Library heavy hitters meet in Nevada County, talk support, uses and future | TheUnion.com

Library heavy hitters meet in Nevada County, talk support, uses and future

Lorraine Jewett
Special to The Union

In some communities, the library is a building with books that few people visit.

That's not the case in Nevada County, and on Wednesday, a group of library enthusiasts brainstormed ideas to ensure local libraries remain vibrant, integral components of the community.

'Rising to the Challenge'

A select group of 27 leaders from libraries, government, business, education and nonprofits participated in an eight-hour moderated roundtable discussion at the Gold Miners Inn. The meeting was convened by the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries.

Following a highly-competitive application process, the Nevada County Public Library was chosen by the Aspen Institute as one of three California partners. The institute is hosting three roundtable sessions across the state this year; others will be held in Palo Alto and Stockton. The Grass Valley session was only the sixth in the nation since the institute began its focus on libraries with the 2014 release of its report, "Rising to the Challenge: Re-envisioning Public Libraries."

"It's a huge honor," said Nevada County Librarian Yolande Wilburn.

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Amy Garmer, Director of the Aspen Institute Dialogue on Public Libraries, said Nevada County's libraries were chosen, in part, because of the strong support they receive from the community. That support includes the 2016 passage of ballot Measure A, which created a 15-year, quarter-cent sales tax that raises about $4 million each year for library services.

"We were looking for a library system with visionary leadership in a community where there are clear goals of where they want to bring the library and how they might get there," said Garmer. "This opportunity to convene community leaders across different sectors is also helpful in the library's efforts to ensure the Measure A monies are spent wisely."

Garmer also praised the local libraries' connection to the state's CENIC network, high-speed broadband network with more than 8,000 miles of optical fiber and more than 20 million users across California.

"Today, rather than working in silos, effective leaders in this community discussed priorities of this community and how libraries can design and deliver new opportunities for learning, innovation and civic engagement," said Garmer. "The goal is to optimize the public library as a vital community asset and partner."

The Aspen Institute received a $200,000 grant from the California State Library, and the amount allocated to efforts in and for Nevada County's public libraries is about $66,000. That money covers organizing the roundtable discussion — a process that began in April — plus conference materials, meals for participants, a professional facilitator and the institute's summary report.

What is a library's function?

Wednesday's roundtable far exceeded the bounds of what many consider a library's role. Participants discussed how successful libraries can help communities address the challenges of economic development, closing gaps in the social safety net, lifelong learning, public safety, jobs and opportunities for youths.

"The meeting has gone really great and I appreciate all the organizations and people who came out today," said Wilburn. "It shows the community is committed to its libraries and invested in the long-term sustainability of the library system."

Nevada County Superintendent of Schools Scott Lay said local libraries and schools work well together, but more can be done.

"Today we're looking at more collaborative efforts we can put forth between schools and libraries," he said. "We've noticed a lot of common areas of need that have become evident in today's session. We're looking forward to working with Yolande to make these ideas a reality."

"It's been a really interesting conversation about how libraries can change to meet community needs," said Heather Heckler, communications manager of Connecting Point, a public agency that connects people to resources and each other to support their health and independence. "I like that the focus is on what this community needs, where there are gaps in community services, and how libraries can help fill those gaps."

'People,' 'Place' and 'Platform'

In light of the proliferation of technology and ease of access to information, some community libraries in other areas have lost their relevance. Last year, cash-strapped Douglas County in Oregon closed all of its 11 library branches; some have since been reopened by volunteers.

Garmer argued libraries are important to a civilized society.

"Libraries bring three critical assets to a community: people, place and platform," said Garmer. "'People' is building human capital. 'Place' refers to Nevada County's challenging geography, and how do we serve people who are so geographically dispersed? 'Platform' used to refer to a library's catalog, but we've expanded the idea of what libraries offer. 'Platform' now includes everything that a library makes available, such as classes and technology. It's not just physical attributes such as buildings and books. It's thinking about a library's broader purpose and mission."

The Aspen Institute will release a report next month summarizing Wednesday's discussions and making specific suggestions for Nevada County. Recommendations for other states and counties have included measures such as the creation and funding of an "Innovation Center" in the main library, and "Library in a Box," a project to gather stories of great library work in communities and share them through a statewide system.

"The document will detail strategic initiatives and steps we can take to tie the library to the goals of Nevada County as a whole," Wilburn said. "We want to work with everyone in the community. We want to help other organizations but not duplicate efforts. We will partner and collaborate to ensure our community benefits as a whole."

Lorraine Jewett is a freelance writer who lives in Nevada County. She can be reached at LorraineJewettWrites@gmail.com.

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