June 18, 2018

Best Small Library in America 2013: Southern Area Public Library, WV

Little Library with a Big Heart

Of the 175 public libraries in West Virginia, the Southern Area Public Library (SAPL) in tiny Lost Creek is the smallest, with a service population of 498. In activity, energy, growth, and community engagement, however, it ranks with the state’s best and brightest. The library is directed by the dynamic Mary Beth Stenger, whose 20-hour workweek probably means she gives three times that much effort to SAPL, Lost Creek, and the surrounding area.

Under Stenger, SAPL has been transformed from a good, traditional public library into a modern, bustling center of community activity, information, and learning. All of this on a 2013 budget of just under $35,000 and the labor of a staff of two, a band of 20 volunteers, and a small Board of Trustees.

Transforming SAPL

That transformation of SAPL convinced the judges that it is the Best Small Library in America 2013, cosponsored by Library Journal and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Likewise, they are confident that SAPL will make even more significant progress with the $20,000 that comes with that award.

Immediate goals are to have six days of service a week by opening the library on Monday. The trustees have already embarked on a plan to get funding for that upgrade, but the proceeds from this recognition will make it possible immediately. Another crucial goal is to attract more people to SAPL ­programs.

Promotion efforts and activities to increase the visibility of SAPL in Lost Creek and its environs are under way. Stenger has made SAPL a participant in the Geek the Library campaign, a nationwide program sponsored by OCLC to raise community awareness of libraries in which thousands of American libraries participate. Simultaneously, SAPL has launched its own Big Heart Campaign with the slogan “Southern Area Library, the Little Library with the Big Heart.” SAPL will select and help a different charity each month.

The first opportunity, last October, was to outfit local children with the boxes to collect money for UNICEF. In its January Big Heart effort SAPL collected items to create many “Birthday Party in a Box” gifts for a Clarksburg Mission for homeless children who have to stay at the shelter on their ­birthday.

The library provides after-school snacks for the many latchkey kids that school buses drop at SAPL every weekday it is open. The snacks—mostly healthy fruit and other foods—are donated by several local families. Frequently, adults come to sample some of it.

While at the library, children get homework help and computer support. High schoolers get essential assistance with their student résumés and college applications, including editing and proofreading. One local college freshman wrote her essay about a person who changed her life—and chose Stenger.

Meanwhile, SAPL is known in the area as “the homeschool library” for the programs and services it provides for the many homeschoolers. There are art classes and other tutoring at SAPL during the school day, and homeschoolers can and do attend. The county’s homeschool geography and spelling bees were held at SAPL, along with shelves of donated books to help the many local homeschooling families. No stranger to the practice, Stenger homeschooled her own children, three of whom are either in college or graduate school, with one working on a science Ph.D. The youngest Stenger daughter, age ten, schools at home.

VOLUNTEER EFFORT Top: The Southern Area Public Library (SAPL) is situated on a corner lot in Lost Creek.
Middle left: Director Mary Beth Stenger checks AV stock. Middle right: Kaye Alsbrooks (l.) and Valerie Dunlevy find a place
to knit; a group of knitters and crocheters meet at the library several times a month. Bottom left: Volunteer Wayne Anthony Dasher replenishes the shelves. Bottom right: Volunteer Mary Ann McGlumphy drops off a basket of food; the library provides snacks for kids who come in after school. Photos ©2013 Rachel Yoke

The January schedule

Typical of the engagement and hustle and bustle at SAPL is the full schedule of events that Stenger sends regularly to the local media. To keep these programs going, the 20 volunteers Stenger recruited work hard for SAPL. There were none when she ­began.

For example, January 17 was a card-making class. The new Fiberart Addicts group meets on the second and fourth Friday of each month and gives instruction for projects, plus charity work such as caps for premies, field trips, and more. The big Winter Party for elementary school students and preschoolers was on January 24, with food, fun, stories, and games.

For the entire month folks could sign up for upcoming computer literacy classes, addressing beginners and intermediate students, with two instructors for one-on-one instruction along with larger classes later. There were many other programs in January.

All told, since Stenger’s appointment in 2010, patron visits to SAPL have increased from 3,094 to 7,945. Programs have grown from 28 to 227 last year.

Budgeting for SAPL

“Salaries and utilities are the killer items in our budget,” says Stenger. “We can’t change them very much, and no one wants to fund them.”

Harrison County support for SAPL amounts to about $11,000 and is based on the service population of 498. The Board of Education pays another $11,000, while Lost Creek pays about $2,000 of the library costs. From the state through the West Virginia Library Commission (WVLC) comes another $2,500. With other sources, the SAPL budget that ends on June 30, 2013, totals just under $35,000.

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE Top left: Estie Woodard (ctr.) shows students how to cut out silhouettes during art class,
held weekly at SAPL. Top right: Mary Ann McGlumphy signs the geek board with assistance from Ruie Crawford.
Bottom: Robert Stenger uses a computer in the tech area. Photos ©2013 Rachel Yoke

Two staff, one salary

Besides Stenger, the only other employee at SAPL is Wilma Bennett. Stenger’s predecessor ran the library solo, and when it hired Stenger, the board planned to bring in only one person. In her interview, Stenger told the board that she didn’t want to work alone with no backup.

“Of course, the budget does not allow us to hire two people for all five [open] days, so I recommended that the board hire me to work 20 hours, and my assistant to work the remaining 15 hours to complete the 35 hours SAPL is open,” says Stenger.

The board hired the assistant; the first person in the job left to take a teaching post. “I needed a new assistant, someone from the community who uses the library, so we advertised only in the library,” Stenger reports. She selected Bennett, a loyal reader who visited the library several times a week, often borrowing 20 books at a time. A local high school graduate in her 30s, Bennett “has blossomed,” recently completing cataloging training to help SAPL’s volunteer cataloger. After a year, Bennett was promoted to children’s librarian and runs all of SAPL’s children’s programs, including a Christmas party.

“She has given me time to pursue funding and other vital needs I couldn’t do with so many hours each week devoted to preparing and presenting programs for children. I could sing [Wilma’s] praises all day,” says Stenger.

The technology mandate

Adding new technology to the library’s services and administrative processes was part of Stenger’s mandate when she was hired. First SAPL started circulating materials through a computer system for the first time. Now an overdue file in the system handles the records, and the library can quickly call to remind folks to return materials. A few patrons complain that they miss the book cards; Stenger tells them to make a pencil mark in an inside corner of a book to help remind them they have already read a particular title. The system runs bills, overdue notices, and interlibrary loans, and all libraries in the Northern Library Network can share books, run circulation statistics, issue new cards, and much more.

“Now we all share that same yellow card…. We were the last of the more than 45 libraries in our network to use the system for circulation, but I honestly believe we are now one of the few libraries that uses all the statistics,” says Stenger.

Two new computers from Work Force and WVLC and tables bought with funds given by the legislature will bring the SAPL computer total to eight. They are constantly in use, in rural, low-income Lost Creek.

In her first year, Stenger taught SAPL’s basic computer class. The next year SAPL hired a local, tech-savvy man who also helps keep SAPL computers up-to-date and working.

“We need a new tutor this year,” Stenger says and is looking for one. The local Nutter Foundation gives SAPL the $3,000 to support the technology tutoring. A Wi-Fi café with a Keurig coffee machine and supplies was donated by what Stenger calls “an appreciative community leader.”

PAST MEETS PRESENT Local history is memorialized in SAPL’s genealogy room. Photos ©2013 Rachel Yoke

Fundraising at SAPL

One of Stenger’s simplest fundraising tactics was to put a jar on the circulation desk with a sign suggesting that users contribute. Many patrons were surprised by the SAPL policy not to charge overdue fines. “We want to encourage patrons to read without the worry of owing money they don’t have,” Stenger says.

“Many just say, ‘OK, I’ll just put some money in this jar.’ We are sure we get more in donations than we would from fines, and we get the added good feeling from patrons because we didn’t fine them,” says Stenger.

Another “easy fundraiser” is SAPL’s regular prize drawings. Local patrons donate new items, often gifts they don’t need or want. When SAPL has five or more items, they are grouped in a display, and users can enter the drawing for the lot. Entries are acquired for cash donations or donations of time volunteered on SAPL programs and projects.

“Giving our volunteers entries in the drawings for their work at the library is one way we thank them without spending scarce library funds,” says Stenger.

Meanwhile, the Friends of Southern Area Library (FOSAL) has two events each year to raise money for SAPL. It organizes the book sale during Lost Creek’s annual Fall Festival in which the library has a table. Likewise, Stenger develops a list of adult nonfiction titles the library needs for the “Adopt a Book” program, and they are listed on ornaments on the library holiday tree. Patrons will then pay the library the amount listed on the ornament for that title. SAPL puts the donor’s name on a bookplate in each adopted title.

Stenger is encouraging FOSAL to undertake a more ambitious “Signature Event” to add to its fundraising efforts.

With the same persuasiveness, the SAPL director has convinced the trustees to undertake a more exacting fundraising effort. She gave each member of the board a copy of Andy Robinson’s How To Raise $500 to $5000 from Almost Anyone: A 1-hour Guide for Board Members, Volunteers, and Staff. They have already decided to use the idea of a 10-10 fundraiser from the book to try to raise the $2,000 to keep SAPL open on Mondays.

The SAPL trustees are very active in library affairs all the time, with many board members helping out around the library and otherwise volunteering their time.

“We don’t hear too much from Mary Beth’s board, and that is one way we gauge how good the library is,” says Karen Goff, state librarian and secretary and 40-year veteran of WVLC.

Goff was the first professional appointed by the legendary Fred Glazer (1937–97), who ran WVLC for more than 25 years until 1996. Glazer’s initiatives brought library service to more than 150 unserved West Virginia communities.

SAPL in Lost Creek is one of hundreds of libraries in the state that have grown and strengthened from that time. Stenger—who has developed her library skills on the job at SAPL—seems to many old-timers to possess Glazer’s spirit and creativity.

Stenger was awarded a WVLC “scholarship” to attend the Association for Rural and Small Libraries (ARSL) 2012 conference in Raleigh, NC. She found inspiration and dozens of ideas there, networked with staff from libraries like SAPL from all over America, shared best practices, and brought much of what she absorbed back to Lost Creek.

“She was like a firecracker at ARSL. Mary Beth has an ‘honorary doctorate’ in networking,” says Melissa Brown, program and planning consultant at WVLC. “When I came to West Virginia, I wanted to build a network of the most rural and isolated libraries. I discovered that Mary Beth was already doing that.”

“We all agree that what makes this library really, really good is the director. It is her commitment to the community, her knowledge of that community, and her unwillingness to concede limitation by saying, ‘We’re too small,’ ” says Goff.

“I believe the best way to direct a library is to passionately pursue new ideas, new programs, and new partnerships,” Stenger says, adding, “We are a small town with a hot dog place and inside a gas station a sandwich and pizza place. There are no small businesses in the town proper except for the pharmacy, two beauty shops, the bank, a day care, a therapist, and the feed store. Yet our library has pulled together members and organizations throughout our town as well as surrounding towns to build lots of programs, buy books and other materials, and collaborate on all kinds of projects,” Stenger says, in a proud summing up of SAPL’s success.

This article was published in Library Journal. 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 (jberry@mediasourceinc.com) 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.

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  1. Thanks John for the great article, and thank you to Rachel for the wonderful pictures. We are so excited to be selected as the Best Small Library in America. Thank you to the committee and the Library Journal, and of course to the Gates Foundation. With this award, our library is ready to take off to new heights!

  2. Valarie Dunlevy says:

    Congratulations MaryBeth!! You have done such a wonderful job!! The library is now what a library should be!! Thank you and enjoy your vacation!!!

  3. “KUDOS” to the most energetic library staff and leaders.

  4. Crystal Hamrick says:

    This is wonderful!! What a well deserved reward for all the good work you do – CONGRATULATIONS!

  5. Gayle Ashbaker says:

    What a well deserved award…I am sure Mrs. Wolfe is busting her buttons with pride…..and thank you Mrs. Stenger for service above and beyond….Lost Creek rocks!!!!!

  6. Pam Spooner says:

    Alpine: I am so very proud of you — just incredible what you have accomplished! Thank you for all you do for the quality of intellectual life of the Big Bend region.

  7. Connie Washburn says:

    Great things come in small packages..

  8. Thanks to LJ, all the judges, and to the Gates Foundation – we are so honored.
    Paige Delaney, Alpine Public Library

  9. From the entire community of Portland and the Coastal Bend of Texas, thank you for this honor. We are so thrilled and honored. Thank you to the Gates Foundation, who continues to support libraries with their generous gifts. Thanks to LJ, all the judges!

  10. Janine Golden says:

    We at Texas Woman’s University SLIS are proud of you RoseAleta!