Naturita Library doubles circulation as patrons check out new programs for young and old

Nancy Harper of Montrose often peruses the video section at the Naturita Community Library, where she is an employee. The library was recognized as the best small library in the country in 2010 by Library Journal. The designation includes a $15,000 award.

In the heart of the metropolis of Naturita was named the best little library in the country for 2010.

Naturita Community Library Branch Supervisor Susan Rice hangs out in the children section of the library. She thinks that they won the award because of the extensive children’s programs at the library.

NATURITA — The best small library in the nation sits here, in this tiny town of not even 700 people scrapping to make a living in the rarefied air of the Colorado Plateau, a town that for years made do with a 500-square-foot building with a few books inside.

Today, the library is more than a modern building with bright artificial and natural lighting, a growing collection, a row of glowing computer screens and a bulging schedule of activities for readers young and old. It’s also become a place for exercisers.

When the library’s coordinator, Susan Rice, was looking for ways to attract people to the library, she asked whether her assistant, Dallas Holmes, had a suggestion. Holmes replied, without even a trace of a French accent, “Wii.”

“Anything that gets kids in here” is good, Holmes said.

So the library now is home to the popular Nintendo exercise and play system, which is used regularly by teens at dance parties, their elders in exercise programs and plenty of people in between.

It’s a far cry from the old library, which had little in the way of interest for younger readers, Rice said.

“When I first took over the library, there were three young-adult books, and one was ‘Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,’ ” Rice said, referring to the novel written in 1903.

Circulation has doubled in two years, and the library has issued nearly 500 new library cards.

Rice, who became the coordinator about six years ago, devoted herself to building programs for the youngest of readers, inviting in toddlers and their families. She built an after-school program and generally did all she could do to get young eyes reading books or working on the bank of five computers, each with its own Internet connection.

It wasn’t that long ago that Rice had a single connection to the Internet other than her own, and she frequently gave that up when there was more than one patron needing to get on a computer, she said.

The new and improved library is the result of a multipronged effort: a library district property tax, support from the Telluride Foundation and other philanthropic organizations and foundations, and building interest in the library.

The library’s success caught the attention of Library Journal, which recently recognized the Naturita Community Library as the best small library in the country in 2010.

“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 the solid centerpiece of its community and a model for other libraries large or small,” Francine Fialkoff, Library Journal editor-in-chief, said in a statement announcing the award, which is co-sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The award goes far beyond recognizing the library as the nation’s largest to be built with straw bales for insulation and a geoexchange heating and cooling system. It also recognizes its relationship with the community. The large meeting room in the building is open to any individual or organization free of charge, helping to make the library something of a town square for Naturita.

For Shantel Riley, the library makes it possible to home-school her son, Morgan, 12.

Riley works nearby and can drop Morgan off to work on math or other subjects at the library computer bank. She remains free to check on him as necessary.

Morgan “can come here and have the best of both worlds. He can check out books and do schoolwork,” Riley said.

Although Rice devoted much of her effort to attracting younger people to the library, she also remembered the adults, the people who pay the bills, she said.

For five years now, the library has become a crime scene of sorts when it hosts a murder-mystery dinner theater.

It started with Rice begging for help from the drama department at Mesa State College for players. The most recent session involved 160 people, with many sharing roles for the event.

“Can you imagine in a small town how much fun this is?” Rice said of the dinner theater. “That was one of my better ideas.”

Rice will receive the award at a gala reception in Philadelphia, and the library will get $15,000.

The award, Rice said, recognizes that the Naturita Community Library is more than books, Wii, web connections and energy-efficient design.

“This is about building relationships,” Rice said. “It’s about changing lives. This is what we do here.”


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