It Took a Community To Build This Library

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From the Fall 2007 issue of the Wyoming Library Roundup, published jointly by the Wyoming State Library and the Wyoming Library Association

The award was the 2007 Thompson Gale Giant Step Award, a $10,000 award to libraries who provide unusually beneficial services to their community or school. As the co-winner of the award, splitting the honor and money with a New York school, the Fort Washakie School in Wyoming was chosen as the recipient because of its efforts to make the library not only a school affair, but a community one too.

In 2001, the school’s superintendent, Karl Berline, had the idea of opening up the library’s doors to the community, according to Robin Levin, the Washakie School’s director of library services. There was no existing library on the reservation. “The school board and superintendent realized there were a lot of students stuck without a place to do their homework. Likewise, a lot of adults who needed computer access to pursue careers or interests also had nowhere to go,” Levin says.

According to an article published in the School Library Journal, the group then approached the Wyoming Department of Education, Fremont County School District No. 21, the Shoshone tribal government, and business councils to create an addition to the school, for the library. “There was a lot involved in it, such as the details of who would help in the collaboration, the money, and the changes needed to allow for both public and private access into the school [during the] day, evening, and on Saturday,” Levin says.

There was a lot to the transformation, but the outcome proved worth the time and effort put into the project. “Before we were like any other school, the library was buried within the halls of the high school. Now our facility can offer so much more to the students and the community,” Levin says.

But, luckily, Levin says it was a very short road. “It was a pretty rapid process for us once it got off the ground,” she says. The doors of the new library, built on the Fort Washakie campus, opened in October 2003, featuring an expanded library; the Robert Weeks Tradition Center that serves as the Eastern Shoshone tribe’s culture center; a distance-learning lab with interactive video conferencing; and a computer lab with 30 networked stations. More than 120 people attended the opening of the library, including Governor Dave Freudenthal.

The library went full-steam ahead after that, expanding its hours to accommodate the new library goers. “At first there wasn’t a whole lot of traffic. But little by little word spread and we saw our numbers expanding,” Levin says. “The new library expanded our horizons by 50 percent, where you were a 40 hour per week library and now you’re a 65 hour per week library.”

With the expanded library features and staff, the library needed more employees. The library was able to have four full-time employees. “We used to have a traditional library with a full-time librarian and library aid,” she says. Now the library has upped that number to two full-time aids and two full-time librarians.

In addition, the library does not restrict community access to the library during the day. If library classes are going on during the day, community patrons return when the class is completed, Levin says. “We are a blended library all through the day,” Levin says. Special rules have been created for them to do so, some of which Levin says are interesting for librarians. Usually visitors must have passes to go through the school. Now, because the library has a public entry door, visitors don’t have to go through the school to get to the library. “Certain filters for the library, for the school are in place until 5:30 p.m. After that, the system takes on different rules. [During] evening hours and non-school days the filters are more relaxed.”

Levin says the library and the process has had a very congenial, cooperative feeling. It is definitely a change from what most school libraries are able to do. “The interface between community members and their children is a significant improvement in the conventional school library settings,” she says.

Often times, children dash to the computers to get a quick hug from a parent or relative doing research and working on something very different from the traditional school library setting. “In the Native tradition, we are all learners. Children, here, share their library facilities with community members in a visible, unfettered environment,” she says.

As a result, Levin says, the art of learning takes on a comprehensive, highly respected place in their minds. Even though the expanded library has been open for four years now, there’s still a lot to do to keep it running, Levin says. It’s a tricky process dealing with money for the library because it works off of a budget and grants earned. Every year Levin must reapply for grants. “Without their help we’d be up the river without a paddle,” she says.

The Wyoming Community Foundation and the Institute of Museum and Library Services in Washington D.C. have been extremely helpful in funding for the library. “Filling out grant applications is a meager price you have to pay for what you get in return,” Levin says.

And so far what the library is getting in return is watching people not only in the school system, but the community, learn in new ways—where students sometimes become the teachers, too.

Levin says one eighth grade student, who was valedictorian for her class, brought her grandmother to the facility one evening to teach her how to run the computer. “‘This is the screen; this is the keyboard, Grandma. It’s just like the typewriter,’ she told her grandmother.” Levin says the grandmother looked along side her patient granddaughter. Then, the student moved from the keyboard to the mouse. “‘And, this is the mouse. You put your hand on the mouse….’ ‘I am not touching any mouse! You can bet on that,’ the grandmother countered,” Levin recalls.

Sometimes it is not only teaching, but it is, in a way, show and tell. She said she also sees families reviewing the reading progress their students are making. “A child opens his or her own Accelerated Reading log and can show all the books included there, along with progress reports and percentages of correct answers,” Levin says. “Families are always interested to get a first-hand look at their student’s work, anytime through the school year.”

The library has truly become a place for the community to gather. It features local artists who put on art displays; serves as a location for public meetings; and offers adult education through Central Wyoming Community College, Wind River Tribal College, and the University of Wyoming. In addition, visitors say the library offers the most comprehensive Indian book collection in the state.

“We build in the collection aggressively every year,” Levin says. People, especially Wyoming State Librarian Lesley Boughton, have been very supportive of the unconventional blended library, according to Levin. “She (Boughton) offered some great ideas regarding the nature and size of our collection and what we could do next.”

The unconventional library has done pretty well so far and Levin says she only looks for the facility and its services to improve in the future. “It’s a small town but with a very busy and active library program, that may be why we won the award. Every little bit helps us continue to help people,” she says.