Marshalltown Public Library finalist for National Medal

The Marshalltown Public Library is a finalist for national Library of the Year.

The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) gives out the yearly award. Of the 33 finalists – 16 of which are other libraries – Marshalltown is one of the smallest, going head to head with libraries in larger cities such as Omaha, Neb., Oakland, Calif., Tacoma, Wash. and Cincinnati.

In its application for the award, the Marshalltown Public Library outlined three areas that set it apart: responding to a changing community, responsive programs and partnerships and assessing impact.

“I am still constantly amazed at the diversity and depth of collaboration,” said Sarah Rosenblum, library director. “For us, it’s like winning the Nobel Prize.”

National Museum and Library Services board members, a presidentially appointed policy advisory board, reviews the nominations and makes recommendations to the IMLS director, who then selects the winners.

As of 2012, the IMLS has given the award to 122 institutions since its inception in 1994. Winners receive $5,000 in recognition of their civic, educational, economic, environmental and social contributions.

Rosenblum said she was glad that the IMLS recognized museums and libraries in communities of all sizes.

“There are small libraries out there every day that are making an impact,” she said.

The library’s application focused heavily on serving immigrant populations and ensuring services are available to accommodate people of all ages. It highlighted the library’s involvement in the Spread the Words-Read by 3rd campaign and All-America City Award as well as its hosting the state’s first Dia de los Ninos/Dia de los Libros (Day of the Child/Day of the Book).

Sue Martin, former executive director of the Martha Ellen Tye Foundation, wrote a letter in support of the library’s application. The non-profit’s $1 million donation to help build the library is the the largest it has ever handed out.

“We really wanted to make a public statement,” Martin said. “The whole library project boosted confidence I thought it was an essential component in that visioning of that downtown redevelopment.”

The library has become a hub for socialization, Martin said. It showcases Marshalltown’s versatility to new companies and highlights the city’s commitment to being on the cutting edge.

The IMLS will announce the winners in mid-April and will hold a ceremony honoring them May 8 in Washington, D.C. Following the ceremony, community members will be able to share their stories with StoryCorps, a national non-profit dedicated to cataloguing such narratives, during the group’s visit. The American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress will house these yarns.

Public and private non-profit libraries and museums of all types are eligible for the award.

Michelle Spohnheimer, Housing and Community Development director, said she too was happy to write a letter of support for the library. The library allows the Housing Department to use two houses it owns for the lead abatement program, providing temporary housing to families whose homes need lead treatment.

“It is pretty rare to see that,” she said. “It’s been a great partnership for us.”

Library programs often address the needs of many families the Housing Department serves, particularly those living in poverty, Spohnheimer said.

Janelle Carter, president of Friends of the Library, which supports many programs at the library, said her group also works synergistically with library staff to provide salient programs.

Fundraising efforts by the Friends of the Library help take budget stress of library staff, she added. The programs the library offers that the Friends of the Library works to provide are a great cause, which helps garner support, Carter said.

“Obviously, it’s working,” she said.

Those programs are integral to the library’s goal of serving citizens across a wide spectrum. With the advent of e-readers and as demand for the library’s 30 computer stations swells, Rosenblum said that library use has skyrocketed in the past few years.

Sometimes, she said, the library’s eight full-time and 10 part-time staff can hardly keep up.

“People are coming to libraries for a sense of community libraries are always evolving and changing,” Rosenblum said. “It’s not just a dusty warehouse for books anymore.”

Of the 16 libraries nominated, five will win the National Medal for Museum and Library Service. No Iowa library has ever won the award.

The IMLS’s mission is to spur innovation, encourage life-long learning and cultural and civic engagement. Its research into thousands of museums and libraries aims to strengthen state networks as well as bring successful learning models to the forefront so that other institutes of learning can replicate them.

As she talks with other librarians, Rosenblum said the degree to which other libraries face many of the same issues as the Marshalltown library continually impresses her. Working in Marshalltown has been a great learning experience, she said, and she has been working in the field for more than 30 years.

“I get a lot of joy out of what I do,” she said. “I believe in libraries.”