden and a straw bale toolshed with a living roof, in which outdoor tools available for circulation are housed. There is a fruit orchard, a 26-foot geodesic dome greenhouse, five Nature Explore outdoor learning areas, and lots of space for reading, relaxing, and enjoying Colorado. The space exemplifies what Dotson meant by a library built “by the people.” Dozens of volunteers donated hundreds of hours to complete the garden beds, toolshed, and greenhouse.
The Living Library changes and grows constantly under the leadership of Judy Poe, the library development services staffer who also has a big hand in PRL collection development. The place offers countless programming and learning opportunities never before available in La Plata County.
“We have classes on how to cook what you grow, on canning and preserving, and we have a mobile kitchen where we teach people about preparing food, how to make preserves, and in general how to do something with what you are growing,” says Dodson with obvious pride.
“This spring we are adding a beehive to the top of the toolshed. We’ll have a webcam inside so kids can watch the bees do their work without getting too close,” she adds, explaining that the beekeeper is a volunteer and is going to teach classes on how to harvest and use the honey.
Southwest Ag was one of PRL’s partners in constructing the Living Library. The local firm provided backhoes and a host of other equipment gratis and is just one example of a community partner that has strengthened PRL. Another, BP, donated oil and gas pipes, which were recycled into the fence and bridges for the Living Library by local artist Kelly Hereford.
Providing needed technology
Technology has always been an important component of library service for patrons of PRL. Living in a rural community, many residents have poor Internet service (some still have dial-up), and many have little experience with technology, if any. In 2007, the library launched a technology-lending program so patrons could experiment with the newest devices. In six years, the program has grown from the original two laptops to 50 gadgets on loan and an annual circulation of more than 1,000.
Devices available for circulation include laptops, ereaders, tablets, GPS devices, MP3 players, and video cameras, among many more items. When not circulating, the devices are on display (and charging) in a glass case, referred to by staffers as the meat case. They can be borrowed for seven days and renewed once for another seven in person or by phone or online. The service is incredibly popular. Its purposes are to allow patrons to “try before you buy,” to serve those who can’t afford to buy, and for PRL to increase circulation of ebooks and digital materials. PRL even lends ereaders already programmed with selections for its local book clubs.
PRL gains access to that digital content through two library consortia. The Colorado Library Consortium supplies 3M ebooks and materials, and Digital Across Colorado gives PRL access to e-content from OverDrive. Through both portals, the library offers access to over 10,000 digital titles.
The program has also increased staff awareness, knowledge, and experience with technology, which has meant better support and aid to patrons. While they assist users with their own gadgets and devices, PRL staff have actively promoted the library’s digital offerings.
Technology training is vital for the PRL community. The Imagination (story time) Room in the new space includes an interactive SMART Board to use with digital story time events and other children’s activities. Now, PRL’s community room has two interactive whiteboards to employ in the library’s computer classes. In 2013, classes included Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel, WordPress, search engine optimization (SEO), and digital photography, among others.
A new mobile computer lab allows for the classes to be taught anywhere in the building or even at other locations. The lab has ten laptops in a cart and can go anywhere. One homeschooling mom takes the mobile lab out of PRL once a week to use it with groups of her kids.
Partners in service
In August 2012, the library began partnering with the Bayfield School District to provide outreach events. The district had just implemented monthly late-start days in the schools for staff training time. During the late-start mornings, the library hosts story time activities for students in grades K-5.
“The school district here is very strong. Our adult librarian and our children’s specialist go out to the middle school and elementary school on those late-start mornings and do story hours while teachers get in-service training. Librarians take over for that hour or more,” says Dodson proudly.
At these outreach events, tablets are used to enhance the experience. Children are able to read digital books, play educational games, or learn more about tablet technology. The program allows library staff to reach out to underserved populations and has been beneficial to both the library and the school district.
With the library’s grand opening last February, new opportunities arose for programming. In March, the library began partnering with the local parks and recreation department to offer yoga classes at the library. A library board member started weekly Pilates classes, and currently there are six exercise classes every week.
To capitalize on the 2012 release of the movie The Hunger Games, PRL collaborated with other libraries and community members to offer a wildly successful Hunger Games event. Eighty teens from the area participated (including a busload of teens from a town two hours away!). Twenty volunteers from Bayfield and the surrounding communities helped run the event.
The library partners with the American Red Cross each year to offer a free babysitter training course for local teens. In five years, approximately 50 teens have completed the course, which includes CPR and first aid certification.
Because there are only a few businesses and a small population in Bayfield, there are very few options for entertainment, especially for teens. In early 2012, a group of concerned parents worked with PRL to develop a monthly teen activity called “2nd Saturday” teen nights. Like a big party, the nights feature music, games, and activities geared toward youth in grades six to 12. They are held at the library and supported by library staff and a small budget. Dozens of teens attend.
“Teens and tweens are dropped off at PRL around 5:30, and the event goes until nine. After they drop the kids, parents can have a date night of their own,” says Dodson. “We have a fire pit outside, and we had a camping night on Saturday. We all went outside and roasted marshmallows, did a little stargazing. The library is closed, and the kids love having the run of the place,” reports the library director.
Bayfield has no movie theater, but PRL’s state-of-the-art movie equipment and new meeting room are used to show documentaries, classic films, and other productions. The films are open to the public, providing free entertainment for patrons of all ages. A new feature in the library’s renovation was the addition of an outdoor movie wall that serves as a projection screen.
The PRL Board of Trustees is committed to making staff education a top priority. It approved a continuing education program back in 2007 that supported two staff members who earned bachelor’s degrees and another who has completed her MLIS. Recognizing the value of MLIS staff, the board increased the percentage of professional librarians from zero to 17 percent and then hired Dodson, PRL’s first MLIS-holding director.
Marketing and promoting PRL is an important part of the library’s success. With flyers, paid advertising, public service announcements, and social media, the library has promoted programs, materials, and outreach in Bayfield and the region. Total attendance at library programs grew from 2,500 in 2007 to over 6,300 in 2012. The number of Facebook likes increased by 20 percent in the first half of 2013. PRL uses Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and YouTube to showcase library information, programs, and materials. QR codes are added to library printed materials for easy access to library calendars, program information, and more.
As part of the library’s expansion project, an LCD digital sign was included in the library’s entryway. A generous grant from La Plata Electric Association paid for the technology, which is used to promote library programs and news.
The PRL board deserves a great deal of credit for its vision for the library and for sound financial management to execute it. The community that the board represents, in turn, “poured their heart and soul into this library,” says Dodson.
“I have an amazing staff here, too, innovators and leaders. I am very fortunate,” Dodson concludes.
There it is, that magic combination of community engagement, nourished by innovative services, a responsive and supportive staff, cutting-edge responses to what people need and want, good solid governance with vision, and strong support. Put them together and you get a great library like Pine River.
Best Small Library in America 2014 Finalists
This year’s finalists, chosen from among a strong array of nominees, share the key value of keeping their focus firmly on identifying and meeting the needs of their particular communities.
Bertha Voyer Memorial Library, Honey Grove, TX
Pattie Mayfield, Director
In the past three years, the Bertha Voyer library has seen dramatic growth. Patron visits have increased by 40 percent, and programming grew from only summer reading four days each year, with about 30 in attendance, to programs held on almost a daily basis with over 3,600 participants—more than twice the town’s 1,668 residents. Among its upgrades: swapping out story time for “Library School” to prepare toddlers and pre-K patrons for school. Getting the most from its $59 per capita budget, the library also stepped up to deliver programs other local agencies have had to cut, such as art classes when the school district eliminated them and Meals on Wheels when the Senior Nutrition Activity Program center shut down (also delivering books and DVDs). Judge Mary Beth Stenger explains, “The thing that I like best about Bertha…is their understanding about why small libraries are needed…. [W]e provide a home.”
St. Helena Public Library, CA
Jennifer Baker, Director
St. Helena Public Library has a large per capita budget at $200, but it makes the most of it: serving a population of 6,000, it has circulation higher than all libraries in California and more than six times the national average. The library conducted a nine-month needs assessment to identify and set priorities for addressing community goals through library services, targeting older adults and Spanish-speaking residents. Then the library reorganized resources to meet the needs it found; with no additional funding, it was able to increase staffing, hours, services, and programs. The library also focuses on creating infrastructure for ongoing, self-directed use, developing a bilingual video series to help users self-navigate library and community resources and a master community events calendar.
About the Best Small Library in America Award
LJ’s annual award, funded 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 Public Library Association (PLA) biannual conference in 2014 in Indianapolis, and a gala reception at PLA. The two 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.
JUDGES LJ thanks the following library professionals who volunteered valuable time to help select this year’s winner:
VALERIE GROSS CEO and President, Howard County Library System, MD, Gale/LJ’s Library of the Year 2013
TENA HANSON Director, Estherville Public Library, IA; President, Association of Rural and Small Libraries
EVA POOLE Director, Virginia Beach Public Library, VA; Immediate Past President, Public Library Association
MARY BETH STENGER Director, Southern Area Public Library, WV; LJ’s Best Small Library in America 2013
RALENE SIMMONS Research Analyst, Global Libraries, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
The panel also includes LJ editors John Berry III, Ian Chant, Matt Enis, Rebecca T. Miller, and Meredith Schwartz
For guidelines for the 2015 nomination, contact Meredith Schwartz at email@example.com; 646-380-0745; or go to lj.libraryjournal.com/awards.