Picturesque, historic, friendly, charming: These are some of the words residents use to describe Columbus, a town of 5,000 in south-central Wisconsin. Columbus has a long history as a farming community, but when new residents started moving in and commuting to nearby Madison for jobs, a noticeable divide between longtime residents and newcomers emerged. That’s when the Columbus Public Library stepped in.
Headed by Library Director Cindy Fesemyer, the Columbus Public Library initiated a “Root for Columbus” campaign to bring the community together. The library started hosting community conversations, and staff members acted as natural facilitators by listening to residents and organizations. Through the discussions, the library found most people wanted to try new tactics to improve the community.
“(People) can sit in a room for two hours and not argue about old stuff and aspire to create something cool in their community,” Fesemyer said. “That, in itself, is a shift.”
To gain even more responses, the library sent a tree to city landmarks, inviting people to write aspirations and string them to the branches.
The library didn’t stop at conversation — it wanted to see action. It began hosting Root for Columbus Action Potlucks, where participants separated into small groups to brainstorm and plan projects.
One of the projects invited residents to transform public benches into works of art. The benches were unveiled to kick off the library’s reading program and serve as a reminder of the town’s commitment and growth. In another playful project designed to connect residents to the city, garden gnomes were scattered around town and clues were posted on the library’s social media accounts. Residents were encouraged to post pictures of the gnomes when they found them, which increased the library’s social media engagement.
The initiative wasn’t without its challenges; community conversations were hard to schedule with religious groups, an important part of the Columbus community, and many part-time library staff members were not onboard with their new community engagement endeavors.
But two years after the library started its campaign, Columbus’ engagement has shown tangible results. Not only have library card sign-ups increased, but the town’s pride is evident with the many “I root for Columbus” yard signs.