These days many folks on the land are feeling isolated. Country life can bring serenity but it can also bring loneliness, especially during a pandemic. In many rural areas broadband doesn’t exist and there’s little connectivity to the electronic world. Fortunately an idea advocated by Ben Franklin still connects farms and rural communities with the outside world and their neighbors. It’s called a library.
“A lot of people come in and use the library for other things besides getting books, magazines or DVDs,” said Darrell Pendergrass, who directs the Washburn Public Library in far-northern Wisconsin. People come in because it’s a warm place in winter and cool in summer. In a non-pandemic year we have about 45,000 items checked out. Thousands of people use our meeting rooms.
“At the Washburn Public Library when people wonder if the library will do something, all they have to do is ask. If we can do it, we will. I’ve been here 15 years. We’ve had concerts (and) a large annual veterans gathering. We host the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, Brownies, writing groups, movie groups, technical-college classes, yoga, story time for children, candy at Halloween. All kinds of things happen at this library. I think all rural libraries do what we do.”
Libraries are centers of community life all across Wisconsin; 468 libraries, branches and bookmobiles dot the state. During normal times rural libraries provide a gamut of services – Wi-Fi, computers connected to the World Wide Web, newspapers, magazines, books, audio recordings, DVDs and interlibrary loan programs. They have learned librarians who provide help, advice and access.
For students and parents coping with pandemic home school, libraries are more essential than ever. The Washburn Public Library is following state guidelines for pandemic hygiene. Curbside pickup of library materials is offered six days per week.
“If people call and can’t get out of their car, we will take items out to them,” Pendergrass said. “I have people say they can’t get to the library. We will drive to their house and hand them their items. This isn’t my library; this is the people’s library. I’m just running it for them. Tell me what you want me to do and if I can do it, I will.
“I always tell children when I welcome them to this library, if you are ever in a town and you get separated from your parents and you don’t know where to go, if you see a public library go and talk to the people there. The people at the library will help you. They will keep you safe. They will find your parents and get you back where you need to be.”
The expansive view of service to the community at the Washburn Public Library has led to extensive levels of local support. The library is a beautiful building built in 1905 with funding from Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie gave much of the fortune he made in the steel business away by building community libraries – 1,689 of them.
“It’s a brownstone building,” Pendergrass said. “It needs the mortar between the brownstone blocks replaced. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places. We needed roughly $300,000 for the project; we started raising funds two years ago. The Bremer Trust pledged $100,000 if we could raise $190,000. We had raffles and events. We got funds from Bayfield County, the Washburn Community Education Foundation and the city of Washburn. In August we did a mass mailing to residents in Washburn and the surrounding area. We’re in a pandemic; people are struggling. It was humbling to open letters and find checks. I was overwhelmed. Most checks were between $25 and $100. I know this is not surplus money people had, but this library means something to them. People donated around $170,000. We will begin the project in spring.”
Rural libraries, like the one in Washburn, are living parts of their communities. They provide more than knowledge of the world in books. They provide a place to belong and the compassion we all hope to find in our neighbors.
Jason Maloney is an “elderly” farm boy from Marinette County, Wisconsin. He’s a retired educator, a retired soldier and a lifelong Wisconsin resident. He lives on the shore of Lake Superior with his wife, Cindy Dillenschneider, and Red, a sturdy loyal Australian Shepherd.