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Future is now at public library: Teton County paves the way with innovation and excellence
JACKSON HOLE, WYO - “Make thy books thy companions. Let thy cases and shelves be thy pleasure grounds and gardens.” — Judah ibn Tibbon
My interest in the library began in the fashion of so many common love stories: I loathed the thought of her. I could not for the life of me think of any good reason why a sane person would want to go to a library or spend any amount of time there. Maybe if one was trapped there by a global climate shift that plunged the world into an overnight Ice Age and you had an Emmy Rossum or Jake Gyllenhaal to hang out with and a ready supply of fat, boring textbooks to burn for heat. Maybe.
My arguments against libraries were sound. I can afford a newspaper. I don’t need to wrestle with some giant broadsword of a security stick to see which Yankee went oh-for-four with three strikeouts a week ago. It’s like toting around that boat anchor on a keychain gas stations give you so you won’t walk off with their only key to the ladies room.
And books? Once Amazon.com launched and offered the world’s library at my doorstep in three business days, my library card got shuffled down to the last slot in my wallet behind the credit cards, Albies Preferred Card, and a handy 2009 calendar card I got from the bank that I still keep for the cool wildlife portrait on the back.
My few experiences with public libraries had been arduous at best. For those under 30, our Google of the day was the Dewey Decimal System – a mind-numbing array of numbers and dots invented by a guy named Melvil and designed to make damn sure Americans fell woefully behind other advanced nations in nearly every educational discipline.
It had one thing in common with today’s handy Internet research tool: meandering focus. You began your search for information with a narrow scope like “engineering methods of the cantilever bridge” and before long you had no reasonable explanation for why you were reading a biography of Dr. Seuss.
And don’t even get me started on the microfilm reader. This museum relic looks like it belongs in NASA’s space center in Houston circa 1962 with buzz cut geeks in Buddy Holly glasses all huddled in front of it monitoring John Glenn’s vital signs.
And the library was for losers and loners, in my mind. Just try going with a friend and see how long before you’re “shushed” by a staid maid of a librarian whose claim to fame is she can knock out 110 words-a-minute on a Selectric.
No, my case was airtight.
Rediscovery: the 21st century library
A few months ago I was invited to get together with a friend. We had been working on a project. He suggested one of the meeting spaces at the library. I winced. But I went.
I was astounded. The newly reconstructed library was nothing like I remembered public libraries. I was greeted by a massive piece of artwork, “Filament Mind,” stretched across a roomy foyer. People lounged casually at various tables – reading, chatting, and sipping coffee outside a micro-bookstore called the Book Nook that rang up another two-dollar sale every so often. It was Starbucks-meets-Borders without the whole depressing market volatility thing.
Two dozen kids pushed past me on their way to the new teen and children’s wing. It seemed like they couldn’t wait to get in there. They plopped down in chairs or on the floor and emptied their school backpacks of books, crayons, toys, and iPods.
All around me I could feel vibrancy, a palpable cloudsource of intellectual energy waiting to be tapped into.
On my way to the meeting room, I had a strong sensation I was still outdoors. Natural light poured in from ample windows along every wall. Trees, where drab construction pillars should be, shot up out of the floor and disappeared into the high ceiling. Homey-looking hanging lanterns replaced the institutionalized fluorescent lighting common to so many municipal buildings. Comfy couches framed a fireplace in one corner and art deco colors burst forth from everywhere. This was SoHo with books.
“When we started the design process for the expanded library, we held a series of community forums to ask for input about what people wanted in their library,” library director Deb Adams says. “Almost everyone mentioned that they wanted more light and connection to the outdoors.
“In the main wing, we intentionally put all the active functions, like the front desk and busy computer center, near the door. Then as you head towards the back of the library, there are more quiet spaces for study tables and the fabulous reading room with its cozy fireplace and couches. We also intentionally moved all the shelving for the books away from the windows and added windows so that the overall effect is to have more spaces where people can pull a chair up to a window and experience natural light.”
Adams and staff realize today’s library has to remain relevant in a shifting culture. Study spaces and meeting places are continually in demand and treasured by the Jackson Hole community. The new Teton County Library is equipped with several multimedia-enhanced meeting rooms and an all-new expanded auditorium.
“We heard from the public that more meeting spaces were wanted,” Adams says. “And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our incredible new Ordway Auditorium. We can now comfortably seat 125 people for programs. And I do mean comfortably. (We finally got better chairs!) The space has a state-of-the-art AV system thanks to generous funding from the Foundation.”
Huff Memorial: Same as it ever was
What the Teton County Library has done to keep up with the times is rewind time. Libraries were once the Internet incarnate, a place where fine minds went to be enlightened and informed. Before cyberspace, the body had to be included physically in any travel of the mind and a living being often ended up inside a brick-and-mortar space known as a public library. In the before time, these libraries were little more than communal living rooms with a bitchin’ book collection.
The Teton County Library began this way – a need realized into a place. That place was originally a room in the St. John’s House (the current site of St. John’s Episcopal Church). It opened to the public in May 1915, the year the town was incorporated. In 1938, the official county library, known as the Huff Memorial Library, opened its doors in the north room of the American Legion Hall, making this year the library’s 75th anniversary.
The first volumes were donated by various dude ranches like the White Grass Ranch and Three Rivers Ranch, as well as from wealthy residents like Elizabeth Hayden and Elena B. Hunt. Juliane Tanner, a former South Park teacher and one-time county clerk, was hired as the first librarian.
What the early county library provided for the community then is exactly what Adams envisions the modern day library can and should be for Jackson Hole today. And the need is as present as it ever was.
“What we see every day is that people value the library as a gathering place, a community center to connect to other people and to ideas,” Adams says. “They see it as a place to improve their lives, through classes or study or literacy or cultural programs. In a world where we are increasingly isolated by technology, people value the places where they have human contact and interaction. They see us as their living room, their home away from home, whether it’s an escape from work or a place to do work. And for kids, it’s a place to be after school or a place to do school.”
The county library operates on an allotted portion of taxpayer money called a mill levy. Basic core needs like materials collection, staff salaries and maintenance are made possible by this funding source. Volunteers also are crucial to the local library. Numbering in the hundreds, the volunteer staff is referred to as Friends of the Library. President John Hebberger directs members’ efforts in a wide range of duties including staffing the Book Nook, restocking bookshelves and assisting at various library events.
What makes Teton County Library truly extraordinary is icing-on-the-cake programs, resources and services funded by the Library Foundation, a nonprofit extension organization of the library established in 1982.
“If the county supports the library, the Foundation brings the ‘margin of excellence,’” the Foundation’s associate director Pauline Towers-Dykeman says. “It’s a big part of the Library Foundation’s job to help people realize that, yes, thanks to tax dollars and the vision of our county commissioners, we have a great cake; but it’s only because of donations small and large from everyone who understands what the library would be like without author visits and summer reading and public access computers and book clubs and much more that we have the beautifully frosted, ideal kind of cake nearly all of us crave.”
Towers-Dykeman added that the Foundation’s support is also at the heart of the library’s ability to remain nimble in adapting to changing technologies and societal demand. The successful Page-to-the-Podium series, computer center, Latino outreach programs, and recent Mountain Story Festival are examples of the extracurricular efforts that “help make our library world-class,” according to Towers-Dykeman.
Value-added features of the library include the Book Nook. Ten years ago, heck, ten minutes ago for some libraries, the thought of selling the inventory was unheard of. With many public libraries faced with the prospect of costly storage of underutilized volumes, some, like the Teton County Library see no reason why they shouldn’t share their collection with the community and generate a little revenue at the same time.
“We are excited about the new Book Nook,” Debbie Webb says. She runs the store with John Held. “Now folks can grab a cup of coffee and shop for books year-round. Our volunteers sort through approximately 50,000 books each year, returning almost 20,000 titles to the community at bargain prices.”
Webb said she was aware of the popularity of the semi-annual sale, and the library will hold another one the weekend of August 17.
TLC at TCL
At the essence of any library is its collection, and the polestar of the building is the librarian – an “au courant” curator of information skilled at navigating a library’s holdings with discretionary verism. The Teton County Library employs five of these information interface superheroes.
“These folks are true experts when it comes to figuring out how to find good answers to questions. They are experienced at research and helping patrons navigate the vast world of resources out there,” Adams says. “Anyone can search. Librarians can help you find answers from reputable sources. And good research skills transcend the medium, whether it’s print or database or the Internet.”
Christy Shannon Smirl manages the library’s collection. What the library puts on the shelves and takes off the shelves is her call, with some help. “There are 10 well-trained staff members who select books, audio-visual materials and digital media for various subject areas and age levels in the library. The aim is to reflect the needs and interests of our diverse community,” she says.
While “Fahrenheit 451” scenarios are largely in the past, censorship issues still dog public libraries. Smirl said the library prefers the high road on touchy matters.
“The charge of providing a balance of materials for the entire community does mean the inclusion of perspectives and subject matter that not everyone expects, or wants, to see on the library shelves,” Smirl says. “It is our role to provide and protect access to whatever information anyone in the community is seeking. We stay away from the role of judging what someone should or should not be reading or looking at.”
The county library has kept pace with the growing demand for digital selections. The library began offering eBooks in September 2011 and eAudiobooks in August 2012. The publishing industry continues to be in flux over exactly how to offer digital material to libraries and still make a profit and pay authors. For the Teton County Library, like many public libraries slowly learning the ropes in this market, it’s baby steps with eBook offerings at this point.
The library also has recently hired a communications manager. The newly created position went to Julia Hysell, a four-year veteran of the library. She expects to be heavily involved in the strategic planning of activities in the yearlong celebration of the library’s 75th anniversary. She will also take over all social media outreach and marketing efforts.
With voter-approved 2010 SPET money, the library doubled its size and made major strides toward LEED certification of their entire facility. The additional space has increased payroll and maintenance costs significantly but Adams is confident the ever-increasing usage will justify the community’s investment. Adams says overall usage has been steadily increasing over the past decade with average daily attendance hovering at around 1,000 patrons, and the number of items checked out monthly is about 30,000 and climbing.
“We do constantly think about what services we would add or improve when we have a little more room in our budget,” Adams says. “One of the most consistent requests we get from patrons is for more open hours for the library. We would love to be able to be open on Friday evenings till 8 like our other weekdays. More hours on Sundays would be a close second since it is one of our highest per-hour traffic days of the week.”