February 16, 2018

Best Small Library in America 2007: Grand County Public Library, UT-Moab's Living Room

Grand County Public Library, UT

By John N. Berry III — Library Journal, 02/01/2007

When the people of Moab, UT, were asked what they wanted for their new library, they said they wanted it to be “the town’s living room.” At first, Director Eve Tallman was put off by the idea. “It gave me the heebie-jeebies,” she says, but quickly admits, “It turned out to be a great way to think about it.” The new library and its tiny branch in Castle Valley were built to that citizen specification. It is part of a compelling vision for library service that has made the Grand County Public Library (GCPL) the 2007 Best Small Library in America, an award sponsored by Library Journal and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Some 4800 of the county’s 8,826 people live in Moab and the rest in the adjacent Spanish Valley and environs. The locals are “a sizable group of ‘imports’ who dodged the rat race and settled with highly developed reading preferences and lofty expectations for their public library,” as Tallman puts it. She describes them as descendants of Mormon pioneers, ranchers and roughnecks, Utes, Navajos, and many folks with recent and ancient Latino roots. Grand County is the size of Delaware and Rhode Island together, with only 2.4 of these folks per square mile. “Surrounded by the rugged wilds of Arches and Canyonlands national parks,” Tallman writes, “Moab draws a million international visitors each year who experience the scenery from the saddles of mountain bikes, dangling from climbing ropes on the Wingate towers, riding the slickrock trails in jeeps, or floating in rafts on the Colorado River.”

A building of the people

A whopping 71 percent of those who voted in February 2004 passed a bond issue to build the new library, which opened in June 2006. They had to mush through a snowstorm and make their way to the voting booth to cast a ballot upon which the library bond was the only item. It is a testimonial to their belief in the need for a library that some 2100 of these normally “tax-resistant” voters agreed to spend the $2.5 million it took to create that living room building.

The election was carefully thought out. One board member was an experienced political operative, an expert at strategy. To be the only item on a February ballot was part of the plan. “You had to really want a new library to come out and vote,” Tallman explains. The board had been working to get a new building for a long time. It hired Tallman in 2001 to get it done. The library stays in close touch with those voters and users, both through their representation on the board and through regular surveys using Zoomerang on the library web site.

Green responsibility

In such a setting, and for people who chose to live in it, it was clear that the library would have to be “built green” and would have to do its duty by the environment. The new library shares the geothermal HVAC system with the renovated city hall next door, has low-emittance (Low-E) glass windows, 18″-thick walls, and large roof overhangs to ward off the desert summer’s blast. The carpeting is composed of recycled fiber, the walls use recycled brick, and regionally native landscaping surrounds the building. The library is so attuned to its environmental responsibility that it hosted a popular discussion series on “voluntary simplicity” and followed that by launching a series on “sustainable living.”

Technology to share

It isn’t surprising that the locals were unwilling to share the library and its computers when it had only a few machines for public use. After all, that was the beginning of computer connections for the GCPL, the county, locals, vacationers, and especially kids. Many people in Moab just couldn’t afford their own machines, and, in those days, when the tourist season arrived, the locals could never get near one. So the board decided not to let visitors on the six public access computers that were in place when Tallman was hired. People would yell at the staff about it in six languages. On a trip to Chile, Tallman happened to tell a man she met that she was from Moab. “Moab! That’s the place where you can’t use the computers,” he barked at her. Tallman responded with a workaround: a single terminal for nonresidents funded by Friends of the Library donations, so she could tell the board that “no tax dollars were used to provide the little tourist terminal we finally set up.”

Actually, many locals didn’t want the tourists in the library at all. It was seen as a place where local people could escape from the ubiquitous outsiders, another way to re­inforce GCPL as the town’s living room. After four more computers came online, via Gates funding, and Tallman got federal Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grants that totaled $37,700 to buy and install some 50 computers, things loosened up. The GCPL computers are top of the line, fast, and well connected. Moab folks and tourists stop by GCPL daily to make use of them. Three computers just inside the front entrance service quick email needs and web searches for anyone on the go.

There are six “teen machines,” media workstations at which to download music, edit videos, burn CDs, and manage photographs; toddler computers; kids-only PCs; adult research machines; and one computer equipped with microfilm, slide, and flatbed scanners. An LSTA grant funded a GCPL assistive technology computer where a patron with limited mobility can write letters, surf the web, send email, and do much more. The library plans to add a laptop for caregivers to use as they spend time in the kids room so they won’t tie up the children’s computers.

Another grant, from Gates, sent two library staff to the Internet Librarian conference from which they came back to launch classes on social networking sites, customized search engines, and other ways to stay abreast of modern technology and introduce Library 2.0 to Grand County. A state grant gave the library a “laptop lab” for teaching folks about email, online databases, browsers, Excel, digital photos management, and other digital library resources.

Cost-conscious computing

For about $60, the library uses Cafezee software to manage patron sessions on all workstations. A restaurant paging system registers patrons queuing up for the computers. They receive a “coaster” that lights up when it is their turn, allowing them to roam and browse the stacks and reading room. Tallman picked the idea up at a recent Public Library Association (PLA) conference, and teens particularly like it.

The library went wireless a few years ago for about $300. In collaboration with two other libraries, an LSTA grant will pay to digitize historic community newspapers. GCPL uses a Follett system originally designed for school libraries. The system cost only $14,000 four years ago. “It is not superslick,” Tallman admits, “but it works fine for us.”

The Utah State Library Division helps with e-audiobooks, online databases from the statewide public Pioneer resource, interlibrary loan programs, and staff support and grant ­opportunities.

Youth come first

The largest user group at GCPL is the young, and a great deal is aimed at serving them in the new library. A local quilting guild collaborated with the staff to build a seasonal story tree with hundreds of quilted leaves for each story. The tree converts to a puppet theater, and a local 4-H group meets at GCPL to learn about storytelling and puppetry. Some 20 percent of Moab’s children live below the poverty line, so latchkey kids abound. Toddler times, story times (especially those in Spanish), and evening events are always packed.

Junior high kids especially like the computer gaming club and chess matches. The summer reading group for teens continued into the school year this fall. Many of the young have no other access to computers than the machines at GCPL, with its fast Internet service, scanners, and CD burners.

Budgeting in the desert

The 2007 GCPL budget will come in at $437,000, or about $49 per capita, but Tallman is quick to point our that only about $44 per capita comes from taxes. Of that, only about eight percent ($35,700) goes for materials. In the spirit of Moab, the budget is augmented by generous donations of books and other materials that add nearly $1200 a month to the materials collection.

The cornerstone of the GCPL Adventure Library (AL) is a large donation of mountaineering books, journals, maps, guidebooks, and travelogs from Yvon Chouinard, an American climber who pioneered routes in Yosemite and Patagonia—and founded the Patagonia clothing company. Chouinard gave GCPL the vast collection after he met Tallman at the wedding of some climbers and found out she was a librarian. Moab is a destination for climbers from around the world. These materials, still getting organized, puts GCPL on the map for a huge recreation constituency.

Tallman is an expert at grant proposal writing, and that skill has not only helped add to GCPL funding but has also provided opportunities for other local activities. A growing stream of positive feedback has developed about GCPL’s cooperating collection with the Foundation Center in New York. There are several cooperating collections from the center worldwide. They bring together information from all the grantmakers to help people from local nonprofits write proposals. Tallman conducts many workshops and constantly acquires grant-writing books and materials for GCPL. Her background as an academic instruction librarian means teaching folks how to use the Foundation Center database, and leading other workshops on writing grants is perhaps more natural for her than for most librarians in small libraries.

Climbing library use

In a county where the total population is only 8,826, 100 new library cards are issued each month. Circulation has increased from 7700 items a month in 2000 to 19,500 in 2006, and visits to the library grew from 6000 to 10,000 a month in the same period. Computer use rose from some 3000 uses a month in the old building to 5000 in the new GCPL. The library has become good enough to attract lots of folks from outside the county, who are willing to pay the $30 nonresident fee that helps convince the council of the library’s value.

A full-time equivalent staff of eight, two of whom are professionals, is paid out of that same small budget, along with all the utilities. In the same spirit that moves library patrons to augment the book collection, about 14 regular volunteers work regular shifts. A tiny notice in the local advertising paper recruits them, and the library staff train them. They do work that doesn’t involve patron use, a policy developed to protect patron confidentiality in a small town. “It helps us a lot,” says Tallman.

One volunteer put her feelings about GCPL this way: “I love the friendliness of the staff and the welcoming atmosphere of our library. I’m wowed at the aesthetics and state of the art in design, furnishings, equipment, and technology available to us now. I think we are so lucky to have this beautiful facility in Moab, and I’m very proud to be part of a community that supports our library as a huge priority.”

Other compensations

It is no wonder then, as Tallman points out, that there must be other compensations, like the location, to make up for low salaries. Hers just topped $40,000, the average beginning salary for new library professionals across the United States. (The GCPL board has voted twice to raise her salary, but the county council didn’t approve the increase.)

Tallman didn’t apply for the director’s job at GCPL when it was first offered, but she had discussed it with the county administrator and even helped write the job ads. “I wanted them to be able to attract someone good,” Tallman says. She told the administrator and the board that their low salary would not bring top people. “If you advertise that you can mountain bike and climb rocks, you might find somebody good,” Tallman said. She didn’t want to be a candidate.

“Then 9/11 happened, and I really changed my attitude toward work,” Tallman says. “I knew small-town government could be a pain in the neck, but I took the job.”

To illustrate the drawbacks and gratifications, Tallman tells about a member of the county council at the time. “Only deadbeats use the library,” he told Tallman. It took lots of convincing, but now he and his wife have become library fans. The job isn’t over yet. A few council members still think the library is too costly. “Why buy 50 books when 50 people can read one book?” asks one. Another says he gets everything he needs to know off the Internet.

Possibly the greatest asset of GCPL is Tallman herself. In addition to all her work to develop the library, she is a regular on the Pacifica radio station in Moab. Her broadcast commentaries on the USA PATRIOT Act are widely quoted. There is a joke that Moab should secede from Utah to become part of Colorado because it is much more liberal than the rest of the state. Tallman sees the radio station as a “little corner of democracy” and her radio shows as a way to build GCPL’s image as a “cornerstone of democracy.”

What is going on at GCPL has created interest among many young people in going to library school. Tallman thinks their interest in the profession is an important testament to the creation of the new GCPL.

So, right there in rural Utah, the people said they want a good library, “the town’s living room,” and they voted to cough up the tax money to build it. They hired Eve Tallman to execute their vision, and they put an exceptional board chaired by Russ von Koch in place to support her. Then they pitched in with money, books, and even their own time to buttress that great library and its services. The result is, of course, the 2007 Best Small Library in America.




The Grand County Public Library was in excellent company among the over 50 libraries nominated for the third annual Best Small Library in America award. From tiny start-ups serving remote towns to those pushing the 25,000 pop-served limit, these libraries indicate the high standards and innovative service in libraries across the United States. Among the nominees, several feature the services, programs, tech savvy, and commitment to community that signify the Best Small Library in America:

Howe Library Hanover, NH
Marlene McGonigle, Director

Oneida Public Library NY
Carolyn Gerakopoulos, Director

Westbank Community Library Austin, TX
Beth Fox, Director


LJ thanks the following library professionals who volunteered their valuable time to help select this year’s winner:

Deborah Jacobs City Librarian, Seattle Public Library, LJ Librarian of the Year 1994

Herb Landau Director, Milanof-Schock Library, Mt. Joy, PA, LJ Best Small Library in America 2006

Emily Parker Program Officer, U.S. Libraries, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Bernard Vavrek Director, Center for the Study of Rural Librarianship and Professor of Library Science, Clarion University of Pennsylvania

Dan Walters Director, Las Vegas–Clark County Library District, NV (LJ 2003 Library of the Year); Public Library Association past president

The panel also includes LJ staff: John N. Berry III, Lynn Blumenstein, Francine Fialkoff, Rebecca Miller, Norman Oder, & Michael Rogers


LJ‘s annual award, cosponsored 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 will receive a $15,000 cash award from the Gates Foundation, conference costs for two library representatives to attend the 2008 Public Library Association (PLA) meeting in Minneapolis, a gala reception at PLA, and more. For guidelines for the 2008 award, please contact Rebecca Miller at miller@reedbusiness.com; 646-746-6725; or go to www.libraryjournal.com and click on About Us.

Author Information
John N. Berry III is Editor-at-Large, LJ