Sometimes you see something that really works, showing you how good things can be.
That’s the feeling at the Toledo Community Library in the little town on the Cowlitz. Step inside and you’ll be greeted by one of the volunteers who staff this little home-grown space, which will be celebrating its fifth birthday this week. (They’re throwing a potluck at 6 p.m. this Tuesday. All are invited.)
Look up and down the long, brightly lit library and you’ll smile. You’ll see shelves lined with books and DVDs, every one of them donated. You’ll see a big American flag hanging over a vibrant “History Room” full of old newspaper microfiche and papers dating back to the community’s sternwheeler days.
You’ll see a 2016 thank-you note on the wall from President Barack Obama, congratulating the building’s owners, Bill and Pat Caldwell, who donate the space to the community library.
But what might move you the most is a simple thank you note, in pencil and crayon, from a second-grader who wrote:
Dear Toledo library
Thank you for having a place for us to get books.
It’s nice to have a library in town.
And that’s the crux of it. The people of Toledo wanted a library, so they built one, piece by piece, and staff it, day by day.
It’s a striking example of community spirit. Which is not to say that it’s easy. Running a public space by volunteerism is really tough. But those folks prove that it’s possible. Their check-out computer system is glitchy, so they just tell you, “There are no overdue fines. Just bring the book back when you’re done with it.”
The folks of Toledo pay taxes into the Timberland Regional Library system, but TRL has been in the mindset of closing libraries these days, not opening them. Running a library with paid staff is expensive. Last year TRL proposed closing a third of its libraries, with a focus on cutting costs and turning to new ways of providing “library services” through automation. One idea: lockers with books, not spaces for people. After a firestorm of public protest, that plan was shelved.
Still, the future, it seems, is the type of automated “kiosk” that Timberland placed at the Toledo Community Library. It’s a set of two computers where you can search and place reservations, and pick up books.
That’s fine, as far as it goes, but it’s a far cry from a library — a place, a space, a heart of a community.
The contrast between the Toledo Community Library and the Timberland libraries in other communities is striking.
Of course, TRL is a big system. Bigger is usually better in many ways, but also less personal, and there’s the constant tend toward bureaucracy that creeps into any big organization.
A bigger issue for me, that my wife and I have both noticed over the years, is Timberland’s replacement of local “home-grown” library employees with people who studied library science and were hired in from outside the area or the communities where they work. In many cases they don’t live there, either. And that’s a shame.
We personally like many of these people and respect them as dedicated library staff, but no matter how wonderful they are, they can’t naturally have the same spirit that you’ll find with someone local who was hired to serve their neighbors in their shared library.
You still see hints of this in corners of the Timberland system, as with Mountain View Library Manager Mary Prophit, who lives in Glenoma and works in Randle. An Iraq war veteran and retired colonel, she was placed in an incredibly difficult position when her bosses at Timberland imposed a strict gag order on her last fall about the imminent closure of her little town’s library.
She showed grace and strength under pressure, fighting the push of the Tumwater-based library system while balancing the needs of her neighbors.
When she spoke at the next TRL board meeting in Ilwaco, she received sustained applause and a standing ovation from people who felt betrayed by their TRL leadership, but who cherished their local librarian.
And that’s what TRL needs to do as it moves forward. It needs to double-down on the power of its local communities. It needs to hire local folks to work in the libraries, being the public face and the warm presence that makes libraries far more than just a place to seek information.
Sure, bring in a library science major to work the reference desk in the larger libraries, but in general, Timberland would be a stronger system and would be a better place for its patrons — and it could begin to rebuild some of the trust and goodwill it lost last year — by bringing home-grown talent into the libraries.
Hire people who understand the history, the people, the moral values of the communities in which they grew up. Those are the librarians who turn the library from a sterile place of computers and shelves into a warm community center, filled with knowledge that matters and people that can be trusted.
If you need proof of that, just visit Toledo Community Library. You won’t need a library card, but you’ll definitely want to bring along your smiles.
The Timberland Regional Library Board of Trustees will hold its next public meeting at the Winlock Library on Wednesday, Aug. 28, at 5:30 p.m. There is time for public testimony. This would be a great time to learn and speak up for your local libraries.
Brian Mittge’s community column appears in The Chronicle on Saturdays. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.