The Belgrade Community Library, MT, leverages partnerships to deliver award-winning service
Over the last decade, Belgrade, MT, has grown and shifted from a small agricultural town to a diverse community of 12,700 in the exurbs of nearby Bozeman. In tandem, the Belgrade Community Library (BCL) has reimagined library services and aggressively developed new outreach efforts to meet the community’s changing needs. The result is intense engagement and support from the community and an impact that extends beyond Belgrade’s borders through active partnerships and state-level leadership.
This expansive approach to service makes BPL a model to watch. Its incredible story illustrates how program by program, applying innovative ideas, a small library can be transformative for the community it serves and with which it collaborates. All of this and more has garnered for the Belgrade Community Library the 2015 Best Small Library in America Award, presented by LJ and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“The vibrant partnership with the community, the tech tutoring program, and the mobile website all contribute to a library that is proactive in determining its successful future,” notes judge Linda Cook, CEO of the Edmonton Public Library, LJ’s 2014 Library of the Year. Pulling it off has taken much ingenuity in staffing, partnership development, and insight into changing times. It also has taken just trying things.
“I had heard about VISTA, so I wrote a grant, and we got a really high-caliber VISTA volunteer,” says BCL director Gale Bacon. “Her job was to make the public more aware of our services and create some new ones…. We were having such great success that VISTA renewed it for a third year, which is very difficult.”
That VISTA volunteer joined the gargantuan continued effort of the small BCL staff of six, along with a cadre of community volunteers and collaborators, to devise popular programming for Belgrade’s many new and traditional users.
One initiative, based on a similar program in Maryland, is BCL’s “Stories To Grow.” The volunteer-based outreach to local day-care centers enables volunteers trained in early childhood education to visit centers every month, bringing thematic story times and examples of early literacy practices for caregivers. In the past year, the program enabled BCL to visit 500 children whose family situations prohibited their attendance at BCL. A grant from the Bozeman Area Community Foundation will allow BCL to bring story times to even more day-care facilities in 2015. BCL presented the winning program to children’s librarians statewide, resulting in a new service called the “Ready 2 Read Reach Out” in a neighboring city.
As noted, the positive outcome of these programs and others is evident. Over the last five years, BCL experienced a 127 percent growth in program attendance, and the number of cardholders is up from 1,778 in 2000 to 6,900 today.
Enhancing access to tech
BCL has also been responsive to technology trends large and small. To help, the library evaluated community preferences and habits to establish a long-term technology plan. Owing to limited access to high-speed Internet connectivity, many residents browse the web through mobile devices, so BCL established a mobile website through the WordPress plugin WPtouch. The site is optimized for a variety of touch-screen devices, and it can easily be adapted and customized by other libraries. Users visit the site an average of 4,436 times each month.
Although BCL continues to purchase and maintain quality computers for use by the public, one of the largest barriers to public technology access is the knowledge gap, rather than a lack of hardware, according to Bacon.
As a result, BCL expanded its programs with tech tutorials aimed at both teens and older adults that received much media attention. Teens worked with older adults to teach them how to download ebooks and use tablets and other technology. The effort helped to build a bridge between the two groups as it introduced and supported public access to technology.
After hosting the teen tech tutors, BCL realized that many people need more in-depth assistance, so the library developed a one-on-one tutoring service called Book-a-Tech. Free and open to any community member, Book-a-Tech allows visitors to make appointments with librarians to learn the basics or get help with more advanced issues. Specially tailored sessions are also now available, such as a recent one in which the technology librarian assisted a man with Parkinson’s disease to configure settings on his tablet better to meet his needs.
BCL is also hip to emerging technologies. It has worked to educate the next generation of users through the provision of hands-on experience. This past summer, BCL was the first library to host a Montana Makers kit developed by the state library. The kit features Raspberry Pi, Arduino, MaKey MaKey, snap circuits, robotics kits, and more. The creator of the commercial Bozeman MakerSpace facilitated exploration free of charge for students at the library using the kit’s contents. The library has also hosted gadget petting zoos, 3-D printing workshops, computer dissection, and Hour of Code challenges, all free and developed through strategic partnerships.
Creating community partnerships
The library extends its partnership approach far beyond technology. From the MontanaMakers program to family game nights, collaboration and sustained alliances have helped extend the reach of BCL services without overtaxing the limited budget. Most recently, the library joined with Operation Military Kids, 4-H, the Montana State University Extension, and the National Guard Child and Youth program to host learning opportunities for local military families. Last year the organizations worked together to host a series of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) challenges including a parachute launch. Previous workshops have included Speak Out with Art, action photography, and Purple Up for Military Kids. BCL provided a model for technology and literacy education, and this effort also helped the library learn how to reach a traditionally underserved population.
Another project brought together working families to develop teamwork skills. KidsLINK, the local after-school program offered by the Greater Gallatin United Way, collaborated with BCL to design a family trivia night. The library acted as a model community center for all local school sites, while the United Way displayed an excellent example of how to engage entire families. This joint activity has brought other events to the community including Screen Free Week and bingo night. Other community partners include Thrive, the Early Childhood Community Council, and the local school district.
Working with Wanderlust
In an effort to inspire lifelong learning, BCL worked with Wanderlust, a division of Montana State University’s continuing education department, to bring additional adult learning to Belgrade. These courses explore regional topics such as the implications of the oil boom in the Bakken rock formation and the untold stories of women in Yellowstone. BCL has used the program’s model to bring a major adult event into the library every month.
“Wanderlust was originally set up so people 50 and over would pay for a membership to attend. We wanted to bring something like that to Belgrade, but we wanted to change the age policy and the fee model,” reports Bacon. “We opened it to people of all ages and partnered with a local bank to pay the speakers’ fees so we were able to make it free. It was so successful that now the Wanderlust board is creating a model of the program like ours for other libraries.”
A statewide stage
Montana State Librarian Jennie Stapp describes BCL as a “shining example of a small public library that strives daily to provide services that benefit its local community, its region, and its state. We at the state library look to the Belgrade Community Library for guidance on statewide projects and as a sounding board for small libraries.”
Stapp says special note should be taken of BCL’s participation in the statewide Montana Shared Catalog (MSC) and in the statewide courier project. The MSC is a single, shared ILS with 167 multitype libraries in 92 communities.
“BCL was one of the first sites to step up to participate in the [courier] project, which has evolved into an extremely successful one. Montana State University (MSU) Library was more cautious about wading into these waters,” reports Brian W. Rossmann, associate dean of the library at MSU in Bozeman. “But, thanks to the proof of concept and infrastructure implemented by libraries such as BCL, MSU has now become a participant. Without BCL’s leadership and willingness to take risks, the courier project likely would not have gotten off the ground.”
BCL is an active member of the shared catalog (“BridgerNet”) group and continually investigates ways to join other user sharing groups in order to provide the largest possible collection of resources to the Belgrade community. Bacon “has committed substantial time and knowledge to both BridgerNet and the statewide courier project,” adds Stapp. “She understands the enormous benefits to Montana library users of shared collections and shared user privileges and a standardized, stable courier system. Bacon gently prods her colleagues and the state library staff forward in these areas, promoting these efforts as the path toward better library services around the state.”
Such focus on service beyond town borders is manifest in many other ways as well. BCL was a leader in customizing the statewide single-search offering DiscoverIT. Bacon serves as MSC’s representative on the state library’s Network Advisory Council, which “represents the interests of all types of Montana libraries and maintains the perspective of statewide geographical balance as it explores technology resources; assists with the official procurement process of those resources; reviews and evaluates the feasibility, design, and outcomes of statewide library projects; assists with statewide planning; and advises the state librarian and the state library commission,” Stapp says.
Bacon’s efforts at the state level ultimately redound to the benefit of end users. Like small libraries throughout the United States, BCL operates on a limited budget. It continues to maximize impact by testing out new innovations that leverage state funding and economies of scale.
The loaves and fishes library
BCL is clearly not rich, but it is well supported, as the passage of a permanent operating mill levy in 2009 indicates. Per capita support is now $25.73, giving BCL an annual budget of $326,723. Bacon is able to use $22,000 of that for materials. BCL circulated 90,548 items last year to its 12,700 residents, about 1,588 of whom visit BCL each week during the 44 hours over the six days that it is open. Another 1,024 individuals visit BCL online each week.
“We have amazing people here, and that is how we do all we do with just six staff members. We actually call our library the fishes and loaves library, like the old Bible story,” says Bacon. “We don’t have enough staff, we are not open enough hours, we have no money for technology, then we look back at the end of each year and say, ‘How did we do that?’ We have amazing community support and that is how we get things done.”
The trick, of course, is the huge number of grants and partners that extend BCL’s resources and cover the cost of services. “BCL has been very aggressive at fundraising. The library budget is not sufficient for BCL to realize its ambitious goals,” says MSU’s Rossmann. “But it has not allowed this situation to hold it back. Over 90 percent of the new materials purchased by the library are funded from donations, proceeds from foundation events, or from grant-writing efforts.”
Some of what Bacon implements at her small library, she brings to the table from a larger setting: she managed a building in the 35-branch Great River Regional Library System in Rockford, MN, for 16 years. “I learned a ton from that. I was on the state and local school board in Minnesota for a number of years. That helped me tremendously to learn about the budgeting process,” says Bacon.
BCL’s efforts were celebrated in 2011 when it was named the Montana Library Association’s Library of the Year at the recommendation of the city’s mayor and the school district’s superintendent. The library was also awarded the Excellent Library Services Award by the Montana State Library in 2014.
“This library thrives because it truly lives up to its name as the Belgrade Community Library,” says Bacon. “The success of the library comes from the people who believe in that library. They give their time, they give their skills, they give their talent. Ironically, I would like to spend a lot more time out there nurturing and building those relationships, but we are so short-staffed that I don’t feel I have the freedom to be out of the building as much as I probably should. Still, a great product like ours sells itself.”
That rare and carefully created combination of community support and participation, staff focus, hard work, and expertise and state and local leadership all playing under an “orchestra leader” like Gale Bacon has made the Belgrade Community Library a model for the nation.
Best Small Library in America 2015 Finalists
This year’s finalists, chosen from among a numerous and strong array of nominees, share a focus on partnerships and programming that keep their long-established libraries looking firmly forward.
Mill Valley Public Library, CA
Anji Brenner, City Librarian
Mill Valley Public Library enjoys unusually strong financial support for a small library, with a robust per capita budget of more than $150 and a staff of nearly 20 FTE to serve its population of 14,147 in a small town about 14 miles north of San Francisco. But what the library does with that support is something special. After a century of solid service, Mill Valley decided to celebrate its 100th birthday in 2011 by holding over 100 programs. The result was more than anyone bargained for and, Brenner says, it “dramatically shifted the public’s perception of our library from its historical focus on books and on solitary research to…a place of collaborative learning.” As a result, “What we originally intended as a single year of special offerings became our standard.” Mill Valley’s adult program attendance more than tripled from 2009–10 to 2013–14 to 7,802. To sustain and grow this newfound phenomenon, the library empowered employees at all levels to create programming based on their interests and transformed its decision-making structure to become more flexible, so it could “add programs the next day instead of next year,” as well as partner with community members.
The result is an energized community. Frances Gordon, director of the nearby Larkspur Public Library, compares the events’ vibe to a TED talk, saying the “staff bustle, they rock, they engage the community.” They engage the library community as well, creating a toolkit to allow others to replicate Mill Valley’s Naked Truth Storytelling. Judge Carolyn Anthony says the library’s efforts “suggest that the library is ‘constantly evolving,’ a real plus in these changing times.”
Red Hook Public Library, NY
Erica Freudenberger, Director
The upstate New York village of Red Hook, situated in Dutchess County, is home to 1,961 people, which leads to the amusing situation of a library that has more than twice as many cardholders, at 4,500, than its ostensible population. In practice, the 115-plus-year-old library, housed in a historic octagonal building, draws on the whole town of 11,319 as well as a portion of neighboring Milan.
The Red Hook Public Library (RHPL) emphasizes partnership with other local groups, for-profit and otherwise. “Believing that a small library is only as strong as the community it serves, Red Hook Public Library has become an integral part of the town’s socioecosystem by working in collaboration with other agencies,” including nearby Bard College, Director Erica Freudenberger writes.
Among the innovative programs thus developed are “Ladies Who Launch,” a bimonthly series geared toward women in career transition; a mural exchange with the Children’s Library of Mas’Ha, resulting in Sister Cities in the West Bank and Israel; a volunteer fair; and the Digital Native Program, RHPL’s take on using high schoolers to teach computer skills, which was later retitled Teen Geeks and adopted countywide.
By “always looking forward and thinking beyond the book,” RHPL has increased physical visits by 323 percent in the past two years and program attendance by 102 percent. In 2013, more than 9,500 people attended 643 programs. The website saw 40,072 visits, and RHPL plans to add an Aerohive wireless system to document Wi-Fi usage better.
Since 2010, the community has nearly doubled the library’s budget, from $165,000 to $320,000 in 2014. As judge Carolyn Anthony says, “The increased funding and use in recent years testify to their success in connecting with the community.”
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, along with conference costs for two library representatives to attend the Public Library Association (PLA) biennial conference in 2016 in Denver. The two finalist libraries will each receive a $10,000 cash award, conference costs for two library representatives to attend the 2016 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:
- CAROLYN A. ANTHONY
Director, Skokie Public Library, IL; Immediate Past President, Public Library Association
- DONNA BRICE
Director, Eastern Lancaster County Library, New Holland, PA; President, Association of Rural and Small Libraries
- LINDA C. COOK
CEO, Edmonton Public Library, Alberta, Canada, Gale/LJ Library of the Year 2014
- AMY DODSON
Director, Pine River Public Library District, CO, LJ Best Small Library in America 2014
- RALENE SIMMONS
Research Analyst, Global Libraries, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
The panel also includes LJ editors John N. Berry III, Matt Enis, Rebecca T. Miller, Lisa Peet, and Meredith Schwartz