Wordshore

Writing in the long form
August 12th, 2009 by John

Orland Public Library, Indiana

Library Open

If you love books and libraries, and you are travelling around America, this is the library to visit; the Joyce library, in Orland, up in the north east corner of Indiana. I’d heard recommendations about it from other librarians in the county, especially about the old library upstairs, so it became a bit of a must-see.

It didn’t disappoint.

Front of the building

The library is open for three days a week, four hours on each day. Called the Joyce Public Library, it’s named after the person who created it, back in 1903. Orland itself has a population of just 400. So it isn’t a big place, though it has pretty houses, and a famous diner (Chubby’s) where the portion sizes are threatening and cost a pittance is next door to the library.

Walking inside, you find yourself in a single, long room with (very) neatly arranged cases, shelves and books. There isn’t a single thing out of place and, probably, not a spec of dust in the place. I’ve never seen a library kept in this pristine and neat condition. Ever. Near the main desk, where patrons discussed the plots of the books they were returning, was the catalogue. Not PC-based, but a traditional card catalogue; a rummage through showed every card typed out in the same careful style. Entries for of my favourite books in the library came up in it (probably quicker than by using a PC-based catalogue, if one had been available).

Main collection

I got chatting to the staff who, like all the other librarians encountered in rural Indiana, were friendly and keen to speak to folk (especially folk with English accents). They gave a history of the place and offered what I was hoping for, a tour of the rooms not normally open to the public.

And so, the upstairs were a complete revelation. Larger than the downstairs, the restoration and materials spread across three rooms. The first one was the old library proper, complete with bell, the original card cataloguing case, and numerous books.

Old library room

The historical books can be browsed (but not taken out of the library) …

Books in the old library

… while the other rooms contained materials included a newspaper collection dating back to the 1880s, school desks and textbooks, cuttings, pictures of the town baseball team through the last century, team clothing and tables and cupboards filled with other historical ephemera. I particularly liked the newspaper front cover detailing the massacre at Custer’s last stand, with sub-headings of “What will Congress do about it?” and “Shall this be the beginning of the end?”.

It would have taken a good few days to have had a good look through what was there, and it was obvious that there was a substantial operation underway to preserve and archive the materials. It turned out that most was donated by local families, when clearing out rooms and attics and coming across items collected, or just forgotten about, by ancestors.

Historical archiving room

Wandering downstairs, the restored pictures around the top of the walls in the public library were distracting. These were the annual school photo displays, restored and displayed in chronological order. Going back well over a century, these were fun to move along, seeing how fashion (as photographed) changed, from stern, well-buttoned turn of the (1900) century outfits …

Class of 1907

… to the formality of the WW2 years, and the more adventurous hairstyles of the 1960s. If you watch Mad Men, then the dress and personal grooming sense of the 1960s pictures are very recognisable.

Class of 1963

There was more to look at in the public library. 26 alphabet tote bags, each containing fun stuff for young kids associated with a single letter of the alphabet. The surprisingly varied public book collection itself. The wedding dress display in the front window.

So how is this, one of the nicest library and library museums I’ve ever seen, funded? Especially their library museum, which has a collection far in excess of my home town (which is several hundred years older and has a population 60 times the size). It looks like a library. It functions like a library. But it isn’t integrated into the state or county network of official public libraries because (?) there are no qualified librarians who work here. That also means it doesn’t appear on some lists of public libraries in Indiana or the USA.

Okay; get this. The annual budget of this library – including the historical rooms upstairs? $16,000. Or, in UK money, £9,400. Per year. Some of this comes from town funding; a small amount also came from out of township membership fees of $10 a year (“We could charge more, but we don’t want to.”). Some monies come from catering and meals cooked by the library staff, such as the annual firemens dinner (attendance of roughly 100 in a town of 400 residents); the staff apply for any relevant grants which they hear about.

Considering it’s a building with several floors, taxes, electricity, upkeep and maintenance, there’s a substantial historical archiving initiative going on upstairs, and that they introduce 20 or so new books to the collection every month, that’s peanuts.

Historical collection

How is this possible? Volunteer effort. It’s staffed by a handful of – unpaid – local residents, who also do the archiving and maintenance. The library board, of five people, meet once a year. And that’s about it in terms of bureacracy. People in the town come in and help with things, or donate materials or hardware. “Why do you do this?” I asked the senior who gave the guided tour, and had done much of the historical archiving. “Because we can, and if we didn’t then this would be lost, and the town wouldn’t have a library.” “Do you get many out of town visitors here, or to the upstairs library?” “Not really.” This didn’t seem to bother her; she wasn’t doing it for funding, or for public glory. She just did it for quiet personal satisfaction, and because she lived in Orland.

I dropped off 10 dollars. Inexplicably, the library doesn’t have a donation jar, the staff didn’t charge for the tour, and they seemed surprised and grateful for the donation. Unlike a few other libraries visited over the years, there was no overt revenue-generating operation; exactly the opposite. Orland public library isn’t a financial model that would work in most places. Without the considerable volunteer effort of a few locals, the support of the whole town, and the canny accumulation and use of funding, the library would become unviable immediately.

One last thing. On leaving, turning the corner outside reveals a mural on the side of the library building:

Mural

Considering the size of the archiving operation, how well materials have been ordered and preserved, the miniscule budget and the number of people working there – with the support of the town – Orland public library seems a more heroic, worthy, complete and (above all) personal effort than more well-known libraries and museums such as the Bodleian, National Library of Scotland or the Smithsonian.

So that was my trip to Orland public library; a deeply satisfying way of ending a summer in the heat of midwest America.

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