FOWL works to build a new library in Winthrop
Photo by Ashley Ahearn
Winthrop librarian Sally Portman has worked to make the small building a welcoming space.
Group gathers feedback now for fundraising effort later
BY ASHLEY AHEARN
Winthrop has a small but mighty library that has served the community for decades, but a growing number of people say it’s time for an upgrade.
The current building, on Highway 20 on the outskirts of town, is a former interpretive center and was only meant as a temporary location. The library is just over 1,000 square feet and is often filled beyond capacity during events.
“Having a free, public space that promotes learning and discovery and community is a critical piece that we’re urgently in need of in this valley,” said Shannon Polson, chair of the board of Friends of the Winthrop Library (FOWL).
FOWL is a group of volunteers spearheading an effort to build a larger, state-of-the-art, LEED-certified library in Winthrop. The group has been gathering feedback from community members as part of the needs assessment process and working to establish partnerships with the Town of Winthrop and the North Central Regional Library.
There is a feedback form on the group’s website, www.winthroplibraryfriends.org, where community members can share what they’d like to see in a new library.
“We want to hear from everyone who wants to share their thoughts and opinions on this,” said Polson.
Still early days
FOWL will be setting up small informational meetings to gather more feedback throughout this summer and plans to hold a centralized workshop and community conversation in the fall, before beginning to fundraise in earnest.
FOWL does not have a cost estimate for the new building, nor has the group completed any architectural plans, though they anticipate that the square footage of the building will need to be significantly larger than the current building.
“From community members we’ve heard that people want something light-filled, inspired and in scope with our local community,” said Sarah Berns, secretary of the FOWL board. “We’re all excited to build something that fits with the Westernization guidelines in this community.”
Berns said the library should be centrally located near public transportation and green space, with easy access for retirees and families with young children.
The town and FOWL have not agreed upon a location for the new building, though several are under consideration, including the library’s current location. A portion of that plot of land is in a flood plain and may not be conducive to hosting a larger structure.
Towns and cities in this area are responsible for providing and maintaining the buildings that house their local libraries. FOWL plans to raise all the funds needed to build the new library, and then give the building to the town of Winthrop.
“We’re very open to trying to help them find a good location and support their planning efforts so it fits with the vision we’ve crafted for the town through the comprehensive plan,” said Rocklynn Culp, Winthrop town planner.
Ongoing maintenance for a large building could add to the town’s operating expenses, however.
“From the other side of the planning coin there’s the logistics of that and how far public resources can stretch … There’s the bottom line reality of what our tax base is and supporting all the facilities that we’re trying to support,” Culp said, “but there’s a total willingness on their part and ours to work through those issues.”
The North Central Regional Library (NCRL) would provide staffing, materials, deliveries and infrastructure inside the building once it’s constructed, so those costs would not fall on the town.
NCRL oversees the operations of 30 library branches in Okanogan and four surrounding counties and has a 2018 operating budget of more than $14 million, most of which comes from property taxes.
A survey of 147 Winthrop residents conducted by the town in 2017 found that more than half visit the library more than once a month and a quarter go every week.
“Winthrop has an amazingly high circulation. They are big readers,” said Angela Morris, director of public services for NCRL. Circulation numbers in Winthrop, with a population of 394 according to the 2010 Census, approach circulation numbers in much larger communities, such as Leavenworth and Cashmere.
And, judging by the survey results, there’s reason to believe that community usage of the public library would increase if a new building was built. One-third of the survey respondents who said they visit the library less than once a month said they would go more often if there was an “increased, more welcoming space” and a larger collection; 36 percent expressed a need for more programs for adults.
“The most important factors for maintaining health into old age are continuing to engage in community and ongoing learning,” said Marcia Ives, board member of Methow At Home, which helps people in the Methow Valley age in place. “There couldn’t be a more ideal location than a public library for the ability to support our aging population.”
In the digital age, libraries across the country are increasing their focus on community programs and trainings that help kids and retirees gain the skills they need to navigate today’s technology. In rural parts of the country, libraries can be an important access point for reliable internet connection. But with its two aging computers and limited gathering space, the Winthrop library struggles to meet the needs of the community.
“I want to have adult programs and I really can’t have them during the day when I’m open because it takes up the entire space,” said Sally Portman, Winthrop librarian. “We also need rooms for meetings and storage.”
More than books
Portman has been the librarian in Winthrop for 30 years.
“I love being a librarian because I love the patrons — they become family,” she said, smiling as she shuffled papers aside and turned on her computer before opening the library doors to patrons on a recent weekday afternoon. It’s clear the little library is a beloved and relied-upon resource for the community, in no small part because of Portman’s devotion, and the trust she’s earned over the years.
“I get kids here all the time without their parents but it’s not babysitting,” she said. “The kids know what to do. I think all the parents trust the library and the other patrons here so they’re happy to leave kids.”
For Rachel Mackmorran, an architect and board member of FOWL, her local library played an important role in her own childhood, which is a big part of why she’s volunteering her time to see that Winthrop gets a new library.
“I grew up in a rural area 10 miles outside the nearest small town and my family was poor. I was also very academically inclined but limited by those factors. I found my support in the public library,” Mackmorran recalled. “I walked there from school pretty much every day because it was where I could study and explore and be safe and be myself.”