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Washburn library seeks to ‘reinvent itself’ amidst a struggling community

WASHBURN, Maine — Londa Brown, chair of the Washburn Memorial Library board of directors, spends hours each week “weeding” through hundreds of the library’s oldest, less utilized books in hopes of redesigning the space for greater use for children, teens and any other community members who wish to take advantage of its services.

But she and librarian Lois Walton are always looking for helping hands.

“We recently had the industrial arts students from the high school come and carry out and pack books for us and that was a big help,” Brown said on June 14.

As she spoke, she sat at one of the library tables where stacks of books on topics such as wrestling and flyfishing, many dating back to the 1990s, 80s and even late 60s, filled half the space. Eventually she and Walton will hold a book sale for all those volumes, but without more volunteers there is only so much work they can do in the meantime.

“We can’t even begin to think about what we want to do next until we get the shelves cleared off, and for that we’ll need even more help,” Brown said.

With a decreasing population, particularly of school-aged youth, the Washburn Memorial Library has worked with few financial resources to redesign the space both inside and outside to meet the needs of community members.

This spring the library obtained a $20,000 grant to install a wheelchair accessible ramp, front steps and a sidewalk outside of the front entrance. As part of the grant funding, the high school industrial arts students also will design and build a new sign and book return box.

Brown said that the library board is still awaiting approval for the renovations from the state fire marshal but hope that construction begins sometime this month. The library will be closed during that time due to the back entrance not being wheelchair accessible.

On May 7, library board members hosted a dedication of the downstairs meeting room to Barbara Porter, who served as librarian for 20 years. Although the room opened five years ago, the board officially dedicated the space to honor Porter’s contributions and encourage more community groups to use it.

Currently the Barbara Porter Room provides space for toddler storytime, local Girl Scout events, a senior citizen group and the library’s new monthly book club. Brown noted that people could easily use the space for knitting groups, arts and crafts or other activities. The library also plans to start a Lego club for middle school students.

“We’re always looking for new ideas,” Brown said. “We want to reinvent ourselves and become a visible part of our community for anyone from babies to senior citizens.”

Brown, who previously served as a library and media specialist at elementary schools in Washburn and Caribou, said that access to the library can make a big difference in whether children learn to enjoy reading. Since she retired from Washburn District Elementary School in 2013, the school has not had a full-time library and media specialist due to increased concerns about school district budget options.

Starting this fall Brown will write letters for the school to send home with all children, inviting them to get a free library card. She also has invited teachers at both the elementary and high school to bring students and take advantage of both the literary and technology resources available.

“I’ve always said, ‘Kids who read succeed’ and they all need that exposure to libraries at a young age,” Brown said. “Once we’re done ‘weeding’ out these older books we’d like to replace the shelves with tables in the middle of the room and expand our children’s and teen collections. We’ve also purchased more large-print books.”

Technology has become an even more viable resource for the library, as many people in Washburn use the computers to look at local job postings. Free Wi-Fi is available both inside and outside the building and the CloudLibrary offers free ebooks and audiobooks on any device. Just this year the library launched its first ever website, with help from Washburn District High School National Honor Society students, and a Facebook page.

One of those students, NHS Vice President Julia Dahlgren, wrote a letter to the people of Washburn, asking for their continued support of the library.

“We are proud Washburn residents. We need to stay proud of our little town and help it to succeed,” Dahlgren wrote in her letter on behalf of the NHS. “The library is just one of the few necessities left standing.”

The library is open on Mondays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and on Tuesdays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. With Walton as the sole librarian and a volunteer board, Brown said that they are limited in how much time they can spend redesigning the space and are always looking for local and state funding to help accomplish future goals. She would also like to establish a Friends of the Library group to boost local philanthropy efforts.

With more friends, families and community members involved, Brown believes that, although small, the library can become a destination place that carves a large spot in the lives of Washburn’s residents.

“Communities everywhere are struggling, but that’s why libraries are more vital than ever,” Brown said. “We want families to stay in town, we want community spirit and we think the library can offer that to people.”

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