Naturita Community Library chosen as 2011 Library Journal Best Small Library in America

By John N. Berry III

Feb 1, 2011

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Everyone in town is proud of the Naturita Community Library (NCL). Thanks to tremendous local support and smart design, it is now housed in the largest straw bale library in America. The tiny, isolated town of Naturita, CO, population 665, according to the nomination, “has unpaved streets, a per capita income just over half the state average, and a resource-dependent economy that has cycled through booms and busts.” It sits on the western slope of the Rockies, across the Uncompahgre Plateau from the county seat in Montrose where the main branch of the Montrose Regional Library District (MRLD) is located. The library district, of which NCL is a part, serves some 40,000 Coloradans, but only 2100 live in the western part of Montrose County and get library service from NCL.

In that setting, two NCL full-time and two part-time staffers, living up to the mission of the district library, mount an enthusiastic effort to “educate, enlighten, enrich, and entertain” and “to foster interest in reading and lifelong learning.” Open 57 hours a week over six days, the library continually creates a vibrant and responsive community center for Naturita and the surrounding small towns. There patrons tap into technology, distance education, and broad programming aimed at all. Its innovation in these areas, and so much more, has won the library LJ’s 2011 Best Small Library in America Award, sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Small and in a slump
“Naturita is poor economically, but it is rich in community,” NCL coordinator Susan Rice says.

In Naturita, 15 percent of the residents don’t have telephone service in their homes, and fewer have Internet access. Yet the 2,243 square miles that comprise Montrose County make it bigger than Delaware (1,545) and Rhode Island (1,954).

Many people in the region grew up in the uranium industry. It declined, leaving behind the nation’s largest super­fund site, with millions of tons of yards of tailings [mine waste] and a disturbing legacy that has been recently explored in national stories in The New Yorker (“The Uranium Widows,” 9/13/10; abstract) and the New York Times (“A Battle Over Uranium Bodes Ill for U.S. Debate,” 12/26/10). People still suffer from the health effects of working in the mines.

A proposed new uranium mill near the town may help the local economy, but currently the main source of jobs for residents is the resort town of Telluride, about 70 miles away.

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SIZE DOESN’T MATTER LJ‘s Best Small Library in America 2011, Naturita Community Library (NCL), CO. Top: The library features largely in its sparsely populated setting on Main Street (State Hwy. 141). Second row, l.-r.: Inside, Mariaha, Brandy, and Natasha take advantage of the seven PCs; “HoneyDo Guy” Mike Childress “does” some sign hanging; the “Truth Wall” reveals the multiple layers of the lime-washed stucco and straw-bale construction. Bottom row, l.-r: Gary Brickey, with his well-behaved dog, Lexy, has accessed benefits via the library; library coordinator Susan Rice (seated, l.) with youth services staffers Dallas Holmes (standing) and Kelli Flint view a “Patron Appreciation Day” slide show; and circ clerk Betty Stephens reshelves near adult nonfiction and the now robust magazine section. Photos by Ben Knight, www.benknight.com

NCL’s programs
From its new building, which opened in August 2009, NCL places special emphasis on improving services, programs, and outreach to children. Naturita had few nonathletic after-school or summer activities for the young, most of whom attend the local elementary school. Now more than a third of the students are active in library programs. Parents who have to drive to jobs in maintenance and housekeeping in Telluride depend on the library to provide programs and safe supervision for kids until they get home.

In response, NCL offers four days of after-school programming every week. Programs include homework help, monthly teen nights, and a new Children’s Learning Garden tended by kids. In partnership with the Uncompahgre Board of Co­operative Services, NCL delivers weekly summer programs for preschool kids to second graders to build cognition, language, and social/emotional skills.

NCL’s seven public computers clock 200 uses a week; a recent grant from the Colorado State Library will add a dozen laptops to the array. Library staff help people conduct online searches for jobs and benefits like unemployment, since many have neither transportation nor home computers to get access to such services from offices in faraway Denver.

NCL has partnered with University Centers of the San Miguel—a nonprofit that provides access to secondary education—to offer library videoconferencing for a variety of classes. The goal is to increase access to higher education for the population. As of the 2000 census, the number of Naturita residents with bachelor’s degrees was 12, or three percent of adults 25 and older. This compares with 33 percent in the rest of Colorado.

NCL works closely with libraries in the schools in the nearby towns of Nucla and Paradox and with the Norwood Public Library in adjacent San Miguel County.

More than 450 new library cards have been issued by NCL since January 2009, and circulation has increased by 110 percent (150 percent for children). “We truly change lives in this community,” says Rice. “Through our young children, we are changing the culture here.”

Voting for a new library
The town and the area were never affluent, and for years NCL was the third smallest library in the state, housed in 500 square feet of a building shared with the town council and mayor.

In 2005, two years after the Colorado legislature passed a law authorizing the creation of a Library Capital Facility District, local voters soundly defeated a measure to raise taxes to support a new building for NCL.

The leaders of NCL, including Amy McBride, who had served as a trustee and president of the NCL board, drew up a new, better plan for the project the next year (2006). By that time, McBride had stepped down from the board and was appointed to the new post of development officer for MRLD.

The total project budget was about $1,250,000. The district itself contributed about $275,000 from its reserves.

“We went out to raise funds and soon realized nobody would give us money unless the public contributed. We asked the people of Naturita to impose a new property tax on themselves to pay for ten percent of the cost of the project,” says ­McBride. “This time, 80 percent of the voters approved the five-year tax. By then, we had an architect and had bought the land, so they knew we were serious.” An advertising campaign and a lot of local groundwork got the measure passed.

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YOUNG FOLKS BONANZA With children’s material circ up 150 percent since January 2009, kids find what they want at NCL, including an exuberant Rice (l.) reading to preschoolers, while Emily and Ethon Case (r.) look over their options. Ethon chooses a “Hank the Cowdog” title by John R. Erickson. Photos by Ben Knight, www.benknight.com

An array of funding
“Asking people to pay more property taxes for the library was really hard for us, since the economy was so much in decline,” says McBride.

Voters had doubled the mill rate for the library system in 2004, and that gave the system the financial stability to stretch to build the new library in Naturita.

The per capita library support in Naturita of $73.29 in 2010 is relatively high compared to the $40 per capita in the rest of the district. That, says McBride, is because the library system allocates more to the NCL budget based on need, programs, and services, not population.

“We subsidize the cost of the Naturita Library from the taxpayers in the other parts of the district because the population…can’t support that cost,” says McBride.

That funding is just one point of support. “We’ve been ­really successful in going out and getting grants from mostly private foundations to supplement what we’re doing in Naturita,” McBride adds. The library had just received word of a new grant from the Telluride Foundation for adult programs to teach information technology literacy. Another recent grant allowed NCL to offer simple computer classes for adults.

Over the years, NCL has received many grants from the Telluride Foundation, which funds programs to support communities in western Montrose County that send workers to Telluride. A grant of $80,000 for NCL’s new library from the Foundation was the catalyst for others to follow suit. The library also got what McBride called “stimulus funds.”

Grants also have added nearly 5000 new books to the NCL collections—they include the Bookapalooza from the Association for Library Service to Children and a Young Adult Library Services Association/BWI award, both units of the American Library Association.

Hiring leadership
McBride attributes much of the fundraising success to Rice and the staff at NCL and the services and programs they offer.

“Bringing Susan Rice on was pivotal. We saw what great need there was in Naturita for the services a library could provide. That just fueled our desire to build a great library there, staff it with great people, fund it with great bucks, and develop some great programming,” says McBride.

Rice, who has lived in the area for over 30 years, began six years ago. Active in the community, she came with deep local knowledge but without a professional track record. “I don’t have a bachelor’s or a master’s degree, so I didn’t think there was any way I could get that job, but I really wanted it. Paul Paladino, director of MRLD, took a chance on me,” says Rice.

It turned out to be a great hire. Brimming with energy and enthusiasm, Rice added programs and services, and NCL began to thrive. “I have never come to work and not wanted to be here!” Rice says joyously.

Two younger staffers handle the children’s programs now, so Rice can concentrate on launching new programs for adults. She has started by building discussion programs around the PBS series “Independent Lens,” featuring documentaries on a variety of subjects before they are broadcast. A national program, it is packing them in in Naturita.

“I was so happy to be able to bring the program here, because a lot of people don’t even have a TV, so they don’t pay for cable or satellite,” says Rice.

Every year NCL holds a Murder Mystery Dinner Theater at the Moose Lodge in nearby Nucla, and it has become so popular that another night has to be added. About 160 people came last year.

Support from the top
Paladino, to whom both Rice and McBride report, had a career with the Boy Scouts and United Way, and his wife was a circulation clerk in an Ohio public library. Hanging out there, he read Library Journal. Inspired by the column White Papers by Herb White, then dean of the School of Library Science at Indiana University (IU), he decided to become a librarian and enter the IU program.

“It has been a labor of love. I enjoy what I do, and I try to pick good people,” says Paladino. He liked Rice’s enthusiasm and the way she knew everyone in Naturita.

“I hired her before the building was done, and she quickly did programming in the schools and built many other services,” Paladino says.

He hired McBride when she went off the board. “I came from a fundraising background,” he says. “Amy has just the right temperament for development.”

Just beginning his 20th year, Paladino thought he would be at MRLD for no more than five years. “When I arrived, the philosophy seemed to be that if you don’t encourage patrons they won’t come and mess things up,” Paladino remembers.

“I’m proudest of making the district a real player in the community,” he says. “We are an integral part of this community, and when I got here we weren’t.”

He began at MRLD at age 27 and likes that in small systems the director serves as CFO, head of HR, and CEO. Of the 40 staffers who work at the system, seven have MLIS degrees.

NCL’s green building
Paladino had already managed the building of a fine library in Montrose in 1998. He was building a straw bale mother-in-law house on his property at the same time.

When the original bids came in for the NCL project, contractors said straw bale building was too new so it would cost 20 percent more. Paladino points out that straw bale construction has been around since before 1900, right after the advent of the baling machine. He rejected the bids and took over the role of contractor, hiring out and supervising the work.

The outside finish is a lime-wash stucco, and inside the finish is a stucco made from straw, the earth from the excavation, and sand. The building provides 4400 square feet of interior library space, and Paladino reports that its energy bills average about $400 a month for heat and all utilities. It won recognition as the 2010 Colorado Association of Libraries Library Project of the Year.

Managing NCL
Rice says she has lots of autonomy in her management of NCL. Paladino agrees, saying he gives only “a little guidance.” As a result, “mostly, Susan and all of my staff kind of tell me what they’re going to do. When I hire good people, my job is more to rein them in when they get a little too enthusiastic and exceed what we have manpower or money to do. If I had unlimited resources, I can’t even imagine how much these people could do.”

He is concerned that the economic slump has hit the area, and MRLD and NCL will be in a period of solidifying what they have and trying to ride out the decline.

It helps tremendously to have a staff with close connections to the community, like Rice and her colleagues Kelli Flint, Dallas Holmes, and Betty Stephens. They provide service and programs with innovation, energy, and joyous enthusiasm. It helps, too, to have leaders like Paladino and McBride with passionate vision and the imagination to raise both public and private funds.

That combination of vision, creativity, community connections, and hard work makes Naturita Community Library the 2011 Best Small Library in America.