From books to bikes to banks, Mississippi Valley Library District steps up to address critical service gaps
Of the 2,635 people who live in the Village of Fairmont City, IL, 71.4 percent are immigrants who speak Spanish as their first or only language. Most of the adults migrated from Mexico and have a fourth to sixth grade reading level. Some youngsters are “dreamers,” undocumented children who were brought here from Mexico, so termed because they are eligible for deferred action under the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act. Their younger siblings, born in the United States, are U.S. citizens.
The village has few jobs or commerce, no elementary schools (the last one closed in 2009), no preschools or day-care centers, few recreational activities, and limited digital access. Although amenities and services are available in nearby communities, Fairmont City folks often can’t access them because of language barriers, documentation issues, or severely limited transportation.
To serve this high-demand community effectively requires a scrappy, grassroots library that throws preconceptions of what constitutes core library service out the window and designs to community needs from scratch. Luckily, that’s exactly what they’ve got, and that innovative and essentially engaged approach is what won the Mississippi Valley Library District the 2017 LibraryAware Commuity Award, presented by LJ and funded by LibraryAware, a product of EBSCO Publishing’s NoveList Division. It carries a prize of $10,000.
The library begins
In 2000, the Collinsville Memorial Public Library (CMPL) decided to extend library service to nearby Fairmont City. CMPL went through training, assessment, and planning. In 2004, it combined library services in the area into the Mississippi Valley Library District (MVLD). In 2006, the voters of Fairmont City chose to join the library district, and Holy Rosary Catholic School offered the district the use of a classroom for the summer.
Katie Heaton, now manager of the Fairmont City Library Center (FCLC), was hired by CMPL in 1997 and assigned to the project from the beginning. Heaton’s attitude explains how the library became the award winner. “I see a need, a real need,” she says, “and we try to fill it.”
Staff members started building trust—and creative library services—right away. The makeshift library opened with 4,000 items and provided a summer reading program along with materials and digital access for all residents. The community didn’t want to lose library services when school reopened, so the American Legion offered a hall rental to continue services year-round. The FCLC moved into the small legion hall in 2008. In 2010, MVLD bought the American Legion building for $185,000 from MVLD funds and began expanding its collections and programs.
From that new permanent base of operations, FCLC moved to meet the deeper needs of the community. In partnership with the Village of Fairmont City, Collinsville Community Unit School District #10, the Latino Roundtable of Southwestern Illinois, and other local organizations, the library advocates for and engages with the community to develop an array of library services that foster personal and professional growth for everyone in Fairmont City.
The library modified its application procedures to accept Mexican government-issued Matriculas Consulares as identification, allowing all residents access to full-service library accounts. Annual visits from the Mexican Consulate provide assistance to Mexican residents needing to obtain or renew their documentation.
Ready for school
FCLC’s Kids Corner was an effort to help provide both child care and kindergarten readiness. There is no licensed day care in Fairmont City. No one was addressing preschool needs. Heaton noticed that kids came to FCLC with their mothers, who took English classes, so FCLC started its free preschool program with a growing list of activities to occupy and work with the children. Unlike many public library children’s offerings, parents can drop off their kids and don’t have to stay with them.
“We first taught them to write their names,” Heaton recalls. “I asked the schools what they needed. They asked us to teach them to write and recognize their names. It took a long time to convince parents that it was OK to let their small children come to FCLC for preschool, but when [the]mother got work, they came.”
Of course, the library’s help doesn’t stop when children enter school. With Americorps assistance, FCLC provides free homework aid to students of all ages. “The majority of people who show up at FCLC have somewhere between a fourth and fifth grade education. That means there isn’t any help at home for these kids for homework and studies. They face education and language barriers. We had to help them overcome both of those,” Heaton reports.
To fill that gap, Southern Illinois University sent homework helpers. “It has been a great program, and it helps the kids overcome that language problem,” says Heaton.
FCLC also works with children to get them ready for school in the concrete sense: the library hosts a Back to School Carnival at which families play games to win tickets that are redeemed for school supplies. The event is sponsored by the Newsong Fellowship, a church located in Edwardsville, IL.
“When the church leaders came to our library wanting to do a service project, I remember telling them that if they were looking for a great place to do a good deed, they had found it!” Heaton laughs.
As a result of the FCLC presence and involvement in the community, high school graduation rates have risen from 46.5 percent in 2000 to 52.5 percent in 2015.
Beyond current schoolwork support, the library is getting students to set their sights on more ambitious goals. When the library opened, “The young were very much in the moment. There was little talk of futures, no talk of college,” Heaton says. “There was a 50 percent dropout rate from the high schools. Now aspirations have changed.”
“I’d ask them what they want to be when they grow up, and they would answer a farmhand, work in a hotel, be a bricklayer. ‘What about something more than that?’ I’d ask. Do you want to be a doctor?” she adds.
“ ‘What are you talking about?’ they would say. Now many say things like, ‘I want to be an engineer.’ It took a lot of hand-holding to get them to even think about college,” Heaton asserts. Now some who came years ago are what Heaton calls “my first-generation college kids.”
The library partners with the Hispanic Arts Council of St. Louis to provide college prep classes (“College Now!/ Universidad Ya!”) that assist Latinx students to graduate from high school and continue their education as first-generation college students. A Teen Initiative program exposes fifth to 12th graders to new technologies as part of the Illinois State Library’s Project Next Generation grant. It offers a safe after-school teen space and provides a teen lock-in for which participants must earn the right to spend the night by being actively involved in library services.
Spanish spoken here
FCLC hires bilingual English/Spanish speakers from the community to staff the library. The library’s English and Spanish collections for adults and children are among the richest in the region.
“I have the largest collection of books in Spanish around here,” Heaton says with pride. “I started with only two shelves [and] put out the word that we needed any and all Spanish-language books anyone wanted to donate. We buy as many as we can from our materials budget. It is very difficult to get books originally written in Spanish, but people didn’t like books that had been translated. They said translations lost something. I did order some from Mexico, and they were very popular.” Naturally FCLC uses bilingual signs so all residents feel welcome.
Southwestern Illinois College provides free English-language classes at FCLC.
Getting patrons moving—literally
Heaton joined local advocacy groups to push for public transportation until the Collinsville Regional Bus Route 18 was established. This gave the community access to local and regional services and made commuting much easier, shorter, and less expensive.
Yet FCLC’s efforts to get its patrons on the road to success didn’t stop there. The bicycle is a primary mode of transportation in Fairmont City and not just for recreation. So the library partners with Cycle of Giving, a local charity run by Allen Hogg, to offer an annual free bike repair day. Many locals of all ages line up with their bikes to get repairs and rejuvenation. Hogg brings chains, tires, and other parts along with restored bikes. To get service, kids have to write a book report. Heaton tells of one middle-aged man who came with his bike; it was a wreck. Hogg replaced it with a newly restored bicycle so the man could more easily ride to work. “The guy was overwhelmed,” Heaton says.
Banking on the library
The newest service at FCLC is a fully functional bank branch located in the library. Previously, FCLC had partnered with banks to provide financial literacy programs. But with only a credit union in the community, it was clear that the residents lacked access to financial services. TheBANK of Edwardsville recognized that the library is the community hub and agreed to cover renovation costs to establish a banking center in the building. TheBANK of Edwardsville’s Fairmont City location opened in November 2015. It is the first and only fully bilingual banking facility in the St. Louis metro area.
In one year, TheBANK’s holdings in Fairmont City are $1.5 million in deposits, 325 checking and saving accounts, and 155 mortgages equaling $10 million. The service model is proving to be so successful that TheBANK promotes it for replication in its financial network. The library/bank partnership also earned TheBANK a national Community Commitment Award. As an unexpected bonus, TheBANK is installing fiber-optic Internet connectivity in all its branches, which means that soon the library/bank building will be the first in the village with a fiber line. This marks the beginning of the end to the community’s limited digital access, previously provided by the Illinois Century Network. FCLC plans to use the prize money from this award to add its digital equipment to that fiber line.
Jack of all trades
The village does not have a post office, so the library provides partial mail services, including a mail drop and the sale of stamps and envelopes, as well as international fax service. A partnership with AARP offers free tax assistance for low-income individuals, seniors, and those with simple forms.
The library also works to meet its patrons’ most fundamental needs: FCLC hosts an annual coat and toy giveaway each December—in 2016, 350 people were served. Also, the library partners with the University of Illinois Extension to maintain a community garden on library grounds. In 2016, the garden grew 473 pounds of produce, which was distributed throughout the area. The Southern Illinois Healthcare Foundation provides access to a traveling nurse for health care at FCLC.
A library delivers
The development of FCLC has taught the Fairmont City community the value of an engaged library. Now, many village officials frequently visit the library, partner on events, make donations, or volunteer there. The village has provided funds to update the building and support library services.
Alex J. Bregen, Fairmont City Village president, explains how FCLC has transformed life there: “The Fairmont City Library Center has demonstrated its ability to make our community aware of what a library can do, and [it has] delivered on that promise. We didn’t know we needed a library until we got one. It has been a place of transformation for many residents. Our community has seen many changes since the library opened its doors…. Poverty rates have decreased, reading and math scores have increased, high school graduation rates have increased, and our streets are safer with the youth having a place to go after school to become engaged in activities. Many say the library is the best thing that has happened to the village in years.”
From promise to proven impact, that kind of reputation shows the best of what a library and community can achieve together.
LibraryAware Community Award 2017 Honorees
LJ would like to thank James L. Blanton, a 2012 LJ Mover & Shaker (M&S) and Director of the Louisville Free Public Library, KY, the 2016 LibraryAware Community Award winner; John Chrastka, Executive Director of EveryLibrary and a 2014 M&S; Amy Garmer, Director of the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries; and Randall Reid, Southeast Regional Director, International City/County Management Association (ICMA), for their help in selecting this year’s honorees.
CATAWBA COUNTY LIBRARY
Suzanne White, Director
In 2015, the Catawba County Library (CCL), based in Newton, NC, completed an extensive community-based strategic planning process. Driven by the feedback from more than 1,500 residents, the library added a full-time digital services librarian position and set aside more than $100,000 in a joint capital improvement account to improve library IT and facility infrastructure.
Community feedback isn’t a onetime thing for the library either. The library has embraced the Aspen and Harwood institutes’ initiatives to turn outward and connect more deeply with its populace. As part of those efforts, it reinvented a part-time marketing role to create a full-time community engagement specialist. Among the examples of getting outside the library walls, Catawba’s Big Read featured 2,175 books placed as “treasure finds” in malls, storefronts, gyms, community centers, organizations, and businesses, plus library-led programs at the mall, in coffee shops and schools, with community groups, and at local city council meetings.
At service provider Centro Latino, a Big Read book discussion transformed into a Spanish Book Club. Increased collaboration with Centro Latino soon highlighted the need for enhanced library materials and publicity in Spanish, an issue the library “tackled immediately.” Catawba has also seen increased Latino family participation in the library, is conducting more programs and classes in Spanish, and is distributing a Spanish newsletter to schools through ESL directors.
Library partnerships have increased 71 percent year over year, including a new partnership with the local Hmong residents to preserve Hmong heritage through a National Endowment for the Humanities Common Heritage grant–funded digitization project and a school partnership that led to the development of a student digital access card. Catawba is currently working on a grant proposal to establish a Pop-up Library, embedding the library even further in the area. For such responsiveness, CCL is this year’s second-place winner and will receive $7,500.
KANSAS CITY PUBLIC LIBRARY
Crosby Kemper III, Director
Missouri’s Kansas City Public Library’s (KCPL) deep engagement with its community is never more evident than in its work to close the digital divide. Says judge Randall Reid of the ICMA, “Kansas City exemplifies the strategic leveraging by local government leaders of a major library system to offset the economic inequities within the metropolitan area by bridging the critical gap in access to digital content and resources.” KCPL helped found Digital Inclusion KC, a coalition of representatives from more than 70 nonprofits, government agencies, corporations, and more and hosted two summits and a town hall gathering to examine trends, discuss challenges and opportunities, spotlight current inclusion efforts, and share best practices.
KCPL is partnering with the city’s public schools to allow 70 students at three high schools in underserved areas to check out mobile Wi-Fi hot spots and receive one-year, unlimited data service subscriptions and was instrumental in connecting the school district to Sprint’s 1Million Project, allowing distribution of 500 more free hot spots to students. KCPL was also closely involved in Kansas City’s selection as one of 19 pilot cities in the nationwide Community Connectivity Initiative. Closer to home, the library’s participation in a Google Fiber–sponsored program funded a full-time digital inclusion Fellow in 2016. The library opened its ONENORTH Technology Center at the downtown Central Library in 2016, offering digital literacy assessment, training, and one-on-one assistance.
Beyond digital, KCPL is convening crucial local conversations. In partnership with the American Public Square organization, the library hosts public forums on pressing local issues ranging from indecision on the future of the Kansas City International Airport to the effectiveness of KC’s public schools. The library’s full-time refugee and immigrant services outreach manager coordinates citizenship preparation and helps connect immigrant populations with KCPL’s other services.
The library is also addressing the health-care gap: in one of the most economically distressed corridors of Kansas City, the L.H. Bluford Branch houses a Health and Wellness Center in partnership with Truman Medical Centers and the Health Sciences Institute of Metropolitan Community Colleges–Penn Valley. Offerings include fitness classes, weight-loss challenges, chronic disease and diabetes self-management programs, and health fairs, plus a mobile market that makes fresh produce available to residents with otherwise limited access. For such deep partnerships, KCPL is this year’s third-place winner and will be awarded $5,000.—Meredith Schwartz