March 16, 2018

Ten Years of Best Small Libraries: Great at Every Size | Editorial

Rebecca MillerThe very concept of a “living library” captures the imagination. To serve the over 8,000 people in its district better, the Pine River Library in Colorado has made the idea a reality. There, the library literally embraces life in its program, with a vibrant 17,000 square foot outdoor space put to use as a community garden, learning space, greenhouse, and straw bale toolshed. It’s almost a green thumb version of a Maker space. It engages the community anew in the library—from the construction itself to the ongoing maintenance as the year turns. It exemplifies a holistic approach to service deployed inside and out to create a community hub for all seasons. Talk about vision.

The Living Library is just one part of what earned the Pine River Library the 2014 Best Small Library in America Award—read all about the library in “Building a Living Library.” It is a great example of the models that have emerged over the years as epitomized by these award winners: the dynamism of our smallest public libraries.

First presented ten years ago, the award was established by LJ in a thoughtful partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help to address an awareness gap about the excellent service being delivered every day by libraries that serve populations under 25,000 in rural or small community settings. It was a way to get at the leadership and innovation we at LJ had seen in our lives and work that were all too rarely surfaced in the national dialog, though the bulk of libraries do serve these smaller populations.

In discovering and describing these libraries, we hoped to help build the capacity of the winners. The award and coverage would be a local advocacy tool with stakeholders; the unfettered award money would help achieve a goal within limited budgets; and professional development support would bolster a connection between the leaders of these libraries and the profession at large. Part of the award includes membership and travel to the next scheduled Public Library Association (PLA) conference, and we have had the pleasure of gathering to celebrate at that meeting; the winning director has usually presented on best practices at the annual Association for Rural & Small Libraries meeting.

In supporting the winning libraries, the award also aims to lift all boats, so to speak, by giving all librarians access to the work of these exemplars to learn from as they evolve their own library services. What we have learned and shared so far, from the winners and the finalists, has been impressive, with ideas to mine for any library.

From the first winner, in the remote Alaskan town of Haines, to this year’s in Pine River, the Best Small Libraries are vital, thriving institutions. (Find coverage of all of them to date at At their best, our smallest libraries provide a vast array of programs and potent collections, keep their patrons current on technology, and set a high bar with thoughtful leadership, marketing prowess, and responsiveness.

They are community hubs and hives of activity, and they are deeply integrated into their locales, providing a sense of place and something even more intimate, according to judge (and director of last year’s winner) Mary Beth Stenger. “I know bigger libraries that have to share resources with us little guys often feel we have no value; after all, they have the staff and resources to beat us in programming, materials, and assistance,” she wrote regarding 2014 finalist Bertha Voyer Memorial Library in Honey Grove, TX. “[B]ut what many large library directors do not understand is that the small library in the heart of a small community provides something that a larger facility outside the area can never provide—we provide a home.”

But don’t just take our word for it; look for yourself and see that our small libraries are indeed alive and well and helping their patrons thrive.


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

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller ( is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.