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."