February 16, 2018

Seize the Moment: Lessons from Belgrade on expanding influence | Editorial

 I knew I had met a creative force when I called Gale Bacon to let her know that the Belgrade Community Library, MT, had been named LJ’s 2015 Best Small Library in America, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She was enthusiastic but cool-headed on the phone, immediately cooking away on ideas for how to leverage the award. After meeting her at a celebration at the library in February, I am in awe of this director’s savvy and dedication to expanding support for her library. She took what anyone would consider a success story for Belgrade and turned it into a success story for the whole state—while keeping the people of Belgrade front and center.

The library was humming with final preparations when I arrived for the party. A new sign outside had just been moored in place, a refreshing coat of paint had dried just in time, and signs touting the award bannered the entrance. There were also little touches: special T-shirts made for the staff (including Ilene Casey, one of Bacon’s predecessors, now retired), trustees, and foundation members. At every public access computer (including the new AWE stations for kids purchased with the award monies) were my new all-time favorite library swag: mouse pads printed with the award’s cover of LJ.

The library filled with kids and families, librarians from across Montana, and community leadership. The program reflected Bacon’s care, enthusiasm, and drive to make the moment matter. Noting that the library was first dreamed of in 1932 and opened in a log cabin in 1935, Bacon connected the accomplishment of winning the award directly to the effort of the people of Belgrade.

“The ‘Belgrade Community Library’ was wisely named by generations before us because they knew that the dream would come true only if the community saw the vision together and they not only built but they continued to support their local library,” said Bacon. “You have donated your time and your talent and your funds and your skill to make this library what it has become. This is your award, because you value one of America’s great achievements, the desire to provide everyone the access to literacy and information no matter what their academic status or background. So tonight we join together to celebrate us.”

Among the other speakers were Belgrade mayor Russell Nelson, Montana State University Libraries’ Brian Rossmann, Montana state librarian Jennie Stapp, myself, and the Gates Foundation’s Ralene Simmons, who together painted a robust picture of the library in the life of Belgrade and beyond. Capping the evening’s remarks, Gov. Steve Bullock elaborated on these themes, conveying an enthusiasm for and intimacy with the contribution libraries make.

Congratulating Bacon, the board, and the staff, Bullock said, “Indeed, this is not just about those three actors, but it’s also about the community, the community that supports it. What a beautiful building, but that’s not what makes an institution like this. It’s the community and everybody coming together to provide that support.”

“With smartphones, Facebook, tweets, Instagrams, Snapchats, we live in a world where a child can certainly download a book with a few taps on a tablet, they can seemingly find whatever they want on Google,” Bullock said. “It…presents significant challenges to institutions like libraries to ensure that they are not only highlighting their continuing value…but also innovating with new technology to serve the residents of the communities that much better.

“For generations…libraries have been the cornerstones of communities across Montana…. They’ve been partners for schools and families, to support academic and social achievement.” There was more, and he was funny as well, but the point is that he gets it, and—because Belgrade’s smart library leader engaged with him—now we all know it, too.

When we at LJ embark on an award program, we hope the nominees, finalists, and winners will use the process to enrich their library, engage staff and other stakeholders in the excellence of their work, use the self-examination required to explore the barriers to even greater accomplishments, and use winning—or losing—as a tool to strengthen community support and build political capital.

We hope the winners and finalists of the 2015 LibraryAware Community Award—congratulations!—will do that as well. I offer Belgrade as a model of how an award can expand a community’s sense of itself—and the library’s relevance there and beyond.


This article was published in Library Journal's April 1, 2015 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller (miller@mediasourceinc.com) is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.