Corolla Public Library

The Corolla Public Library is part of the Currituck County Public Library System in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. As a vacationer-librarian-blogger, I stopped by today to find out more. When I introduced myself as a vacationer-librarian-blogger, I noticed looks of immediate understanding on the faces of the two women at the desk and not one bit of surprise. I assume this means that I’m not the first vacationing librarian to stop by just because. I guess “foreign” libraries attract librarians the way tourist attractions attract tourists. To a vacationing librarian blogger, a library is a tourist attraction, of a sort.

These two women–Kathleen Burns and Elizabeth Wendling–were more than happy to tell me about their library by the sea. Kathleen called herself an “IT transplant” from DC, where she lived and worked for 30 years before moving to Corolla. Elizabeth Wendling was a teacher in Silicon Valley before relocating to this small beach community. According to Kathleen and Elizabeth, most residents are “Yankees.” Both women seemed to appreciate the contrast between their lives before and after making the move. Kathleen has worked at the library for 8 years; Elizabeth for 9.

It is not surprising that the library is busiest in the summer serving tourists. They rely heavily on the sale of books and donations for financial support. Anyone with a driver’s license can get a library card for free. Kathleen was quick to mention that their branch has the lowest loss rate in the system. A typical tourist patron would sooner return a Scooby Doo book by mail rather than keep it at home. Sounds like Corolla attracts library loyalists who understand the concept of borrowing.

The staff consists of 1 full-time and 2 part-time employees. The collection contains 4,000 volumes. I couldn’t resist asking about the demand for ebooks. There are 247 titles in the library’s ebook collection–all published ten or more years ago. She said there isn’t much demand, and the demand that does exist is for the latest Patterson (for example)–a good beach read on a ereader, I suppose–which they don’t carry in ebook format. Nobody is complaining, though.

The library acts as a voting precinct (and voting was happening while I was there, but I’m not sure why) and a community meeting place. The staff proctor exams, too, for North Carolina’s universities. They have 6 (I think) public access computers, Wi-Fi, a children’s room, a book sale room, and a front porch with benches. You can’t see the ocean from the porch, but you can feel it in the air.

What they’re most excited about, though, is a brand new partnership with a brand new charter school set to open for the 2012-2013 school year–Water’s Edge Village School, which will be housed in an old, one-room schoolhouse across the street and educate students grades K-6. The public library will act as the school library for the new school, which has 20 children enrolled. The school will provide a “roving” curriculum, taking advantage of the Sound and the ocean and all the natural resources on the Island, which is how locals refer to the Outer Banks. There are no public schools on the Island (which is not technically an island–or is it?) and not that much need. Of the approximately 28 resident children ages 0-18, about 19 of them are age-appropriate for (the new) school and most are currently home-schooled rather than being schooled on the mainland, which can be a frustrating endeavor for parents. Although Corolla is mostly a tourist community, it is a residential community for those relatively few Islanders that support the tourist trade in summer through their businesses and call Corolla home year round. So, in that regard, although little need exists, the need that does exist is great.

I walked into this unimposing little library not really knowing what I would find, and what I found was a unique and powerful partnership between a public library and a school formed to meet a very specific need for its community. While I expected to find a tourist’s library, I found much more. I found the cultivation of two critical pieces of the puzzle that, in my opinion, will determine the future of library services–partnership and community. Ebooks may be a piece of that puzzle, too, but if I were working on a puzzle depicting a bear in a forest, I’d say that ebooks would be a piece of the foliage, while partnerships and community would be the pieces that form the bear’s eyes.

I asked the two women if they had worked as librarians before moving to Corolla, which was how I found out about their previous careers in technology and teaching. However, what I was attempting to find out, of course, was whether they were, in fact, “librarians” as in, “Yes, I have my MLS.”  But I couldn’t find a polite way to phrase the question without sounding like I was questioning their credentials or their legitimacy, which is something I was not prepared to do. The library was busy and thriving while I was there. The two women at the helm were engaged, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and proud of the facility, the community, the services they provide, and excited about the new opportunity that they were about to embrace as a school library. That was all I really needed to know.

I wish I had taken more time in talking to Kathleen and Elizabeth. I would say that I was being considerate of their time, but that’s not entirely true. I am on vacation, after all, and the beach was calling my name. I could have asked for more statistics (the numbers 85,000 and 30,000 are written in my notes, and I think they refer to the number of visitors to the Island and the number of visitors to the library, respectively, in summer, but I’m not sure so I won’t quote that as gospel). I could have researched statistics on Corolla’s population and demographics (gotten my geography straight). I could have asked a lot more questions about policy and the collection, governance and funding, and everything else that goes into running a library and serving the needs of a community. I could have asked them if they stay awake nights worrying about the impending demise of libraries (!)

But I didn’t. Instead, I took a virtual snapshot (and some real ones, too) of one small library in one small community. I get lazy on vacation. All I wanted was to get a feel for this library by the sea and pass it along to you, which I hope I did.

And even though I didn’t ask, I’m fairly certain that Kathleen and Elizabeth were not wasting much time worrying about the future of their library. They have the two most important pieces of the puzzle well in hand, and they have summer tourists to serve. Summer tourists who are also summer readers looking for that next great book to dive into after diving into the waves and drying off in the sun.