December 19, 2014

Best Small Library in America 2014: Pine River Library, CO

BestSmall1b  Best Small Library in America 2014: Pine River Library, CO

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.

BestSmall2b  Best Small Library in America 2014: Pine River Library, CO

ROOM TO GROW Top row: our Best Small Library 2014, Pine River Library (PRL), CO feels anything but small. Inset: the Living Library outdoor space is fronted by a gate constructed by local artist Kelly Hereford from recycled oil and gas pipes. Second row: Director Amy Dodson (in pink) with her dedicated staff (l.–r.): Brenda Marshall, Office Manager; Lisa Madonna, Circulation Assistant; Becky Van Den Berg, Teen Services Coordinator; Stephanie DeMerse, Circulation Assistant; Sven Skoglund, IT Specialist; Brooke Smith, Circulation Manager; ­Bethany Murga, Circulation Assistant; Judy Poe, Library Development Services Coordinator; Elizabeth vonTauffkirchen, ­Children’s Services Coordinator; and Karen Lemke, Adult Services Librarian & PR Director. Jammin’ Juniors, for babies and toddlers, is a collaboration with the Bayfield Family Center. Third row: Patrons check out titles from PRL’s Deweyless collection. The multipurpose community room is a “step” in the right direction for this aerobics class for seniors. Photos ©2014 Karen Skelly photography

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.

BestSmall3b  Best Small Library in America 2014: Pine River Library, CO

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE Patrons of all ages (inset) get the scoop on what’s new at the tech “petting zoo,” while teens get their tech on in the teen center. Rubber mulch from recycled tires provides a ten-point landing for those taking advantage of Balance and Movement, one of five outdoor activity areas. And a little snow never gets in the way of a good film, as ­patrons enjoy the library’s outdoor movie wall in every season. Balance/movement photo by Karen Lemke; all other photos ©2014 Karen Skelly photography

Programs galore

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.

Promoting PRL

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.

PRL’s success

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.

ljx140201webBSside1b  Best Small Library in America 2014: Pine River Library, COBertha 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.”

ljx140201bestSmallSide1Cb  Best Small Library in America 2014: Pine River Library, COSt. 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; 646-380-0745; or go to

This article was published in Library Journal's February 1, 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III ( is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.



  1. jake kelly says:

    I walked into this PRL last year and have not been able to leave ever since! I go back several times a week, every week.
    The gals that handle the children and teen programs are inspiring and always ready with a smile or a joke to see you smile. I have been fortunate enough to work with Judy Poe, and her passion of building a true Community out here in Bayfield is truly awesome and I could not imagine a more qualified individual to help lead the charge.
    I just want to say, i never get my books back on time, I always ask questions and make you all put in a code to print, and I am very loud about all of it, yet this library has become apart of my family, and I truly am thankful to you all! I love my library! I brag about the new gardens and how my daughter has to walk them every time, even in freezing weather!
    I am very Proud of you!

    • Jake!
      It’s because of community members such as yourself and your daughter, that we are able to do what we do every day. We are fortunate to live in such a community where our library is appreciated and all ideas are encouraged. We have the best volunteers – you being one of them – and a caring, dedicated staff, supportive Friends of the Library, and a professional Board of Directors.
      Thank you for being a part of this!
      YOU ROCK!

  2. S. Jane Ulrich says:

    Far away in the mists of time, when the state of Colorado had multi-type library systems and I worked for one, we consulted and provided CE for the Pine River Library. A friend sent me the above article, and right now my innards are going, “Whoopie! Whoopie! Wow!” I am so impressed….. These guys have come such a long way in the past decade or so.

    Back in my time, they were in an old bank building downtown. Its most interesting architectural feature was a black-doored bank vault decorated with fancy flowers and script. No room for children’s or adults’ programming. I think there was one computer for the librarian and another for public use. Board meetings were held at a table in the middle of the library, surrounded by the badly-in-need-of-weeding book collection.

    But they were dreaming of a new building, and one of the director’s biggest issues was on what side of US Hwy. 160 to build it. One side was the “old” Bayfield, site of the 3-block downtown, as well as long-time residents. The “new” side was experiencing considerable residential development, as Bayfield housing was more affordable than Durango’s, and the commute was only 20-30 minutes. Site choices at that time were a recently-abandoned school in old Bayfield, and vacant land close to a recently-built bank (no visible vaults) in the new part of town.

    The board chose the site in “new” Bayfield, where the majority of young families lived. Obviously it turned out to be a wise choice!

  3. Congratulations Pine River!

    M. Stenger, Director
    Southern Area Library
    Best Small Library in America, 2013

  4. Kristin Readel says:

    CONGRATULATIONS … love to hear more about the outdoor spaces and awesome teen programming. I’ve got some Big, Hairy, Audacious goals for our small library in the Monadnock Region of Southern NH. Stephenson Memorial of Greenfield, NH. My Pinterest Playscape board will be getting adjusted. Thanks for the inspiration.

  5. As a High School Librarian I’m constantly checking out libraries and hardware stores. I recently Home Depot prototyped my high school library (shhhhhh) on my own by upgrading the electrical outlets and even duct taping some electric cords with multi USB device charging stations to my tables and chairs so the students could charge smart phones and other devices with USB cords. This was a brand new library only 10 years ago. In fact I had the state of the art, most technological library of any school in the state. People from all over the region and multiple states came to check us out. In five years I hit a brick wall and needed more power, more internet connections and more outlets. I proposed putting in a false floor to add more power. I find it very interesting how people with higher paygrades than mine don’t like ideas from people in the trenches. If you are desigining a new library or in the middle of building one put everything you can think of in it and more. Libraries can’t have enough power and internet. Whatever you think you need increase it exponentially by 10. Also every outlet should be a multi charging device with USB. I found one at Home Depot for $19 it takes a two plug outlet and turns it into a three plug outlet with four USB charging slots. How cool is that! Put one of these everywhere you can and put them in your home for your family and especially if you have teens. It can’t hurt the value of the home to make it more tech charging friendly. Also making table and chairs able to plug in and charge smart phones, iPods and other devices only adds to the library.

  6. Lori Allenbaugh says:

    I have lived in Bayfield for over 20 years now and am so proud to see the kind of recognition our little local library has received. It is well deserved. I was unaware until now that our Director Ms. Dodson was from the same City I grew up in. When I first came to Bayfield I remember it feeling very similar to how I remembered Riverside as a child. Fortunately Bayfield has managed over the years to maintain so many of the positive aspects that seemed lost to me as I matured in Southern California. I truly hope that the people here will always keep in mind that a library like ours that brings a community together is so much more important than so many other things that can be imported from the bigger “more progressive” cities of our country. Thank you to all of our hard working library staff, volunteers and community members and patrons for their contributions to this GREAT small town.

  7. Sue Hinkle says:

    Nice job! I have always said this was the best library in the region but now I know it extends much farther than that. Thanks for all you do!

  8. Ellen Maxton says:

    I’ve been a resident of Bayfield for almost 6 years, and from the time I moved here from the Bay Area, even before the recent expansion of the PRL, I was impressed with this little library, with how involved with the community it was and how much it offered the community in terms of programs, free movies, a wide range of classes and educational seminars, etc. I moved from a town of 45,000, and the PRL, serving a much smaller population, surpassed the larger library in services offered. Now that PRL has expanded and included technological advances and other programs, such as community gardening and exercise classes, I’m even more impressed. I would rather visit PRL than the larger Durango Public Library 30 minutes away. The PRL is much more computer-use friendly. There are plenty of public computer stations available for use, whereas I’m always searching for an open computer station at the DPL. PRL has those neat comfortable armchair seats with swinging arm tables to hold your personal laptop or device, and seats at regular tables with attached outlets on which to set your personal laptop. Almost every seat is near an outlet to plug in your device. I find it very frustrating at times trying to find an appropriate seat or table near an outlet at the DPL, so I appreciate the convenience provided by the PRL I also appreciate all the exercise programs provided at the library. Thank you!

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