June 18, 2018

Best Small Library in America 2008: Chelsea District Library-A Michigan Model

By John N. Berry III — Library Journal, 02/01/2008

The aggressively responsive staff of the Chelsea District Library (CDL), MI, has created a model for small libraries all over America. There, careful research, proactive partnering, and innovative planning have built a varied suite of services and programs that ultimately won the library strong community support and the help and work of hundreds of local volunteers.

A well-integrated team of librarians and library workers use their autonomy and freedom to be creative and open in their effective delivery of library service. As a result, victories in fundraising and elections have garnered the money to modernize and double the size of the historic building, add to the staff, and serve the whole community. To facilitate more user-friendly service, CDL has installed the newest technologies. This rare combination of teamwork, autonomy, openness to experimentation, and community support has nourished a host of partnerships and helped CDL claim recognition as the 2008 Best Small Library in America, an award sponsored by LJ and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In 1998, the voters of the Village of Chelsea (now city) and Dexter, Lima, Lyndon, and Sylvan townships formed CDL as a district library and approved the millage that brings per capita operating funds of $92.44 for each of the 14,400 citizens of the district. Chelsea itself is small, with fewer than 5000 people, and long before the formation of CDL the library was housed in the historic McKune home. In fact, it is still called the McKune Memorial Library by locals, many of the staff, and on its own web site, but Google will get you there by either name.

Indicators of success

The award judges were moved by the spirit and high morale of the staff and the way they have operated as a team. The way they use their renovated historic facility is equally impressive.

“They have great teen services; great use of technology; excellent, replicable programs. They conducted phenomenal surveying, before and after an election, to see what the community wanted, and then responded and adapted and surveyed again to affirm that they were really being responsive,” wrote judge Deborah Jacobs, Seattle’s city librarian and former LJ Librarian of the Year.

“They have a lot of volunteers! They seem to have a lot of money, and a lot of circulation and staff!” noted judge Eve Tallman, who now directs the Mesa County Library in Grand Junction, CO, and was director of the Grand County Public Library in Moab, UT, when it won this award last year. “This is not a ‘luxury’ thing that makes it easier for them to be successful; it is a strong indicator of their success.”

Programs that travel

Bill Harmer, head of adult services at CDL for about two years, is proud of his partnership with the Chelsea Senior Center run by Tina Patterson, who called the relationship a “natural fit” in her letter endorsing CDL for the award.

“About 20 percent of our people are seniors, so my first assignment was to develop programs for them,” says Harmer, who obviously sees himself as “impresario” for CDL. He decided to take programs to the center, and they have blossomed. First, it was book and movie discussions on contemporary issues. Now monthly luncheons focus on special themes. Near Veterans Day, a local veteran of World War II, age 92, who recently wrote and published a story of his experience was featured. Veterans got in free.

Then Harmer got CDL to develop oral history projects. Three vets discussed their World War II experience for a DVD in the CDL collection. Together, the Senior Center and CDL won a $6000 grant for an oral history project on the two dozen one-room school houses that once existed in the area. CDL will film the testimony of people who went to these schools and has already filmed a luncheon with many of them.

Harmer has also brought video gaming to CDL seniors. They absolutely love the Nintendo Wii equipment, which is very easy to set up and use. Wii bowling leagues are being formed because seniors can handle the action if they don’t have to pick up a 16-pound ball. Harmer now plans to take the games to the many other retirement communities.

With an assist from poet and professor M.L. Liebler (Wayne State University), who knew literary figures Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, CDL developed “The Music of Words.” Professor “Louie,” who performed with The Band, came to CDL for the program. Harmer also developed the Winter Music series, and, again with Liebler’s help, got poet and musician Ed Sanders of Fugs fame to perform. The now well-known Rock and Roll Library Tour, also Harmer’s idea, features Detroit’s the High Strung band. It was featured on National Public Radio’s This American Life and expanded to a national tour from CDL. The third tour will take place this year.

“We truly believe you have to make it fun and make sure programs benefit both partners,” says Harmer, who previously served teens in two Michigan libraries.

Kids, dogs, and reading

“Libraries are really big on programs for preschoolers and even babies…. But as soon as [children] get to school, we seem to forget about [them] for a while. I decided to target kids age six to 11. They have a lot of energy and a lot of interest,” says Karen Persello, head of youth and teen services at CDL. Hers is typical of the inventiveness and energy that abound at the library. Since her audience is too old for story time, Persello created “The 6–11 Club” as a magnet for this age group, with crafts and all kinds of activities. One club endeavor focused on ancient Egypt, with the kids building a pyramid to display in the library and going on a “dig” to find pottery shards planted by CDL. The youngsters had to reassemble the pieces, like an archaeologist would; they also learned to write their names in hieroglyphics. The club is supported by the CDL Friends group, as are many other CDL programs, and participants get a special T-shirt that says “6-11 Club.”

Persello thinks CDL might be the first library in the state to offer the R.E.A.D.® (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) program developed by Intermountain Therapy Animals in Utah. Dogs trained as therapy dogs for hospital visits get additional training to sit and listen while a child reads to them. Many kids sign up; most are beginning readers. Just the trainer, the dog, and the child are present, but parents can watch from outside the room. Persello says the kids really improve their reading skills.

As a former Ann Arbor school librarian, Persello is delighted that CDL just hired another youth services librarian for the teen area. The CDL librarians visit the schools and bring students back for library tours and programs based on their curriculum.

“We still get some of the traditional surprises. We find out at the last minute that 200 students are doing an assignment on ‘space,’ and we discover that all of the books are already gone,” says Persello. She tries to ward off such events by meeting with the school librarians and developing CDL’s special online registration form for homework assignments.

CDL also tries to help the schools by buying specific databases and having computers reserved for patrons age 11 and younger and 12 to 17 in the teen area.

According to Iva Corbett, assistant superintendent of schools in Chelsea, the school district’s “Parents as Teachers” program refers young parents to CDL “to begin to instill the lifelong love of learning from a very early age.”

The Books for Babies program delivers bags of free books and materials to local pediatricians’ offices to be distributed to parents to encourage them to read to their children, even newborns. The very popular program is funded by the CDL Friends.

Persello visits day-care centers, bringing books and participating in story time. The CDL Winter Family Reading program encourages families to read together during the cold months. The new CDL “Guys Read Book Club” is limited to boys age eight to 12 and “books that guys would be interested in.”

Not to be outdone, CDL’s Animanga Club is a six-week graphic novel academy, and then there is the much-copied and very popular prom dress exchange. CDL, Corbett says, “is a place to try new music, a place to buy used books, a place to watch art students create a mural, to learn to tame the technology demons.”

Never enough computers

CDL boasts 29 public access computers. “That’s enough for a start,” says Ron Andrews, head of technology at CDL. “I don’t think any public library is ever going to have enough. I find the attitude in most libraries is that if you add more computers, [users will] come.”

When Andrews came to CDL six years ago, there were only three computers. He immediately doubled that, and the 29 available now constitute another huge leap forward. Involved with planning the expanded building from the beginning, Andrews says staff input was key to the successful facility. Not only did they increase the number of workstations, they added the exceedingly popular wireless service. CDL has wireless within and without the building and provides electricity in both places so users don’t have to run down their laptop batteries while they access the network. In good weather, people sit outside and use their laptops in the beautiful green space in front of the building.

“It is all part of the design,” says Andrews. “We’ve made sure that every study table in the public computing area on the second floor is wired with both data and power.” People can bring a cable if they prefer a hardwire connection. Andrews believes technology is the main attraction for teens but says their interest transfers to other materials in time.

CDL has a state-of-the-art computer lab where introductory workshops on various computer programs are offered. High-speed Internet access (“highest speed in town”) allows levels of use and work that were not available previously in the district.

Andrews also created “Senior Computing: One-to-One” based on work he’d done at the Gates-supported Forsyth County Public Library in Winston-Salem, NC. Trained at the Gates headquarters in Seattle, Andrews discovered he likes working with seniors. He found they are more comfortable asking questions one on one or in small groups. CDL trained volunteer Computer Public User Supporters (CPUSes) from the ranks of the mostly retired folks who have worked with technology. They provide individual consultation. “The volunteers love it, the seniors love it, so I love it!” says Andrews.

Computers and roots

There is a tremendous interest in family history in the community. Elizabeth Goldman, a young librarian in Harmer’s Adult Services Department, has been at CDL for nearly three years, since she got her MLS at the University of Michigan. The library’s unique obituary collection—started by a retired lawyer as a hobby—had grown to 50,000 cards; some he wrote, some were clipped from local newspapers. Goldman inherited the project to digitize the collection. Some 50 volunteers are currently working to make the database online and freely accessible. It will include the full text of the obituaries, using open source software developed by Derek Engi, an LJ Mover & Shaker at the Library Network, a 60-library consortium to which CDL belongs. There are already approximately 15,500 entries in the database. The project has made the first three years of Goldman’s first library job exciting.

Another popular “offshoot” of Andrews’s technology work is Ancestry Aficionados. Volunteers—all experienced genealogists or people familiar with the databases in the field—help people work on their family histories, one to one.

Andrews and Persello also conduct workshops on homeschooling databases and resources for the large contingent of homeschoolers in the area.

At CDL, computer access is filtered, but those over 18 can choose unfiltered access. For users under 18, parents choose their kid’s access level.

Don’t force ’em

Head of circulation Linda Ballard attributes CDL’s success to an enlightened board and a string of enlightened directors, beginning with Metta Lansdale, who started the campaigns to expand the building and services.

Ballard, who is from Chelsea and has worked at CDL for 12 years, likes the well-educated patrons of CDL—children, teens, adults, and seniors. She suggests other libraries try CDL’s approach to self-checkout. CDL has both self-checkout machines and a staffed circulation desk on each floor. About 30 percent of the users go to the machines.

“We don’t want to force the issue. Some people love them, some hate them,” says Ballard. “You still need us at the front desk anyway. You can’t renew loans or pay fines at the machines.”

On the transformation at CDL, Ballard cites a community focus and teamwork that “make coming to work a pleasure every day.”

CDL is open 64 hours a week, including Sunday afternoons. Managers and staff alike are expected to do what everyone else does: work on the public service desks and work weekends. Ballard says that really helps morale.

“When I started here years ago, the pay was really terrible. There were no decent benefits. We’ve had directors who made it a priority that our wages came up and benefits were added,” says Ballard. “It has really improved. I’ve had coworkers stay for nine or ten years—one just retired after 14. You can’t keep people that long if you don’t pay them well.”

The newest CDL director, Joan Elmouchi, started in August. She’s directed libraries for 20 years, most recently in Garden City, MI. Another University of Michigan MLS, Elmouchi enjoys the mix of professionals, university people, seniors, and rural folks who use CDL. Elmouchi is proud of the CDL troop and their innovative programs.

“Some 300 or more people came to our first anniversary party, a pig roast conducted by Chef Chris, who then performed with his band, Blue Plate Special,” Elmouchi told LJ. “That is thinking out of the box! I love it, and I love working together with this staff. We’re very much a team!” And their library is very much the Best Small Library in America.


The Chelsea District Library had good company among the over 30 libraries nominated for the fourth annual Best Small Library in America award. From tiny start-ups serving remote towns to those pushing the 25,000 pop-served limit, these facilities illustrate 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:

Castleton Public Library, Upper Hudson Library System, Castleton-on-Hudson, NY, Darlene B. Miller, Director

Glen Carbon Centennial Library, Lewis & Clark Library System, IL, Anne M. Hughes, Director


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

Jaime Greene Program Officer, U.S. Libraries Program, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Susan Hildreth State Librarian of California; Public Library Association past president

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

Eve Tallman Director, Mesa County Public Library, CO; past director, Grand County Public Library, UT, LJ Best Small Library in America 2007

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

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


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 2009 award, please contact Rebecca Miller at miller@reedbusiness.com; 646-746-6725; or go to www.libraryjournal.com and click on Awards under Submit to LJ.

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