Colleagues, I salute you

Posted 10/1/10

The last time I went to Durango, I drove over Red Mountain pass at night, during a snow storm. By the time I got down, my knuckles were as white as …

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Colleagues, I salute you


The last time I went to Durango, I drove over Red Mountain pass at night, during a snow storm. By the time I got down, my knuckles were as white as the ice in my tire treads.

I had gone to Durango to run a workshop for Sherry Taber, then the new library director. She was trying to pull together a committee to build a desperately needed new library.

It took years. But just before her retirement, she made it happen. A few weeks ago, I returned to Durango, and visited the now 2-year-old library with Andy White, the gracious new director. The building is gorgeous. Nestled against the river, narrow gauge rails and a bicycle path, the library embraces sky and setting.

The next day, I drove down to Farmington, N.M. The public library director there is Karen McPheeters, a firecracker of intelligence and energy who also put years into securing the funding, designing, and now operating one of the most impressive libraries in the nation.

Karen was the first director I knew to adopt the "self-check and automated material handling" technologies that we use. I had sent some people to her library to scope it out before we invested in it. Karen was, and still is, some 10 years ahead of the rest of the library world. She has a corporate background, and brings that focus sharply to bear on her systems.

The library also reflects many of the beliefs of the Native American tribes in the area, from its floor plan to its orientation to the solstices. By being totally of its place, the Farmington Public Library succeeds in doing something else: it's world class.

Then I accompanied Paul Paladino, director of the Montrose Library District, back to his house. He showed me his new home project: he built a "casita" for his mom, attached to his own house. It's a straw bale building, and it uses the same processes that he used for the first straw bale library in the state, and only the second in the nation. That library is in Naturita, and is now a year old.

The 4,500-square-foot building in Naturita is all electric, and has bills that vary from $200 to $300 a month, which is phenomenally cheap. The community actually helped build it. Like Paul's casita, the library is cool and comfortable. I was fascinated by the chemistry of the earth plaster then lime wash finish. A combination of those two makes a wall that actually heals its own cracks and gets stronger over time. Paul is a master craftsman, and more than one kind of builder.

Oh, and on my way out to Durango, I stopped in the new Penrose Community Library , where Jean Christensen, the assistant director, gave me a tour. It's a beautiful adobe building.

Then I spent a night in Salida, where director Jeff Donlan invited me to a packed public program they hosted about Burma. He was (as always) literate, witty, and clearly comfortable in the role of community convener.

While each building I saw was unique, there was also something they had in common. Every one of these libraries was alive not only with people and materials, but also with art, with public technology, with inviting spaces for individual sanctuary and social contact.

Colorado is a stunningly beautiful place (as is northern New Mexico). But what really made those towns sparkle for me was this: the forward-thinking and innovative management of the public library. My colleagues, I salute you.

Jamie LaRue is director of Douglas County Libraries. LaRue's Views are his own.


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