Public libraries unlock many assets in rural communities

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Reflections from my Notebook


During my lifetime, I’ve been locked out of a few places, including stores that had closed before I arrived and even my own home when I got back from a vacation many years ago. I was out of luck at the businesses since workers had already left, but a handy, friendly hardware store owner got me in my house, which made me wonder if I should change my locks. The thought wasn’t because I was worried about him — he is well known for coming up with solutions, not causing problems — but because he made breaking into my home look relatively easy.

Despite my experiences on the locked side of doors from the outside, I had never been unwillingly locked inside a place until last week when a nonprofit group finished a meeting that lasted past the public library’s closing hours. About a dozen of us were meeting in a room adjacent to the main library. We turned out the lights in our meeting room and went to exit the main door of the library, only to find it wouldn’t budge. After discovering there was no other way out and then trying to find contact information for the library, city administrator or a deputy, we eventually got a hold of the administrator and were on our way in minutes.

The next day we found out there was a malfunction of the main door. The handle was supposed to have a release lever that allowed people through from inside when the door was locked on the outside.

The members took the temporary captivity in stride, with laughs, not fear, as the lasting memory of that meeting.

Still, I couldn’t help think that if I had to be locked up somewhere, the public library would probably be a top choice.

Some people think libraries are relics of the past because they only hold shelves of books, which fewer people tend to read anymore. However, libraries are much more than that, particularly in small towns where they provide many services.

In some ways rural libraries are like small community centers. Even if a library doesn’t have a small meeting room like the one our group used last week, many small town libraries offer so much more than books on shelves.

They can’t hold hundreds of people like a full community center can, but they do attract crowds to various activities, such as talks by historians, authors and artists, yoga sessions, workshops, chess matches, and dialogues on issues, including racial harmony.

Summer reading programs for children bring in a wide variety of guests, including actors from theater groups, dancers showing their moves, musicians demonstrating various instruments, animals or birds of prey from the zoo or other shelter, historical re-enactors and even jugglers.

Libraries also often serve as a rural Starbucks-type coffee house without the $5 coffee. Patrons can hang out at the library for as long as they choose, using computers stationed there or taking advantage of free, public access on their own laptops. During the Hot Reads for Cold Nights adult winter program, many libraries have hot chocolate, tea and coffee during certain nights.

Besides the books available for people to read or check out, there are also newspapers and magazines to read at the library. And, once patrons are ready to leave, they can check out audiobooks, music, movies and other materials.

Libraries are also great resources that provide answers to many questions directed their way. They may assist with research and genealogy, provide homework help and offer forms for taxes.

Over the past few years, adults at local libraries have taken part in painting lessons, open knitting time, coloring contests, author visits, storyteller or historical programs and displays of photographs or other items.

 Some libraries are even more ambitious. For example, the Spring Valley Public Library raised monarch butterflies, not only to help a distressed species, but also to provide some scientific knowledge to local residents and create a spark to learn more about the beautiful creatures. Many people came into the library to get informational resources on monarchs and even ask the staff for advice.

The Spring Grove Public Library several years ago got a grant to hold a festival of quilts. Nearly a decade later, that event is going strong with nearly 200 items on display in a larger venue in the city.

The list could go on, but libraries in small towns are a hub of many activities, some big ones that attract crowds and some small ones that bring in a few people every day.

As Monica Erickson, director of the Chatfield Public Library, which by the way, has a pumpkin carving workshop Thursday, Oct. 25, at 6 p.m., said a few years ago to one of our reporters for a story detailing the history of the library on its 100th anniversary: “I think the library is more important to the community than ever.”

So true.

If you don’t know all that your local library offers, I encourage you to make a visit. I promise that once you walk through those doors you will be able to walk out again. The thing is, you may just decide you don’t want to leave when the librarian locks that door for the night.