Transforming a Hodgepodge

Posted Monday, September 27, 2010 - 11:03
How one community transformed donation-based collections run by volunteers into a modern library system

In Stevens County, Washington, public libraries are a fairly new concept. Residents voted to form a library district in 1996, transforming a hodgepodge of donation-based collections run by volunteers into a modern system. Over the past decade library staff have worked hard—not only at providing service but also on shaping perceptions of what exactly a library can be.

Their message has a great distance to travel. The county is 2,500 square miles, roughly the size of Delaware; 42,000 people live scattered across unincorporated areas and small towns, the largest of which is home to 5,000.

The county’s nine libraries are administered by Amanda McKeraghan. This job is a passion of hers. Not only did she grow up in rural America, but she earned a master's degree in anthropology with a focus on rural community development. “The best way to improve a rural community is through the library,” McKeraghan shared. “These areas lack a multitude of services and so the library has the potential to be whatever the people need it to be.”

McKeraghan’s vision is one of interaction. “We can’t just have passive buildings waiting for people to come to us.” Instead, the managers and staff of Stevens County Libraries are involved with organizations including the Rotary Club, Kiwanis, and the Chamber of Commerce. “Having the library at the table enables us not only to promote our services, but to understand local issues.” By participating in these local groups, the library is able to offer assistance with grant writing, preservation projects, and school events. Providing help isn’t limited to the reference desk, but extends far beyond it.

Take, for example, when a skateboard park opened across from one of the libraries. The staff grew concerned by injuries and worked with a nonprofit group to help provide helmets for all the kids.

Challenges

One of the biggest challenges facing Stevens County is web access. Broadband is limited, and most people rely on dial-up. The libraries, therefore, serve as free wireless hotspots. Last year they launched a subscription to digital content provider OverDrive. “It’s expensive, but it addresses so many needs,” McKeraghan maintained. “Our patrons typically drive long distances every day, so providing them with downloadable music, e-books, and audio books has been extremely valuable and well received.”

Space is another key challenge. “There are not many office parks, commercial locations, or even large rooms available, so we have to be creative with locations.” One of the libraries is located in a general store and another is in a former jail. McKeraghan is moving toward establishing “fusion centers” that unite the library with other service agencies, including economic development, energy assistance, legal assistance, and the unemployment office. By joining forces, these offices can save money on space while combining their technology and expertise to ultimately benefit more people.

Looking ahead

In November, the citizens of Stevens County will vote on a tax increase to support the library. “This community pools their money to pay for almost everything,” McKeraghan explained. “We need an increase to maintain our current level of service.” She is hoping that the past decade of library experiences have been so positive that the idea of reducing services would be unthinkable.

To ensure they are on the right track, the libraries conducted a survey over the summer. They made an effort to hear from frequent users as well as those who never visit the libraries. Books were the most valued asset, while a “well-trained staff” was number two, above web access and numerous other services. This is insightful. While professionally there is much emphasis on technology these days, it is important to remember that people are one of the most important attributes of libraries.

Brian Mathews is a librarian at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of Marketing Today’s Academic Library (ALA Editions, 2009). This column spotlights leadership strategies that produce inspirational libraries.

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