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Harrison library wins national award

By Chelsi Baker

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When Mary Beth Stenger stumbled upon the Library Journal's contest for Best Small Library in America while surfing Internet, she never thought her little library in Lost Creek, Harrison County, would win.

This was a contest for libraries serving up to 25,000 people in a community. She knew the bigger facilities would have more money and more staff behind their programs, but other librarians and even the head of Library Journal assured Stenger the Southern Area Public Library had a shot at beating them and all other libraries in the nation.

She was ecstatic when a representative from Library Journal called on Dec. 21 to let her know the Southern Area Public Library was the Best Small Library for 2013.

The library has come a long way since it was moved to its current location, a former bank building facing Main Street in the center of the town, in 1984. It has seen technology updates, new books and movies, renovations and a flow of nearly 8,000 people in and out of its doors.

People consider Stenger to be the most influential person in the library's recent history.

Stenger became director of Southern Area Library in July 2010 after working as an accountant for years.

She was no stranger to the facility, though — she ran the library's book club and helped the previous director obtain grants for new shelving. When the director stepped down and the position opened, Stenger answered the ad right away.

"I've always wanted to do something to help my community and know I'm making a difference in people's lives," she said. "At the library, I can do that. With accounting, not so much. I also just love to read and want to share that with people."

Stenger believes her experience as an accountant has come in handy while running the  library. She immediately established a budget and set goals to bring in more patrons and increase the number of programs offered to the public.

People in Lost Creek have few options when it comes to entertainment right in town, and most travel about 15 minutes north to Clarksburg or Bridgeport for shopping, dining and other activities. Stenger believes the library's programs help draw people in and bring the community together because patrons don't have to travel as far to find something to do.

Today, the Southern Area Public Library holds 10,706 books and videos and houses eight computers. It serves as a meeting place for a book club, knitting group and even children's art classes. It also provides school children with a safe place to do homework or play games until their parents pick them up.

While many people give Stenger most of the credit for organizing and running these programs, she praises her volunteers and one other staff member for giving the library new life over the past few years.

At one time, Stenger ran most of the library's programs, worked the circulation desk, helped patrons and handled the library's finances with little help.

Wilma Bennett, the only other staff member paid to work at the library, now oversees the after school program, and 20 volunteers pop in and out throughout the day to help shelf books or greet people as they arrive.

Most importantly to Stenger, the volunteers help run the circulation desk through the day so she has the chance to work on the library's budget and fundraising events in her office upstairs.

Volunteers are critical in making sure things run smoothly and tasks are done because Stenger must stick to a modest budget determined by the state.

The amount of money any library in West Virginia receives is based on the population of the surrounding area. Lost Creek is home to only 496 residents and is granted $2,500 each year from the West Virginia Library Commission.  

The library's Board of Trustees, made up of Lost Creek residents, matches this amount, which gives Stenger and her volunteers more money to work with. Harrison County also gives money to the library, contributing to its modest $35,000 a year budget.

The money is put to use in ways to give back to the community, a quality Stenger thinks sets the Southern Area Public Library apart from other libraries.

"We are the little library with a big heart," said Stenger. "We're trying to make a difference in the community. Not just the immediate community, though — the greater community around us."

Volunteers and patrons do an activity to benefit a different charity every month. They have recently raised money for UNICEF and put together a "Birthday Party in a Box" for a Clarksburg Mission to benefit needy children on their birthday.

The library also hosts parties each month for children involved in the after school program that are also open to all Lost Creek residents. Volunteers help organize the events and make food for guests.

Ginny Michael, a resident of Lost Creek, brings her granddaughter, Jada, to the parties and appreciates the library's efforts to bring the children of the community together.

"The most beneficial thing about the library has been being able to bring my granddaughter here to all the programs they have for the little ones," she said. "She goes to art class, and we go to the parties they throw for the kids and to the summer programs. She's 5, and she's been coming here since she was 3. She's made friends here."

The library works to better its town every day through educational programs, including after school tutoring, job and college application help and a basic computer class for adults.

Liz Vincent, a former student in the computer class, has been coming to the library for nearly 15 years and recently signed on to the Board of Trustees. The computer class helped her learn how to send attachments while using email, which was a valuable thing to know, she said.

"When you work, you use the same program day after day," Vincent said. "I didn't have a lot of computer knowledge, and the computer class helped me learn how to do more."

Again, Stenger gives praise to her volunteers, patrons and the Board of Trustees for their dedication to making the library more than just a place to read.

"You have to give the town of Lost Creek credit for wanting to fund a library. We consider ourselves an educational source just like a school," she said. "By bringing in this educational source for both children and adults, they are making a difference in their own community."

The library provides patrons with the tools they need to do their jobs and be responsible citizens. People pop in to pick up tax forms, print documents and make copies throughout the day, and first priority is given to those who need to use the computers to work on resumes or job applications.

Many volunteers feel the Internet is what keeps patrons coming back to the library each week. Lost Creek is a rural community that still widely depends on dial-up, and people prefer or even need to use the faster wireless Internet to complete homework and other tasks.

"Everyone comes in here to do something, and we have what people need to get things done," said Wayne Anthony Dasher, library volunteer and computer teacher. "So many people don't have updated Internet. They can just come in here and get their work done and not worry about it."

While people in Lost Creek speculate on whether the computers, the programs or the books draw patrons to the Southern Area Public Library, they can all agree on one thing: the library is a warm and inviting place to visit.

Everyone is a friend there.

"Almost everyone who walks in the door, I have a personal relationship with," Stenger said. "I know what they like to read or what they like to do. I know who their kids are. I'm always talking! Everyone who comes in, we say hello."

People laugh and gossip as they browse for books. They catch up on the latest news, plan meetings and talk about books, food and life in general - and inside, the library, life is good.

"This is basically my home away from home. I like the atmosphere. I spend a lot of time here when I'm not working," said Dasher. "It's small. Everybody knows everybody's name, and I know 90 percent of the people who come in the door."

So, what's next for the Southern Area Public Library?

There are plans to open the facility on Mondays, making it available to customers six days a week. Stenger and her volunteers want to host more parties and charity events in Lost Creek. They also want to install a faster, more efficient Internet connection.

One thing that's certain, though, is the library will continue to be a haven for children and adults in Lost Creek looking for a place to gather, learn and grow as a community.


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