A few years ago, we did a profile of the extraordinary Pottsboro Library in rural Texas, which was facing closure but got creative on a shoestring to turn things around. We recently called attention to the story again on Twitter. Volunteer library director Dianne Connery replied that a lot of things have happened since then. Here's the rest of the story of one of the most creative small libraries in the land.
The town of Pottsboro, Texas, has just over 2,000 souls and is located 77 miles north of Dallas on the Texas-Oklahoma border. The town has two traffic lights. Texas is a non-income-tax state, so funding for libraries is slim. Several rural libraries in Texas are run by volunteers. In our previous profile, we talked about how the town's library was trying to function on a $4,000 budget and, despite having no payroll, was having trouble keeping the doors open.
Enter Dianne Connery
Dianne Connery is the current volunteer director of library services for Pottsboro Area Library. A few years ago, she retired from her gerontology case management business in Dallas and moved with her husband to the small, quiet town of Pottsboro. She joined the library board and within three months became board president. She reports that the board meetings at that time were all about when the library would need to close its doors. She proposed to the board, "Why don't we take whatever money we have and make the library essential to the community?" They knew they could not rely solely on grants and donations. Work began on discovering how to provide what city government and the community want and need.
The board got experimental. Dianne says, "We were light on our feet. If we thought of an idea in the morning, we could implement it in the afternoon. One local unmet need was a media gap. We have a once-a-week newspaper and no TV station. We partnered with our local ISP to create digital signage in high-traffic areas all over town and in neighboring towns. That was our first successful entrepreneurial project."
Leveraging Government Funding with Entrepreneurship
Now, four years and many more successful entrepreneurial projects later, the town council has voted for budget increases every year. The budget allocation is now up to $30,000 per year. The library has also beefed up its grantseeking work due to a gifted board member who brings in an extra $100,000 on average each year. The Tocker Foundation recently gave the library a $50,000 grant to modernize the interior of the 2,600-square-foot converted post office and make it more inviting.
Dianne Connery can now make the case that the local government allocation leverages three times its contribution, which impresses the council considerably. The library now has a full-time librarian and two library workers paid by a grant by the Federal Senior Community Service Employment Program. The library has indeed become essential to local government and the community. One of the library board members now manages the town IT system on a pro bono basis.
Since Last We Spoke
Since our first article about Pottsboro Library, here is what they have done to reimagine the library to survive and thrive.
They take their new book bike to school events and do pop-up libraries in the park that adjoins the school.
They have created a one-acre permaculture garden and are starting on a prairie restoration. Edible landscaping is planted around the library that kids are welcome to browse on after school.
They invested in "big-city library" technology innovations like a 3D printer, a virtual reality station, makerspaces, and coding classes. Dianne reports that local businesspeople particularly appreciate this innovative programming.
They developed a Family Place Library program, which includes a play space with a dollhouse and train. They do five-week parent-child workshops with experts who meet one-on-one with families. Dianne cautions that they're not a quiet library.
Their new Library of Things project came about from a $10,000 grant from a local patron. It is especially tailored to community needs. They have cargo bikes so poorer townspeople can travel to get fresh produce. Pottsboro doesn't have Uber or much public transportation. They have manual lawn mowers because the town has a jail penalty for not mowing your lawn. They have GoPro and SLR cameras, projector screens, a carpet cleaner (which apparently saved a marriage), a ukulele, camping equipment for the nearby lake, and tables and chairs for parties.
They were named a finalist for Best Small Libraries in America in 2017
Dianne Connery's Tips on How to Save a Library
Dianne has found that building her library board has been essential to this success story. Here are some of her tips on how she has developed a powerful board.
- In small towns, boards often attract the usual suspects — older wealthy people. We have reached out to neighboring towns and gotten diversity on the board. Invite poorer people, people of color, working people who have kids to join. Most importantly, try and attract people who can bring partnerships. We now have a theatre teacher who gets us much closer to our schools and teachers.
- Make it convenient to serve. Council of Governments did a training for us and helped us change our bylaws to make them more helpful in attracting great board members. We've also changed our meeting times from midday to early evening. We don't do too many board meetings and make the meetings crisp and efficient.
- Say yes as much as possible. I make a point of supporting board members with their other interests, like attending their favorite events. We are open to board suggestions. A board member recently wanted us to expand our trivia night fundraiser to another town with a bigger event space. We did that.
Dianne's Tips for Entrepreneurship
- Be passionate about your goals and pursue them. If you're not making people mad, you're not doing enough.
- Go outside of the building to find out what the community needs. As an example, I attend long school board meetings and recently found out that technology training for teachers is primary need. Our library can help address that.
- Pay local businesses for services, like our new stained-glass window. Businesspeople often go above and beyond and give much more than they're paid for.
- Say yes to donations — even if you don't need them. We accepted a used computer donation. The donor became a new board member who helped us develop our new high-tech programs.
- We provide excellent customer service. We go out of our way to be friendly to patrons. We have taken down our posters with all of our rules, regulations, and penalties.
Passion Attracts Passion
Dianne sums it all up. "This library became my passion, and passion attracts passion. That's how we have attracted quality board members. We could not have reimagined our library without our great board members. Customer service is our specialty. We say yes as much as we can. I volunteer as library director because the city can't yet pay what a library director is worth. My husband and I can afford for me to follow my passion as a volunteer, so I do."