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Treat libraries well

Mar 19, 2017 By Steven R. Peck

With a new director on the way, it's timeto recommit to these vital institutions

Once, in the not-so-distant past, the director of the library system was the highest-paid public employee in Fremont County. The library director made more than the county attorney, more than the sheriff, more than any of the other courthouse elected officials - more than anybody.

That was a reflection of several things, most likely, but one of them certainly was the recognition that the county library system was important, that it needed top-flight leadership, and that such leadership was worth rewarding and retaining.

The county librarian is no longer atop the salary scale. In and of itself, that isn't a hugely important change. It's still a well-paid position by local standards. But at this moment, when a new library director has been hired but has not yet arrived on the job, our county leaders, our library patrons and our voters have a chance to take stock of what the library system means to us - and ought to mean to us.

It has been a long time since libraries were simply repositories for books to be checked out and returned by the reading public. They still have that function, but libraries long since have become much more. They are public institutions of great value, serving as meeting places, performance venues, training centers, educational resources, exhibit halls, technology outposts,social gathering places and cultural centers. The local library always is a civic anchor in its community.

So, libraries ought to be treated well. They deserve good leadership, which begins -- but does not end -- with hiring good on-site management. At the moment in Fremont County, that aspect of library leadership is at a crucial stage. Turnover in the library system has been high at the top level, which is a problem of added gravity as it coincides with a government funding crisis in Fremont County and Wyoming, as well as challenges to familiar library roles and purposes.

Beyond that, recognition of the importance and relevance of public libraries among the elected officials who fund and, ultimately, govern them ought to be a prominent and irrevocable community value.

Do we still think libraries are important in Fremont County? Do our voters think it? Do our parents and educators? Do our children? Do our elected leaders?

The correct answer to that question must be yes. It must continue to be yes even when revenue streams narrow and when previous personnel problems have proven difficult.

When weighing the importance of something - anything - one process is to consider the loss incurred were that thing to disappear. In our smaller cities and towns, which clearly have advantages over metropolitan areas of many types that are recognized and embraced by most who live here, there also are commercial, cultural and institutional voids which can't always be neutralized by cable TV and the internet. Public libraries help fill those gaps. They make Fremont County a better place to live.

The fact that a certain percentage of the public doesn't flock to the libraries on a daily, weekly, or even annual basis must not be confused with an absence of desire or need for good, well-funded and well-run libraries. Such calculated analysis deliberately sidesteps the nourishing and reassuring presence of our libraries among us. Such contributions can't necessarily be quantified statistically, but they can be recognized culturally.

A new county library director, Janette McMahon, is on her way. This highly qualified and experienced library professionalwill start work in a month or two, promising to bring dedication, creativityand excitement to her new job.

It would be nice if she found those same qualities mirrored in those who have endorsed her for the job and those who will patronize the institutions she manages.

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