Ticket to Read
How libraries impact our community
Story and photos by Rachel Dick
In the digital age, information resources outside of the internet are often forgotten about and disregarded as anachronistic, but libraries still provide essential services to their communities, and act as points of contact for individuals and groups to connect, network, and grow.
Many libraries, especially rural ones like those found in the Upper Peninsula, often face challenges of insufficient funding and resources. To ensure the survival of libraries, it is important to understand what they have to offer and how community members can give back.
“I have always been a library user since I was a little girl, my family, my parents brought us to the library,” Susan Autio, interim director of the Portage Lake District Library (PLDL), said during an interview in her office.
Autio’s father was an educator and her mother went to school for a while as an English major.
“And so I come from a family of readers. And so, just going to the library was always a part of my life,” Autio said.
Back when it was at the Carnegie building, Autio introduced her children to the library. Eventually, there was a job opening for a library page, a position that involves shelving books and checking people in and out. Autio applied for the position and was instead hired as a library assistant.
Jennifer Strand, a librarian at Osceola DB-TC School Library, which also acts as a public library for Osceola Township, had a similar experience.
“My love of libraries started when I was in elementary school,” Strand said in an email interview. “I have always loved to read and was a library aide when I was in middle school.”
Strand has been working at the library for 23 years.
“Although my job duties can be fluid working in a public school, I love my job for the time that I am able to be in the library. I thoroughly enjoy being able to help people find a book that they will love reading and/or help them with a task they need to complete,” She said.
Leo Siren, director at Ontonagon Township Library, describes his favorite part of working in a library as “helping people solve problems and access quality information.”
“My background is mostly in writing/editing and software, but the opportunity to apply for this role came to me when I moved back to my hometown after the financial crisis of 2008.”
“People who don't visit libraries because they ‘have books at home’ or ‘only read on the Kindle’ don't always realize that public libraries today offer ebooks, digital audiobooks, streaming movies, book clubs, classes, affordable printing and copying, and various other services,” said Siren.
Autio similarly expressed that people who think that libraries can’t compete with the internet are missing the facts.
“Yeah, you can do a lot of research on the internet and maybe not ever need a book to accomplish writing a paper anymore,” she said. “But that's just one thing.”
Autio emphasized that libraries’ resources do not stop at the physical. With a PLDL library card, one can access the Great Lakes Digital Library, a service that offers books to read or listen to, as well as some movies and music. Hoopla, another digital library, offers a variety of movies and music.
The PLDL also acts as a physical space that community members can utilize. Girl Scouts and veterans are just some of the groups who have used the library’s Community Room as a meeting space.
“People know that they can come to the library and they can either reserve the room or just meet wherever and they can get on the schedule,” Autio said.
The library also offers a Makerspace in collaboration with Superior Fab Lab, a community Makerspace in the Keweenaw. At the PLDL Makerspace, community members can work on a variety of creative endeavors. It offers tools for handiwork and sewing machines; as well as the library’s Cricut Maker, a computer-controlled cutting machine for fine detailing such as lettering.
Basic, a program in partnership with Michigan Tech has made its return to PLDL. Those who have questions about their computer, cell phone, or another electronic device may come in and seek the advice of the student volunteers. Basic is currently set to run on Saturdays from March 26 to April 30, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m..
Preschool storytime is being offered Wednesdays at 10:30 a.m., and the summer reading program is coming up.
Ontonagon will also host a summer reading program, free for all participants under 18 years old. Participants do not need to be a member of the library or a resident of Ontonagon.
Despite the resources these libraries have to offer, they also have limitations.
COVID-19 brought additional challenges for these libraries as they tried to provide their services to a locked-down public.
“COVID limited us greatly in some ways. When the school closed completely, so did the library. However, with the food program continuing to run during school closures, I was able to distribute books with meals and with classroom work packets,” Strand said.
The Ontonagon Township Library was closed temporarily, then moved to curbside service and enforced a masking policy for some time as well.
“We also waived late fees throughout the pandemic, which has now become a permanent change to our policy,” Siren said.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, rural libraries struggled to meet the needs of their public and balance their budget, too.
“We want to be a hub for the community for all kinds of different reasons.” Said Autio. “To inspire learning and curiosity and early literacy.”
Strand also said rural libraries face the challenge of small budgets and limited space.
“I have to purge my collection more frequently than I prefer,” she said.
Being a library that is jointly a school and public library comes with its own unique challenges.
“In a school setting, you are at the mercy of their budget, which means that the library does not come first,” said Strand.
Community members who want to offer support can contribute back to their libraries in several ways.
“We always welcome donations of course. And volunteer. We do have volunteer opportunities,” Autio said.
Community members can join the Friends of the Library Group, an organization that hosts fundraisers to buy things for the library. Experts in a hobby such as woodworking or sewing are welcome to volunteer to lead a class.
Addressing the ways that community members can help libraries, Siren commented that “financial donations are always wonderful, but just showing up to programs or helping to promote our services by word-of-mouth is also great.”
Similarly, Strand stated that “one of the best ways for community members to contribute to their local library is to support it with their voice.
“Make sure that the administration knows that they want the library to be open and available. Use it when it is open and available and of course, we are always willing to accept book and monetary donations so that we can offer current material.”
National Library Week for 2022 was recognized from April 3-9, the theme being “Connect with Your Library.” According to the American Library Association, “...the theme is an explicit call to action—an invitation for communities to join, visit, or advocate for their local libraries.”
The week has passed, but Autio encourages people to “Just read. Get to your library, check some books out.”