Like I Was Saying

What’s a Library Worth?

The health and vitality of local libraries can tell you a lot about the community you live in

By Kellyn Brown

In high school, once I was old enough to drive, I was expected to get a job. So, not long after my 16th birthday, I began working as a fry cook at Ron’s Drive-In in Spokane Valley, Wash. The late shift didn’t help my social life. Neither did my adolescent acne that only worsened from leaning over vats of grease for 20 hours a week. 

But it was good honest work, even if I was always keeping my eye out for something better. And, lo and behold, after several months of cooking fish sticks and chicken tenders, something better came along: a job stacking books at the local county library.  

I was already a voracious reader and writing for the student newspaper. This new job, I thought, would only strengthen my perceived skills. Plus, I was assigned to the nonfiction section on the second floor!

It turns out, just handling hundreds of books every day doesn’t make you smarter. That first year, I was unfamiliar with the layout of the place and, by the time I emptied a cart, there was already a huge stack of nonfiction titles waiting for me at the book return. 

I buzzed up and down the aisles, re-shelving books on the history of space travel, the greatest artists of the 20th century, and the reasons great civilizations collapsed. Then there was the entire row of biographies on the most important people who had ever lived, from the protagonists to the villains. I wanted to open all of them and, eventually, I could. 

As time passed, and I became more familiar with the Dewey Decimal System, the speed with which I worked increased. I now had time to hide out in the nooks and crannies of the library and read beyond the front covers. After scanning a few pages and determining which ones were worthy, I checked them out and brought them home. Sometimes I would carry two armfuls of books to my car at the end of my workday.

In many ways, that library helped raise me during my formative years of high school. It educated me, instilled discipline and provided a paycheck to boot. But you didn’t have to work there to understand its value. 

When school was in session, the second floor was crawling with students, many of them working on papers or conducting research. During the summer, the first floor saw the most foot traffic, much of it from parents and young children participating in various programs that were at once educational and entertaining. 

To be sure, the health and vitality of local libraries can tell you a lot about the community you live in. Right now, in the Flathead, our library board and county commission are deciding what that system should look like. 

A few months ago, ImagineIF Library Director Connie Behe resigned her position of 12 years. Subsequently, the board decided it should decrease the library director and children’s librarian pay before even listing the open positions, despite objections from the interim director and county human resources. 

This follows the commission’s decision to remove the library from the county’s capital improvement plan despite the fact that Kalispell is already the largest municipality in the state in which library facilities are not owned at the city or county level. 

Our commissioners and board continue to reduce or eliminate library funding for no reason other than they apparently don’t see as much value in the institution. This is largely being sold as a way to tighten the budget, but it’s beginning to look more like a gutting. And it’s worth paying attention to.  

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