2020 Evy Nordley Finalist #3: Friends of the Brainerd Public Library

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Posted by jim under Grants & Awards

With an easy return to pre-pandemic “normalcy” seeming less and less likely, more and more libraries are doubling down on virtual storytimes for their youngest patrons. Large and nationally reputed libraries like New York City and San Francisco have enjoyed the limelight over the past several months for their rapid adoption and perfection of this new style of programming. However, as parents and tots across central Minnesota can attest, the Friends of the Brainerd Public Library have been right there with the Big Boys from the beginning.

brainerd.pngThe beginning, for all intents and purposes, was mid-March 2020. Long-time board member Sheila DeChantal landed on the concept as the perfect way to keep kids engaged with their Library during the unprecedented facility closure.

In a lightning fast turnaround, “Reading with Friends” moved from idea stage to implementation after just one brainstorm meeting and several frenzied calls with possible readers.

Fortunately for DeChantal, she had a ready short list of qualified prospects to tap. For the past eight years, The Friends in Brainerd have coordinated Wine and Words – a hugely successful gala featuring popular authors hailing from across Minnesota and beyond. Wine and Word “alumni” including Barbara Claypole White, Kristina McMorris, and Heather Gudenkauf volunteered to take early shifts. DeChantal herself took the inaugural morning slot on March 23, with the apropos selection “The Night Library” by David Zeltser.

Hungry for content, families tuned in – to the tune of 200-1,200 hits per episode. These impressive figures factor in views of recordings available after the time of original broadcast. Ready availability of that archive is a prime reason that The Friends tapped Facebook Live for their livestream needs.

facebooklive.pngThese numbers augured well. “While we did not place ads, we received newspaper and radio coverage for what we were doing, because it was one of the first programs back up and running in our community after COVID hit,” explained DeChantal.

Once the program gained momentum in this way, volunteers came out of the woodwork to apply. Between March and May, readers representing community organizations as diverse as the YMCA, United Way, and Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce put themselves forward. Naturally, library staff and Friends leaders also took a turn – or two.

Daily story times (excluding Sundays) concluded May 2. During this run, nearly 70 videos racked up an impressive 27,881 hits. Moreover, the Friends of the Brainerd Public Library grew their Facebook following nearly 50 percent: from 724 to 1,059.

In other ways, the dividends are harder to quantify. “We now have people checking in to see what we’re doing next,” DeChantal noted. The Friends parlayed some of that interest into views in their summer experiment: a series of Brown Bag Virtual Author Visits featuring award-winning novelists like Peter Geye, Brian Freeman, and Sarah Stonich.

2020 Evy Nordley Finalist #2: Friends of the Isanti Area Library

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fial.jpgIn addition to more than 350 brick-and-mortar public libraries, Minnesota is home to dozens of bookmobiles and outreach stations. Satellite service sites like these are necessary to extending regular library service to residents in Minnesota’s most rural areas. The compact Isanti Outreach Library (part of the East Central Regional Library) is a perfect example.

Outsiders could be forgiven for not expecting anything beyond the minimum from Isanti Outreach Library. It is tucked into one corner of Isanti City Hall, has just one computer terminal, and is open only four hours a week. In many ways, however, this Library hits beyond its weight class. The Friends of the Isanti Area Library (FIAL) and their periodic book sales are one reason why.

While book sales are of course a Friends fundraiser staple, we’re not aware of any before now that have been held in a bowling alley!  

It wasn’t always this way. Lacking spaces within their modest Library to organize and display materials, FIAL hosted their first five annual sales inside a member’s home. Once the materials on offer approached 4,000 (in a town of 5,200, mind you!), this venue became untenable.

Mike Warring, owner Bowling Junction, sits on the board of the Friends. For the sixth annual sale – held in February 2019 in conjunction with I Love to Read Month – the Friends set up shop at this popular community establishment on the north side of Isanti.

FIAL Book Sale MW.jpegWishing to optimize the added square footage and “plus” the event, FIAL invited area authors to set up tables around the periphery of the book sale for meet-and-greets and signings.

This move drew book lovers who do not frequent book sales as a general rule. FIAL’s strategic pricing structure also drew in browsers from every adjoining county and beyond.

“We sold all materials for 25 cents each. When asked why we didn’t charge more, we reminded people that our primary goal is getting books into the hands of citizens – making money is secondary. For example, I saw one mother with three children at the sale. She told them they could each choose only one book, because that’s what she could afford. If we charged even 50 cents, those children could have missed out.”

At the same time, however, volunteers manning checkout encouraged buyers able to do so to donate to FIAL beyond this base fee. Consequently, revenue on the 1,700 items sold was substantial by the standards of a rural outreach library.

FIAL will use the proceeds in expand their community reach in the coming year. Among other uses, they intend to purchase Give & Take Bookshelves (somewhat like a Little Free Libraries) for installation within various community businesses.

2020 Evy Nordley Finalist #1: Marine Library Association

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Some say that it’s not about what you know, but who you know. However, any such distinctions are moot for husband-and-wife team and Marine Library Association stalwarts Gayle Knutson and Jim Maher. Their latest passion project, “River Radio,” is the newest initiative to come out of an unconventional Library with a long track record for creativity.

river-radio.jpgMarine Community Library is one of only a handful of volunteer-run public libraries in the Upper Midwest. Although formerly part of the Washington County Library system, the Library reconstituted itself as a Friends of the Library operation after budget belt-tightening threatened its closure in 2011. While small in square footage, the Marine Community Library offers most of the services available at larger and more conventionally funded libraries.

Knutson and Maher are prominent among the residents who regularly contribute their time and talents to the Library’s operations. In fact, Maher is currently chairperson of the Association’s board of directors.

Providentially, both Friends are also veterans of the radio world. After the heightening coronavirus pandemic brought normal operations to an abrupt halt in March, the pair decided to deploy their skills in service to the Library. With assistance from fellow Friends, they hatched “River Radio” – named in homage to Marine’s location along the St. Croix River.

Ingeniously, the partners realized that you don’t need FM airwaves – or even a true station – to pull off a successful radio show. They invest just a few bucks a month into a Zoom videoconference subscription, which they tap for its reliable audio recording and broadcasting capabilities.

River Radio debuted on March 28, and new episodes have debuted weekly ever since. Featured subjects truly run the gamut, and this impressive topical diversity is matched by guest speakers’ credentials in their respective fields. Knutson and Maher have welcomed Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison, NPR/MPR senior economics reporter Chris Farrell, and award-winning folk musician John Gorka. Other guests to date have included the mayors of Marine and Scandia, University of Minnesota specialists in economics and epidemiology, and representatives from the National Park Service and varied history and culture institutions.

_logoSmall.jpgUnsurprisingly, given the origins of River Radio, speakers from area libraries and bookstores are also frequent guests of Knutson and Maher.

As you can glean from that line up, the program offers timely content on the unfolding COVID-19 crisis – as well as much needed diversions.

“We feel that River Radio has had great impact on the wellbeing of the Marine community, offering at least something from the Library during the continuing closure,” explained Loralee DiLorenzo, vice chair of the Marine Library Association. On-air surveys, available through Zoom to listeners who tune in live, corroborate the sentiment.

Fortunately for residents of Marine – and really, anyone in or even beyond Washington County who cares to tune in – River Radio is likely to stick around. “The Library is considering offering occasional episodes for part of the summer, and then a more regular schedule again in the fall.”