Little Library with a Big Heart
LOST CREEK, W.Va. -- The smallest library in West Virginia now holds the title of Best Small Library in America.
The Southern Area Public Library in Lost Creek was named the 2013 Best Small Library in America by the Library Journal and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for its transition from a traditional library to a powerhouse of community engagement. A $20,000 prize accompanies the award.
Director Mary Beth Stenger -- the Harrison County library's only full-time employee -- said the award was "a shock. I couldn't believe we won."
Stenger got the phone call about the award in late December, but couldn't tell anyone until the announcement was made in late January.
An employee with the Library Journal called Stenger to tell her she'd won. "I didn't say anything because I thought 'what did I win?' I apply for everything," she said.
Months before, Stenger had attended the Association of Rural and Small Libraries conference in North Carolina and kept hearing that small libraries never win the first time they apply for the prestigious award. She applied anyway, but never imagined she'd take home the prize.
"The woman must have thought I was crazy when I didn't react because she said 'you've been named the best small library in America.' I couldn't believe it. We're the smallest library in West Virginia, let alone other places."
The Southern Area Public Library was competing against hundreds of libraries from across the country, including some with a 25,000-service population. Of the more than 170 public libraries across West Virginia, the Southern Area Public Library is the smallest, with a service population of only 498 residents.
The Library Journal, along with the Gates Foundation, said one of the most striking things about the small-town library was how tech-savvy they are and the impact that has on the community.
"It's like a community center. The library was the hub of that wheel. Then there are all these spokes -- the women's group, the lions club and all these different things. The larger part of the wheel is all of us working together to get where we want to go," Stenger said.
Since Stenger took over as library director in July 2010, she has increased the programming offered by the library by 880 percent. "It's a lot," she said with a laugh.
Stenger, a former Clarksburg resident who moved to Lost Creek in 1987, works 20 hours a week and her assistant, Wilma Bennett, works the remaining 15-hours. Together, the two women are managing "one of the most dynamic small libraries in the country," according to an article in the Library Journal announcing the award.
Stenger has always been a library supporter, but her loyalty hasn't always been in Lost Creek.
Years ago, "I went to Bridgeport. They had better books," she said in a whisper.
A year before Stenger took the helm at SAPL, she started a book group in the area and started volunteering at the library to help re-shelve books after new shelving was installed.
When the director position opened, "I was already a little familiar with the library. I'm a [certified public accountant] by training, but I love to read and I thought 'this is great.'"
The library is housed in a former bank building built in 1910 on the corner of Main and Church streets in Lost Creek. The 2,280-square-foot building still has much of the original marble from the bank teller station and was converted to a library in 1984.
One of the first things Stenger did when she took over was offer computer classes.
"It was just me -- I didn't have an assistant then -- so I taught the classes during the day while running the service desk. I'd be checking people out and running over there to answer questions. It was a lot," she said.
The classes proved to be wildly successful -- and still are. "Every time we stop having a class, people ask when the next one is."
The library currently is teaching a computer class that is full and there are seven people on the waiting list. "There is a strong need here," she said.
This past year, the library started a program Stenger is "very excited about. I think what makes a successful library, or any small business, is that you bring your passion to it. And one of the things I have always wanted to do is feel like I am making a difference."
Lost Creek affectionately refers to their library as the "Little Library with a Big Heart," because every month, they pick a different charitable act to do and bring all the local patrons in to participate.
In October, people trick-or-treated for UNICEF and in January, they made birthday boxes for children celebrating their birthdays at the homeless shelter.
"That got people in here donating that had never been in here before," she said. "Every month, we are trying to do something different. I think people want to do those things and there is not an avenue to do it.
"I think that is what you need to do. I think you need to find out what your community wants. If someone comes up with an idea, I'll try it."
Funding for the library -- which amounts to only $35,000 annually -- is very limited and based on the service population. The money pays two salaries, all the utilities for the building and has to deal with library upkeep, Stenger said. "It's not a lot."
Because of that, Stenger is no stranger to trying out different programs to generate funds.
"Once I buy the popular fiction, our book budget is done for the year. So I make a list of popular adult fiction we would like to have and I have a little Christmas tree where I put the name of the book and the price and people can adopt a book," she said. This past year, they were able to buy all the books on the list through adoptions."
Stenger said these fundraising programs are imperative and the library recently became a member of Geek the Library -- a program sponsored by the Online Computer Library Center to raise community awareness of libraries.
"They see the computers and the nice shelves and they think we have tons of money," she said. "We don't. We run this library on $35,000 a year. Think that's two salaries, utilities, everything."
SAPL is the first library in the state to enroll in the free program that provides t-shirts, bumper stickers and other swag to libraries.
"There are many libraries that have much more funding that don't offer the programming we do," she said, which is what makes the little library so unique.
One of the most popular programs is for children. "A lot of children get off the school bus right here and come to the library until their parents get out of work," she said.
The library offers homework help for students and tutoring that is supported by a grant from the Nutter Foundation.
In addition, the library offers art classes, resume and college application help and currently has free tax assistance help in the upstairs portion of the building.
The money SAPL received from the award will go a long way and Stenger already has plans. Currently, the library is open 35 hours a week, Tuesdays through Saturdays. With the award money, Stenger hopes to open the library on Mondays.
"We have so many kids who get off the bus and I hate thinking what they are doing when we're not open," she said.
Another thing Stenger wants to try is programming bingo, where people can get a bingo card stamped for each library event they attend and then have their card entered in a drawing for a gift certificate.
"We don't have the money to offer little prizes, but we can do that now with the money from the Gates Foundation," she said.
The library's biggest wish, though, is for an elevator so it's easier for some of the older patrons to climb to the second floor for some of the programming.
Last year, almost 8,000 people walked through the door of the small library. Stenger said about one-third of the patrons come for the computers, one-third for books and one-third for the programs.
Stenger, who clicks a counter every time the door pings, hopes that number continues to increase.
"Really, it's a community effort," she said. "Everyone has been coming together to make this the best library it can be."
Reach Kathryn Gregory at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-5119.