The Heart of a Town

With its array of books, DVDs, Xbox games, and mural of local history, the Weippe Discovery Center, which houses both the public library and the visitor’s center, is a nexus of activity for the young and old.

The Weippe library was recently honored by being one of two finalists for the “Best Small Library in America” award, co-sponsored by Library Journal and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  The award, which honors outstanding service to communities of 25,000 or fewer people, included a trip to Portland, Oregon and attendance at the Public Library Association conference.  The library has evolved since its inception, but improvements by current director Terri Summerfield have allowed it to serve as many capacities as possible in this small community

The library was first run out of Mrs. Lowell Crouser’s house after the loan of sixty books from the Orofino librarian.  With the help of volunteers and donations, the library opened on July 9, 1956, and that same year a library district was formed.  The board of trustees was appointed in 1968.  In 1986, money from a grant allowed the library to move in town.  Over the course of twenty years, the library gradually outgrew the space, and the Lewis and Clark bicentennial was a perfect excuse – and source of funds – to remodel a building for the new library.  In order to take advantage of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial funds, Friends of the Library and the city of Weippe worked together to purchase a former church that would house both the library and a visitors’ center.

In 2003, renovation began on the inside, which was 5,700 square feet instead of the 1,200 square feet of the previous building.  In addition to offering the usual library services of books, periodicals, and Internet, Terri still wanted to offer more.  She was able to increase the number of computers from 4 to 9.  A grant from Idaho Commission for Libraries allowed the library to buy a 52” flat screen TV, Xbox, and Wii to appeal to teens.  They also started carrying DVDs as there was no movie rental store in town.

The goal with the outside renovation was to produce a visitor’s center that could be open 24/7 and wouldn’t need to rely on staff to be accessible.  This was accomplished through painting a detailed mural that extends around the outside of the building and chronicles Lewis and Clark’s journey through Idaho and some history of the Nez Perce.  Narrative is provided through snippets from the Lewis and Clark journals, and the mural is lit up at night so visitors can engage with the mural at all hours.  Also, the landscape around the discovery center features plants – like snowberry and sticky current — Lewis and Clark came upon on their travels.  Plaques tell the name of each plant and how Lewis described the plant in his journal.  Additionally, a series of large paintings mounted on a fence trace the history of the area from the end of the mural to present day, including the Gold Rush, the Nez Perce war, the founding of Weippe, sheep drives, and the current industry of logging.  Terri said, “We wanted to be different than other visitor’s centers.”

One of the goals Terri had in mind for the new library was to increase visitors by offering more than just books.  Computers had come in the original grant, but they weren’t very useful without high-speed internet.  She knew that the library should be a hub of information, and one important way to get information was to have high-speed Internet, something that wasn’t available in Weippe through any carriers, as is often the case in rural areas.  She partnered with First Step Internet to broadcast wireless to the town and also provide free, high-speed internet service at the library.  Terri said, “It’s our choice to be rural, but that doesn’t mean we want to be backwoods.”

When community members said they wanted the visitor’s center to continue inside the building as well, Terri began adding videos and books about Lewis and Clark, displays of authentic Nez Perce baskets, a pair of life-size sand hill cranes, and examples of the skull, scat and pelt of local animals like beaver, muskrat, and wolf.

More money also meant being able to expand programs for all ages.  The library is able to host teen nights on Friday or Saturday nights, summer reading programs often paired with activities like building a fly-fishing rod for kids and teenagers, and community events like a blood drive and a Dutch oven cook-off.  The library has also partnered with the local school, which because of budget cuts has gone down to a four- day school week and has trimmed or cut drama and music programs.  The library offers Lego programs for first through third and fourth through sixth graders, which encourage kids to make use of math, science, and reading skills as they compete with other kids throughout the state.  Terri says, “The old-fashioned community center was the basketball courts.  We don’t need that today.  We need an information age community center.  That’s what we are.”

While Terri said about 80 percent of Weippe residents know the library has more than just books, the library is constantly trying to find out what residents – especially those who are not already patrons — need and want.  Friends of the Library surveyed the local mini-mart at peak hours and attended the senior center lunch program.  For example, baby boomers requested a computer literacy class for middle-age and elderly patrons.  “We try to be everything the community needs,” says Terri.

Terri came back from the Portland conference feeling energized and with new ideas, like buying a few Amazon kindles for the library.  She says she may wait a year before reapplying for the “Best Small Library in America” award since she thinks they will have to do something truly outstanding to win, but it seems inevitable that she will think of something to make the library even more of an asset to Weippe than it already is.


— Andrea Clark Mason

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