by Deborah Hakes
“Community support for libraries is vital to their success, and good libraries, in turn, support their community’s needs.”
A young patron browses for a book to take home.
On any given afternoon in the rural town of Vidalia, Georgia, best known for the delicious sweet onions it produces each spring, the library is full of local residents. Kids participate in STEM programming, read books, or try out the 3D printer, while adults use the free Wi-Fi to apply for jobs or stay connected. Tutors and their clients spread across tables in the main room. A local preacher writes his weekly sermons using one computer. It didn’t used to be like this.
Five years ago, when Cameron Asbell started her job as director of the Ohoopee Regional Library in Vidalia, it was dark. “Literally dark,” she said. “I walked into the building and thought it hadn’t opened yet. There were no patrons in there, and the lights were so dim, I didn’t realize they were on.” Staff had attached adhesive, motion-sensitive lights to the book stacks just to see the titles. “On my second day, I had to put a tarp on the bookshelves to protect them from rain coming through the leaky roof. I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’”
The community didn’t support its library, and it showed. One resident suggested that the best thing that could happen to the library was to bulldoze it and build a Starbucks so there would be something of value on the lot.
Asbell went with the library board to community leaders to talk about the library. “We were not well-received,” she said, laughing. “They kept saying things like, ‘the library makes promises and doesn’t keep them.’ I spent the next few years applying for every grant I could, making updates, and following through. We created a STEM room and received a grant to fix the lights. Then I would visit funder offices to tell them what we did. By now they knew my face. I worked to change the library’s culture. I would ask my staff, ‘What does it cost you to say yes?’”
She was laying the groundwork for community support, but what the library really needed was money. They had operated on the same budget, without any increase, for 20 years. Roofs leaked, turning on the air conditioning unit from 1968 was a safety risk, and patrons didn’t have space to sit and read. It was becoming nearly impossible to operate the library’s seven different branches across four counties, including a nationally known genealogical library. City officials asked them to close or consolidate a branch.
The library had applied for $2 million in funding from the state of Georgia to renovate their main branch in Vidalia, but funds would not be granted until the library could obtain $650,000 in matching local funds.
It was at that point, in spring 2020, that Asbell met someone who could help build needed support for local funding. He was mowing the library’s lawn.
“A branch manager approached me to say that a strange man was mowing our lawn,” said Asbell. “I asked, ‘how strange?’” It turned out that a concerned community member was mowing the library’s lawn simply because it needed to be mowed. That community member happened to be Howard Holman, Vidalia’s “Man of the Year,” who had held many officer positions in local civic clubs. He helped build the local new hospital, cancer center, and the Boys and Girls Club. When he came back to trim some trees a few weeks later, Asbell asked him to serve on the library’s board.
Holman attended the next board meeting, where Asbell presented a budget showing reduced open hours and staffing, trying to keep the library operating despite the lack of funding. Even though the state funds were available, the library had no support to raise the local matching funds.
“I told her, we are going to turn this ship around,” said Holman. He assembled a group of new board members who were active and influential in the community – former city council members, journalists, and fundraisers. “We met with the mayor, city manager, and many others to explain why the library was so important. Our library is a lifeline for many in our community. No one had ever grabbed them by the collar and said, ‘This is important.’”
Soon, the city had pledged $100,000 toward the library renovation. The county followed with a $100,000 donation, and within 60 days, they had raised the needed matching funds of $650,000.
“This project would not have happened without a strong and active library board and director,” said State Sen. Blake Tillery. “Few other rural communities can match the local fundraising accomplishment, and the citizens in this area showed they value this asset.”
In a county where more than a third of households lack internet access, the library is vital.
“We are the only place that does what we do,” said board member and former city council member Lisa Chesser. “Our library contributes an important piece to the quality of life in our small town. When everything shut down during the pandemic, the library was there with virtual programming and curbside service, as well as free internet in the parking lot.”
Community support has also grown – prior to the pandemic closures, the library’s usage went up 300 percent over the past several years. More books are being checked out, kids are attending programming, and patrons know each other and the library staff. At the Ohoopee Regional Library headquarters in Vidalia, the board is currently reviewing renovation plans, which will get underway this fall. The updated space will include a teaching kitchen, SPARK LAB for weekly kids’ programming, study rooms with smartboards, and movable shelves so the space can be adjusted as needs change.
“So many people in the community are excited about this project,” said Cameron Asbell. “Voters are telling our local legislators that the library is important and valuable, and they are listening.”
Georgia Public Library Service helps fund library renovation and construction by recommending projects to the Georgia General Assembly for funding of up to $2 million dollars per project. Typically, four to five projects are approved per year.
“Support for libraries bubbles up from the community to the state,” said Nathan Rall, director of library planning and construction at GPLS. “Once libraries apply for state funding, local communities must match a certain percentage in order to be considered. Community members advocate for support by contacting the Senate and House committee leaders for higher education appropriations. Community support for libraries is vital to their success, and good libraries, in turn, support their community’s needs.”