As a lifelong Wilkes County resident, taxpayer, library user and Wilkes County Library Research Committee member, I wanted to give my take on the committee’s first meeting on June 14. The county commissioners appointed the committee after pulling the Wilkes County Library out of the Appalachian Regional Library (ARL) System was proposed. Commissioner Casey Joe Johnson, committee chairman, said the committee’s goal is to collaborate to study, research and learn about different options for the Wilkes library. Leaving the ARL is a huge decision with major repercussions for our county.

ARL Director Jane Blackburn gave a presentation on what Wilkes residents gain from the ARL and what we stand to lose if the commissioners choose to leave. Wilkes, Ashe and Watauga counties formed the ARL in 1962. Ms. Blackburn said regional libraries benefit counties involved by reducing costs of library services for citizens. Through the ARL, you can use a Wilkes library card to also check out books, e-books, audiobooks, DVDs and more for free from ARL libraries in Watauga and Ashe counties and from about 200 libraries across the state that are part of the NC Cardinal library system.

When I was in a graduate level French class at Appalachian, we had to watch an obscure French film that I couldn’t find streaming or on Netflix DVD. NC Cardinal sourced it from another library. Teachers doing National Board Certification or taking a continuing education can find materials here in our library.

Leaving the ARL won’t mean leaving NC Cardinal, but Wilkes will have to pay to be in NC Cardinal instead of receiving this as part of being in the ARL. You can visit other libraries in our system in person, or request materials from them via the library website and receive them at the Wilkes library in a couple of days. This is important for Battle of the Books teams in Wilkes elementary, middle and high schools because the ARL keeps the books these teams need.

Another regional library system benefit is the summer reading program for children. If a performer, presenter, or animal handler accepts a slot in the popular summer reading extravaganza, the region gets a deal. This cost-saving allows the ARL to offer amazing summer programs shared with all member libraries. At the library, my children have tie dyed t-shirts, seen live theater, enjoyed magic shows, petted snakes and llamas and the Harry Potter birthday party.

While doing all this fun stuff, children get hooked on reading. Offering amazing programs exposes children to new ideas. These programs get children comfortable in the library, where they can check out all sorts of materials and expand their minds. Education isn’t just during the school year, and these summer programs can spark a passion. The summer programs are especially important because not all children are financially able to attend summer camps, and the summer reading program is free.

Summer reading programs draw tourism. We invited friends from out of town to visit us and watch a magic show, pet snakes or learn about constellations with us, and then we went out to eat at Village Inn Pizza and played on the fish playground at Smoot Park.

Our library staff has done a great job with services to children during the pandemic. All programs are outside this summer and the library’s reach was broadened by offering children’s story time on Thursdays at noon at the Traphill Library and at 2 p.m. at Ronda Town Hall. These are held with the Wilkes Fresh program, which makes fresh produce available. There is also story time via Facebook and special guests on Friday via the library website. From 4-6 p.m. on Tuesdays, there are art parties at Cub Creek Park. Check the Tails and Tales Children’s Summer Reading program guide on the Wilkes library website. There is also a bingo board for adults.

Having a strong public library system is a jewel in Wilkes County’s crown and can affect the perception of our county among people looking to move here. If we exit the ARL and become independent, there is no guarantee that the library will be able to afford the same caliber of summer reading programs, despite their popularity and excellence.

The Wilkes library gets $145,621 annually in state financial aid due to being in the regional system, but we’ll only get $119,798 annually if we withdraw from the regional system. Many regional library systems were formed in 1962 because of this additional state aid.

Less clear is what becoming independent will cost Wilkes. A 2018 High Country Council of Governments report cited economies of scale, NC Cardinal membership, grant monies and extra state aid as financial advantages of Wilkes being in the ARL.

ARL members share services of a regional library director, financial/personnel director, technology coordinator and regional courier. These positions handle management, planning, accounting, IT services, and materials delivery for all three counties.

The ARL has received $591,192 in grants since 2013. Of this, Blackburn wrote applications for $331,211 split among ARL libraries. The Wilkes library’s third was $110,403. They funded things like Story Walk at the Fish Dam Creek Overlook and Playground at W. Kerr Scott Dam and at Smoot Park, an assessment of regional library efficiency and long range planning, staff attendance at conferences, mental health awareness, summer reading programs and digital inclusion software. Few of the grants had to be matched. Grant writing is time-consuming, and Blackburn has tirelessly gone after them for our libraries. She and Wilkes librarians wrote applications for another $39,935 awarded to the Wilkes library.

The state provides aid for every member library, plus an extra block grant of $63,313 to each multi-county regional library. This extra grant, split evenly three ways, provides $25,823 to help support our library system.

The $176,161 in grants the Wilkes library has received over the past eight years doesn’t consider the positions of regional library director, financial/personnel director, technology coordinator and regional courier that we don’t have to fund on our own. We benefit from having experts in the field handle these tasks on a regional level so county librarians can concentrate on our main Wilkes County and Traphill libraries.

If we withdraw from the ARL, Wilkes County government would be responsible for daily accounting, annual audits, county librarian supervision and IT maintenance, including the website. New county library positions would be needed, but state funding for the Wilkes library would be cut upon leaving the ARL. To maintain the current level of services if Wilkes leaves the ARL, library technology will cost county government $63,335 more per year. This includes internet services, phone services, website management and hosting, spam filters, recovery software, firewall, managed wireless system, unlimited e-magazine access, 18 mobile hot spots, copier leases, Ancestry Library, NC Kids Digital and more.

To remain in NC Cardinal, there would be a one-time fee of $10,000 to move our records and a yearly fee of roughly $3,500. A courier position would have to be created to deliver and pickup materials requested at other libraries, along with all costs incurred in the transport process. That’s another new staff position needed.

The county commissioners haven’t made library funding a high priority, so I have little hope that they will provide the additional funds needed if we leave the ARL. The Wilkes County Library budget was cut 14% in 2019-20.

Francisco Hernandez said during the June 14 meeting that the Bookmobile was very popular in his neighborhood when he was a child, but unfortunately funding was cut in 2011, and the Bookmobile went away. My father, Mike McNeil, his brothers and sister, and our extended family remember going to the Bookmobile when they were growing up on Elk Creek. Why would such a beneficial service for the whole county be thrown to the wayside?

When asked why leaving the ARL was being considered during the May 14 commissioners meeting, Chairman Eddie Settle didn’t offer a clear answer nor alternative that he thought was equally beneficial to Wilkes residents. Anecdotal evidence I’ve collected leads me to believe that the majority of Wilkes citizens are happy with our library, would like to see services increased and enhanced, and are upset and frustrated about possibly leaving the ARL.

I encourage the public to attend our Library Research Committee meeting at 5 p.m. Aug. 16 in the Commissioners Meeting Room in the Wilkes County Office Building in Wilkesboro. Johnson asked representatives of Davie County Library, an independent library, to share their experience then.

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