NATURITA – First it was recognized for its innovative straw-bale construction with the 2010 Colorado Association of Libraries Library Project of the Year. Now the Naturita Community Library has earned an even more prestigious award; it has been selected as the Best Small Library in America for 2011 by Library Journal, the oldest and most respected publication in the library field, according to a Montrose Regional Library District press release.
“Naturita is poor economically, but it is rich in community,” said Naturita Community Library Coordinator Susan Rice. “We truly change lives in this community. Through our young children, we are changing the culture here.”
Sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Best Small Library Award was created in 2005 to encourage and showcase the exemplary work of libraries serving populations under 25,000. It recognizes one winning library and two finalists each year, providing a cash prize of $15,000 to the winner and $5,000 to each finalist. All three libraries also receive support to send two representatives to attend the annual Public Library Association conference. Naturita Community Library, Ames Free Library (North Easton, Mass.) and Page Public Library (Page, Ariz.) will be honored at a gala event at the 2012 conference in Philadelphia.
“At a time of economic stress, when more Americans rely on their libraries than ever, we're delighted to recognize the contributions of Naturita Community Library, which is a solid centerpiece of its community, and a model for other libraries large or small,” said Library Journal Editor-in-Chief Francine Fialkoff.
Serving 700 residents, Naturita's original library was just 500 square feet, making it the third-smallest library in Colorado. A combination of local taxpayer support and public and private funding, led by Montrose Regional Library District Development Officer Amy McBride, facilitated construction of a new building – what would become America's largest straw-bale library – that which opened its doors in 2009.
Paul Paladino, director of Montrose Regional Library District, which oversees the Naturita Community Library, saw the straw-bale construction project through, acting as contractor – inspired by his own experience constructing a straw bale mother-in-law house.
“The whole idea was to spend less on utilities and put money into programming and staff to actually help people,” Palladino said in an interview with Shelter Magazine (winter 2010/11) about the groundbreaking building.
The library's green features, from its geothermal exchange heating and cooling system to super-insulated walls (featuring improved sound control insulation made from shredded, recycled blue jeans), allow money that would otherwise be spent on energy bills to be funneled toward programs and services. Palladino estimated the library’s utility costs (averaging just $400 a month) to be $1.15 per square foot per year versus $2-$2.25 for a conventional building.
The Naturita community has clearly embraced its new green library, with nearly 500 new library cards issued since January 2009. Circulation has increased by 110 percent, and thanks to several grants, 5,000 new books have been added to its shelves. Seven public computers are in use up to 200 hours a week, and the addition of a dozen laptops funded through the Colorado State Library will soon enable more patrons to access the Internet.
According to the 2000 census, fewer than 3 percent of Naturita residents hold bachelor's degrees. Naturita Community Library has responded to the lack of higher education opportunities by offering computer and college-level courses through the University Centers of the San Miguel.
And when budget cuts slashed extracurricular activities at the Naturita Elementary School, the library stepped in to provide after-school programming four days a week.
“We have seen a great difference in many students' work, and they are getting better grades,” said the school's Principal Mike Epright. “I have been continually impressed with the library staff's commitment to excellence.”
For the last six years that Rice has been coordinator, the Naturita Community Library’s focus has been to solidify its children’s programs. A recently acquired Wii, funded through a grant from the Telluride Foundation, has become one draw to the library, which last week brought in 25 teens to play Battle of the Bands. “Music helps kids in many different ways,” said Rice. “It helps with reading – that’s been proven – but it it’s also for rhythm,” such as in poetry.
With staff members Kelli Flint and Dallas Holmes now in charge of youth services, Rice is focusing her efforts on adult and seniors programming. “We’re trying to find people through both [local health] clinics,” to teach healthy living and nutrition to retirees and seniors,” she said. Getting seniors moving is one goal, such as setting up a bowling day using the Wii.
“We’re trying… It takes a while for programming to solidify and become viable in the lives of our patrons. Being so impoverished [in the West End], it’s not just economical, but it’s social, too. Our schools and all libraries in this area change that through books and education, by bringing the world here.”
As for its $15,000 award, Rice says, “we’re still evaluating how we’re going to spend the money. I’ll make recommendations to Paul [Palladino] and see if he’ll go along with us. He knows that I know what we need in this community,” said Rice, a 30-year resident of neighboring Nucla.
“Susan is so good, I think if all we could do was a blue tarp and some duct tape, she would still turn out wonderfully educational and fun programs for the children of Naturita,” said Palladino.
“We are so proud, and we’ve worked so hard,” said Rice. “This award is an affirmation of the incredible programming, book selection, and dedication our staff has toward our patrons. The support from the community gives the stories that make possible the title, ‘Best Small Library in America.’”
To read the Library Journal's full coverage of this year's award, go to www.libraryjournal.com/Naturita.