The magic and splendor of community libraries | Guest column

by Margaret Payne

Orcas Library Board president

Thirty-four years ago, in my mid-30s, I was the recently divorced mother of three pre-school-aged children, living on welfare while I finished a Masters in English at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Wash.

After completing that degree, I went on to become a tenured English professor, then chair for arts and humanities (a dean position) at a state community college near Tacoma. My story is both a testimony to the power of a help-up and the importance of education and information for enhancing lives.

I will celebrate my seventh year as an Orcas resident this July. I am in my fifth year as a library trustee. Serving on the library board has been a labor of love, not just because I believe so deeply in the importance of free access to information for a healthy democratic society, but also because my own and my children’s lives have been so positively impacted by libraries. I love libraries!

My first library memory is from the 1950s, where, at the corner of 27th and Grandview in University Place, Pierce County, Wash., the books came to me. I remember the magic of the steep climb up three steps into the cavernous bookmobile, filled with books and more books, some of which I got to take home. But it was as an adult, as a single mom on a limited income, that libraries became essential to our wellbeing. We rarely missed story time at the Gig Harbor Library. Just like the Orcas Library, it was a warm and welcoming place where we could be with other children and their moms and dads and listen to wonderful stories, then linger as long as we wanted, choosing books to take home. Our bedtime ritual was stories on the bottom bunk of a trundle bed. Sometimes I fell asleep as I read, and began to babble, until I got an elbow to my ribs: “It doesn’t say that!”

Academic libraries led to my degrees and were essential to my teaching. I spent 20 years of my professional life just down the hall from a library. Partially retired now, I use the Orcas library for both information and pleasure, in equal measure. I love to go to the library. What a beautiful building! Its glows like honey inside, don’t you think? And that warmth is echoed by the staff and volunteers – where almost everybody knows your name – and accidental meetings with friends and neighbors. All that happiness before one even begins to look at books! A favorite winter Sunday activity is to load up with new material, then head home and hunker down by the fire.

It’s a little scary to be charged with raising the remaining monies (we’re about 90 percent there, at over $3,000,000) to fund the library expansion. My mother’s personal economy was defined by the Great Depression; mine by those hard years on welfare. But I know our little island can do it. We did it before for both the Main Street Library in the 1950s and the current library in the early 1990s. Generous gifts from the Friends of the Library, the Bob Henigson estate, the state legislature (where the library was championed for capital funding by Senator Kevin Ranker) and many other donors have allowed us to design an expanded library that respects the warmth and beauty of our current library and creates more room for people, technology, and books. We need this room! The Orcas Library is consistently in the top five libraries in the state, per capita, for both user visits and check-outs, and those numbers continue to climb.

With input from the community, the board has finished design development for the expansion with HKP Architects (who designed the current library building). We are currently in the permitting process with the county and expect to open contractor bids in mid-May, after which we will celebrate groundbreaking with the community early this summer. The construction process will last approximately a year.

Stay tuned for frequent updates on the expansion and check out the design on the library website. And if you agree that our library is a wonderful place to be and that free access to information is essential for our well-being, both now and in the future, please donate to the expansion.

We love our Orcas Island Library!