Of Ohio’s 251 public libraries, only three have presented levies since 2009 without success. Some might believe that those three might as well give up, that the necessary level of services simply can’t be met without such local funding support. However, Holmes County District Public Library (HCDPL), one of those three, is challenging the way that funding happens and, with a bit of cross-cultural cooperation, succeeding.
The future didn’t always look so promising for HCDPL. In November 2009, an 18 percent loss in state resources forced the library, for the first time in its 80-year history, to ask for local support through a modest 0.8 mil levy. It was soundly defeated by a margin of more than 1,600 votes, forcing staff layoffs, reduced service hours, and other cuts. HCDPL wasn’t done, though. The levy returned to the ballot in the May 2010 primary election, along with levies from 27 other Ohio libraries. Though HCDPL was again one of the triad of defeated facilities, this time the loss was by a scant 229 ballots. Buoyed by this narrowing margin and facing the permanent closure of three of the system’s four branches owing to more state cuts, HCDPL decided to give it one more try, by special election on the August 2010 slate. Had it passed, the levy would have cost Holmes County property owners an average of $25 per year. But when the final results came in, the $800,000, five-year levy had failed once more, by 57 percent to 43 percent.
As with many elections, the decision came down to turnout. A large percentage of library supporters in Holmes County are Amish and Mennonite, and while they do pay taxes, many don’t vote except on issues that affect them directly, such as public services for disabilities and zoning. While the Amish community didn’t come out to vote on libraries, the Tea Party did, and in force, killing the levy and further stretching HCDPL’s already tight budget.
A little help from an old friend
Bill Martino, director of HCDPL, was familiar with Holmes County since long before he became a librarian. As a child, he traveled with his family to the bucolic Amish farming community to appreciate the scenery and home-style restaurants. When he heard that HCDPL’s third and final levy had failed and the library was being compelled to close branches, during his second year as executive director of the Northeast Ohio Regional Library System, he took notice.
It wasn’t long before Martino got word that HCDPL’s director was retiring. He told colleagues he was considering the position, and they couldn’t believe it. Many saw Holmes County as a backward, bumbling community. Why would Martino leave his job to go to a system that was falling apart?
“People would jokingly ask if patrons would pay their fines with chickens and eggs. They thought I was crazy,” Martino says. “But I looked at it as a challenge. I hoped I could do good things there.”
In January 2011, Martino was named director of HCDPL and moved his family to the tourist destination of Walnut Creek, OH, population 3,500.
Reaching Amish and English alike
Walnut Creek sits in the center of the largest Amish community in the world, its population divided almost exactly between the orthodox Anabaptist sect and the “English,” or non-Amish. In the small township of Berlin alone, there are six different denominations of Amish, from the ultraconservative, who use only gas lamps in their homes and kerosene lanterns on their black, windowless buggies, to the more liberal lifestyle Amish, who harness energy through solar panels and have brake lights, turn signals, and sometimes even sound systems on their buggies.
Among his many challenges, Martino knew, was how best to disseminate information to this culture that has its own way of communicating, its own set of moral guidelines, rules, and etiquette, even its own language. How could the library effectively let that community know about programs, services, and the financial needs of the library?
“I was aware that there were distinct differences between the Amish and English communities and that, really, is the biggest challenge,” Martino says. “How do we provide quality materials that appeal to both Amish and English without offending the Amish or, in English eyes, overly catering to them?”
One of the first things on Martino’s to-do list was to find a new library board member, and he knew just the kind of person it should be. Someone hardworking, creative, and dedicated to the library, like all board members. But there was one additional trait Martino wanted that no previous HCDPL board member could lay claim to: he needed someone from the Amish community. After looking for nearly a year, he found what he was looking for in Jerry Schlabach.
Schlabach has been teaching for 13 years at Wise School, a one-story block building on the edge of a field between Berlin and Charm, OH. He’s also a teacher and librarian at nearby Mt. Hope School. He, like Martino, speaks German, sharing the language with eight classes each week. “Knowledge is power in any culture,” Schlabach tells his students.
In summer 2012, Schlabach became the first Amish member of HCDPL’s board, as well as the first Amish library board member in Ohio.
Kimberli Hiller, former manager of the East Branch in Walnut Creek, OH, and head of teen services for the district, says Amish patrons easily make up more than 50 percent of the branch’s visitors. Not only do they check out a variety of materials, from classic literature to the most current DVDs, but on any given day, the chairs in front of the branch’s eight desktop computers are occupied by Amish and Mennonite patrons of all ages. According to Ken Butler, head of IT at HCDPL, their computer activity is much like anyone else’s.
“We typically see the Amish doing what most everyone does,” Butler says, “checking email and Facebook, doing taxes and banking, online shopping, and selling items on eBay.”
Butler says there’s an increase, too, in tablet technology among the Amish. He often helps load ebooks onto a variety of devices. Butler’s basic computer classes are often comprised entirely of Amish participants keen on using office and accounting software to simplify the operations of their small businesses.
Serving up community
Having Schlabach on the board provides a liaison to help HCDPL meet its Amish patrons’ changing needs. It also helps the Amish community understand the needs of the library and work with funding models that fit the county’s strong sense of partnership and community engagement. One goal is to employ community fundraising strategies to help fund the bookmobile. Several local restaurants are on tap to host family-style meals, served by library staff and board members, to garner local support and raise funds for the library.
“The model for these types of events already exists in Holmes County and is undertaken on an almost weekly basis,” Martino says. “Why not tap into that model? True, we will never have the same level of services a metropolitan library will have, but we can certainly utilize our resources to the fullest and provide excellent library services to our patrons.”
David is an Amish farmer, writer, and avid reader from Fredericksburg, OH, who asked that his last name not be used. He remembers when the bookmobile started making its rounds back in 1958. He was in seventh grade.
David appreciated the library then and still appreciates it today. He, like many fellow Amish, doesn’t vote, but he’s confident that had it been on the ballot at the same time as an issue that Amish voters would turn out for, it would have passed. He’s doubtful any would have turned out to vote against it. “I think the greater percentage of the Amish would be in favor of it,” David says.
David also suggests that there are alternative methods for the Amish community to support the library. He points to the annual road fund as an analogy.
“We don’t buy license plates, but we do use the roads,” David says. “So every year, we take up a collection that comes to about a quarter of a million dollars, most of which comes back to our townships.”
That same spirit of pitching in for the collective good, David says, can be brought to support libraries as well. “If we want a civil society, we simply have to help pay for it. If we want roads, fire departments, nice libraries, we have to help,” he says. “We have to be a community and work together for the common good.”
That’s exactly Martino’s goal—to work together. In 2012, when Martino read about a $400,000 federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant, he immediately thought of HCDPL’s Amish patrons. Part of the grant was to be awarded for a Targeted Populations project, one that would provide services to people of diverse geographic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
“I had an idea that it would be nice to reach out into the community,” Martino says. “To let them know we’re still here.”
In September 2012, HCDPL, one of six libraries whose grants were approved, received $38,853 for its Amish Outreach Program, providing increased services to rural populations, particularly the Amish, by placing book drops around the county and purchasing a cargo van to collect materials not only from the drops but also from the Walnut Creek branch, eliminating the need for cargo service—a savings of $5,000 per year.
Milan and Barb Keim and their eight children are a typical Old Order Amish family. The kids climb onto the bookmobile at Mt. Hope between German and music classes to check out their favorite reads—Lulu, Tin Tin, and Asterix stories for the young ones and Harlequin’s Love Inspired imprint for the teens. Milan Keim prefers materials on natural health, while Barb could spend hours reading crime fiction from authors like Ann Rule and David Baldacci. In the past, returning materials on time proved challenging. Missing a bookmobile stop might mean as many as 40 late items. Getting to the Central Library from Mount Hope takes nearly an hour by horse and buggy. Now, with HCDPL’s new book drop at Mt. Hope School, the children can return materials at any time.
This spring, the library partnered with Der Dutchman, a Walnut Creek restaurant specializing in Amish-style cooking. Martino and other library employees and board members helped to serve a traditional Amish meal, with a percentage of the sales and all tips going directly to the Walnut Creek branch. Schlabach and his family filled two long tables, while Martino’s family and in-laws occupied a spot nearby. At the end of the night, after the tables were cleared and the aprons were untied, not only were bellies full but so was the giant tip box. It’s one positive outcome Martino sees in the recent funding challenges—library staff and community members coming together to champion for something in which they believe.
“In the past, we were just another library,” Martino says. “Going forward, we hope to be seen as a library recognized for its core involvement in the community in which it is located. There are so many ways we can work with both the English and Amish to foster better relationships with our patrons.”
Each month, on his way to board meetings, Martino picks up Schlabach, and the two travel together. Their conversation topics range from military history to the Cleveland Browns. Schlabach promises Martino that in the spring, when farmers drive teams of Belgian horses through the moist earth, Schlabach will take Martino on one of his favorite outings—a jaunt in Schlabach’s old-fashioned doctor’s buggy.
Martino is looking forward to the experience and is glad for the relationship he and Schlabach are fostering, not just with the community but with each other.