Users in all 30 local branches have same access to materials
Regular patrons of the new and architecturally distinctive Winthrop library or the two cozy rooms of the Twisp library may not immediately relate to the tiny libraries in Peshastin or Curlew, but that’s partially by design.
Administrators of North Central Washington (NCW) Libraries are diligent about making sure each of the 30 branch libraries — across five counties — offers materials that appeal to their local community.
At the same time, library users anywhere in the system have access to identical services. They can visit any branch to check out books and movies or use public computers, and can download e-books to their phones from anywhere. They can also borrow more atypical items, from snowshoes to Wi-Fi hotspots to blood-pressure monitors, via the Library of Things.
“Libraries have evolved considerably over the past 20 years. Most people are really surprised when they learn how many innovative services we offer throughout our communities,” NCW Libraries Associate Director of Programs & Resources Summer Hayes said.
NCW Libraries relies on branch librarians and their knowledge of their communities to stock each branch with materials and develop programs that will appeal to local users, Hayes said.
The library collection “floats,” meaning books and other items typically reside at a specific branch for their first six months in the collection. After that, the materials stay at the branch they’re returned to till they’re checked out again, Hayes said.
The library also finds ways to reach people where they are. In some communities, librarians visit the local food bank, bringing books to check out and signing people up for library cards. People in remote communities without their own branch get materials through the bookmobile and the mail-order library. The library delivers books to people who can’t travel to the library in person, including in the Okanogan County jail and those in advanced-care facilities, Hayes said.
Although there are systemwide programming expectations, branch librarians have considerable leeway to develop programs to appeal to their local community. In Bridgeport, where there aren’t many organized community activities, the library hosts a crafts night at a local business. In Entiat, there’s a walking book club, where dedicated readers discuss books during an early-morning walk, Hayes said.
Librarians get to know people in their community to determine who needs services the most, and then shape programs accordingly. Branches may emphasize activities for teens or Spanish-language or early-literacy programs, depending on local needs and interests, Hayes said. Branch librarians also have lots of autonomy to arrange materials and create displays for themes like winter reading or Pride month, Hayes said.
In addition to input from librarians, sophisticated software helps review and recalibrate the collection, Hayes said. “It’s a lot more complicated than people realize,” she said.
Even though today, many people download e-books and stream movies, NCW Libraries’ patrons still take home twice as many physical books and DVDs, Hayes said. That’s in part because people in remote communities have little access to broadband, and many don’t have a computer. Then again, some dedicated library users access all their materials online and never set foot in a library building.
Board of trustees
NCW Libraries is governed by a board of trustees, which has at least one representative from each of the five counties, who are appointed by their respective county commissioners. Methow Valley resident Jill Sheley is in her first term on the board.
Although Sheley has always loved libraries, she became deeply immersed in the local library system when she was executive director of Friends of the Winthrop Library (FOWL) as the group was working toward a new library. Sheley was director at FOWL while the group and dedicated committees solicited community input, raised funds, and worked with the designer and construction crew for the new library, which opened last June.
Being executive director of FOWL was a “fast and deep immersion” in the world of public libraries, Sheley said. It helped her realize that libraries not only provide books and other materials, but that they also serve as valuable gathering places and safe spaces for everyone in the community.
“I’m a huge supporter of libraries — they equalize access to information and resources. They’re for everyone, and they’re free. There are not many places like that,” she said.
NCW Libraries’ executive leadership teams present policy proposals for the entire library system to the board of trustees. The board discusses proposals, considers amendments, and decides whether to approve them. The board also takes public comment and listens to people’s concerns, but all decisions are made by library staff, Sheley said.
The library has revised some policies in recent years. Librarians at small rural libraries often come from their community, and many long-serving NCW librarians fit that mold — both Twisp and Winthrop have had librarians who served for decades and who’d come from the community.
Today, NCW Libraries requires new hires to have an advanced degree in library science. The requirement is set by state law, Hayes said.
The law requires any librarian in a community with a population of 4,000 or more to have an advanced degree or a certificate issued by the state librarian attesting to “knowledge of information resources and library/information service delivery equivalent to that required for graduation from an accredited library education program.”
NCW Libraries invests in its librarians and supports professional development, Hayes said. They are particularly committed to supporting those from the local community who have vital lived perspectives and a bilingual or bicultural background, she said.
But the library’s current policy on qualifications disappoints some people. Several Methow Valley residents told the Methow Valley News that the library was once a place where community members — often long-time volunteers — could aspire to becoming a librarian at their local branch, even without an advanced degree.
Other recent changes affect library volunteers. Methow Valley resident Gina McCoy volunteered at the Twisp and Winthrop libraries for years, where she would check books in and out and fill in at the desk while the librarian led a reading program.
McCoy was recently informed that volunteers no longer have access to the library’s computer system, meaning that her tasks dwindled to reshelving books, she said. Because of the new policy, McCoy no longer volunteers at the library. She made her concerns known in a letter to the library’s board of trustees, which she read at their September meeting.
“Volunteering at the library was a big part of my tie to the community — it meant quite a lot to me. I love libraries,” McCoy told the Methow Valley News after the meeting.
The policy changed last fall, when the board adopted a new policy for employees and volunteers to safeguard the privacy and confidentiality of library patrons, NCW Libraries Executive Director Barbara Walters told the News. To do circulation tasks, such as checking books in and out, the volunteer would need access to the patron database, which includes personal information, transaction records and other sensitive data, including that of minors, Walters said. Volunteers are still used in many capacities, she said.
There have been other recent changes at the library. During the pandemic, NCW Libraries’ frontline staff began the process of unionizing with AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees), which represents more than 350 libraries across the country, including most library systems in Washington, Walters said. They are now represented by AFSCME.
“We fully supported our staff’s right to unionize, and we viewed this as an opportunity for constructive dialogue and collaboration. Library administration remains committed to working together with our unionized staff to create a positive, productive and safe work environment that benefits both our employees and the community we serve,” Walters said.
Library collection appeals to all interests
Early this month, Twisp Librarian Ree West was busy creating a display for Banned Books Week to educate patrons about the sharp increase in book challenges over the past few years. Banned Books Week highlights the importance of free and open access to information, according to the American Library Association (ALA).
Although book challenges in libraries nearly doubled from 2021 to 2022, the rise is particularly striking when you look back 20 years. Over the past two decades, the number of challenges has intensified more than eight-fold, from 305 to 2,571, according to ALA data that West posted in the library. Last year, almost half of all challenges were made to public libraries.
West also displayed 17 books that have been the subject of protests over several decades — everything from “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, to the young adult book “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle, to the “Captain Underpants” series.
West summed up the complaints in notes for each book. “To Kill a Mockingbird” has been banned for offensive language, racial descriptions, and a description of rape. “A Wrinkle in Time” has been criticized both for being too religious and not religious enough. “Captain Underpants” was seen as setting a crude example for kids.
One book Ree displayed, the best-selling “Friday Night Lights” (the nonfiction account of a town in Texas and its high school football team) was recently banned by an Iowa school district that used artificial intelligence (AI) to scan all books in its library for objectionable content to comply with a new state law. It turned out that AI got it completely wrong, and the book was put back on the shelf, West said.
“Some of the reasons defy logic,” said West, who hoped the banned books display would prompt discussion. She always encourages people to use the library together as a family, and to talk about how they select materials.
In an era where libraries across the country are being attacked for materials some people deem inappropriate, NCW Libraries has stuck to its fundamental mission and collection policy. The library’s job is to ensure that all patrons can find materials that are interesting and relevant to them, and to serve everyone with a wide variety of interests and points of view. “It’s a delicate balance,” NCW Libraries Associate Director of Programs & Resources Summer Hayes told the Methow Valley News.
The commitment to serving everyone is one of Hayes’ favorite things about the library. “It’s really important for people to see materials where they recognize themselves and that validate their existence,” Hayes said. The library won’t agree to shelve something behind the desk, because that creates a barrier and decreases access, she said.
Despite the sharp rise in challenges about books, complaints to NCW Libraries have been relatively low, Hayes said. When they receive a formal request to remove a library material entirely, library administration looks at the circulation history of the item along with professional reviews and holdings in other library systems. All items that have been challenged have remained on the shelf after a thorough review, Hayes said. The library also gets a lot of positive feedback about the diversity of the collection, she said.
Methow Valley resident Jill Sheley, who represents Okanogan County on the library’s board of trustees, said library policy states that they want something for everyone on the shelves, to ensure all people have access to materials they find simulating, educational and enlightening. The board fully supports that, she said.
NCW Libraries’ collection development policy clearly sets out its position: “The District neither encourages or discourages any particular viewpoint. No library materials that meet the District’s selection criteria shall be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of the author or those contributing to its creation. Selection of materials by the District does not mean endorsement of the contents or the views expressed in those materials. Not all materials will be suitable for all members of the community,” the policy says in part.
The policy also governs the role of librarians and arrangement of materials. “The library collection shall be organized and maintained to facilitate access. There shall be no prejudicial labeling, sequestering, or alteration of materials because of controversy surrounding the author or the subject matter,” it says.
In her 17 years as a librarian, West has seen attitudes shift. Years ago, people were more willing to have a conversation about their concerns, and those talks frequently resolved the issue. Those conversations often led to an understanding of why it was important that a book be available for other readers, she said.
NCW Libraries’ collections policy backs that up: “Individuals are free to select or reject materials based on personal values; however, they cannot restrict the freedom of others to read, view, or inquire. Only parents or guardians have the right and responsibility to guide and direct the reading, listening, and viewing of their own minor children. While available to provide guidance, library staff members are not responsible for monitoring a child’s use of and selection from library collections,” it says.
Freedom to read
At the September board meeting, the library administration recommended that the board adopt a Freedom to Read statement because of “a growing effort to defund and close libraries nationwide, including right here in Washington.”
After a discussion, the board deleted one paragraph from the administration’s proposal. They said that that part of the statement — “Calls for book bans, the adoption of unconstitutional legislation, and campaigns to criminalize the work of librarians and other individuals for distributing materials protected by the First Amendment all work to threaten our fundamental liberties” — was already covered in other sections.
The statement the board adopted declares that “limiting the power and autonomy of others based on your own personal beliefs is unconstitutional and a threat to a free society.” It ends with this sentence: “We trust our community members to make their own decisions about what they read and believe. Everyone has a right to select for themselves what is appropriate to read. They do not have a right to restrict what others may choose.”
Sheley said she’s been following “horror stories” about attacks on library systems across the country. “I’m quite proud of NCW Libraries staff for their professionalism and foresight, with rock-solid policies and procedures to handle things well,” Sheley said. Having librarians who are deeply embedded in their communities, who can talk to people and listen to their concerns, probably helps to keep things calm, she said.
In 2022, NCW Libraries had:
• 600,000 visits to library branches
• 824,000 physical items checked out
• 427,000 digital items checked out (streaming music and movies and downloads of e-books)
• 120,000 sessions on public computers
• 11,000 new library cards issued
• 5,610 patron purchase requests filled
• 11,000 Spanish-language items in its collection
Source: NCW Libraries