Growing up, I always pictured libraries as hushed halls, rows of reference material and the seemingly now antiquated card catalogs. Now, it’s a place where I bring my daughter for story time, get books and movies, interact with the community and at times, attend Fancy Nancy parties. And as I’ve learned through LibrariUS, some libraries go beyond that by becoming community cornerstones.
LibrariUS is a national project exploring the information, civic and social needs of communities – through the lens of local libraries. It is a co-production of the Public Insight Network at American Public Media, the American Library Association, and the Public Library Association.
We will be posting, on occasion, stories people have shared with LibrariUS about how they’re using the library. This first one comes from Notus, Idaho, population 531, about 30 miles northwest of Boise.
Jo Ellen Ringer, the librarian at Notus Public Library, goes far beyond offering just books. She had a 20-year career as a therapist and social worker before taking on the library in 2003, and she has relied heavily on that experience to create an important social hub, a job training center, and a safe place for children and adults in this rural town.
Take the puzzle table, for example: Notus doesn’t have public spaces for women to congregate. But “I learned about [four] years ago, when we had an ongoing jigsaw puzzle on the table, it gave women a reason to linger.” Ms. Ringer says. “So I make sure one is always in progress.” Two volunteers, both with much personal experience with alcoholics, abuse and depression, work on the puzzle and welcome new women to join them. They discuss gardening and canning, but also domestic violence, family relationships, and financial issues.
Like many libraries across the nation, Notus Library has also become a de facto job center. Construction and truck driving jobs have dried up throughout the county, so Ms. Ringer helps men sign up for e-mail accounts and teaches them to use the computer to look and apply for other jobs.
She gladly provides one-on-one computer instruction, but only until 3 p.m. That’s when about 15-20 kids – children who don’t have computers with Internet at home – mob the library after school. They walk or bike over, and stay until their parents get off work and pick them up.
“The teens do not require my supervision but the 6- to 12-year-olds do. I don’t plan any backroom library work after 3 p.m. because I need to be ready to hear about [the kids’] day at school, or fights between parents,” she explains. “I get them to play Scrabble with me to improve their vocabulary and spelling skills.”
“Every rural librarian has these latchkey kids,” Ms. Ringer adds. “We get many more when summer comes. Parents do not have the money for day care for older elementary kids.”
In addition to counseling, tutoring and playing with children, she puts them to work. “I have trained 14 kids so far to put away books, empty the book drop, put cards back in books. They handle check-out and place calls for overdue materials, all under my supervision. They learn the Dewey decimal system. At any given time, three children from 8-14 years of age are my library aides. As they get older, they look for paying work and the next kids come along, eager to learn. These children feel a real commitment to their own library.” And they gain marketable skills.
You can also use the comments section below to start the conversation about the role the local library plays in your community.