Thursday, March 17, 2011

JTEL survey and some thoughts on the library

In the course of the last few years and working on the library, it's struck me how much the vision of what the Ester library should be has grown: we've gone from viewing the library as a glorified book exchange (by "we," I mean the ECA library committee and the JTEL board) to working hard to create a true library and community space. Any venture like this, where many people from a large cross-section of the local population are involved, eventually takes on a life of its own and grows beyond what the founders or early participants envisioned or even wanted. It starts to become part of the community itself, to be defined by it and also to help define what the community is. Events and institutions are shaped by people, but people are also shaped by those events and institutions. I think this can cause some discomfort—all people may not necessarily like where it's going, or where it means the community is going.

Personally, I think that this growth of vision is fantastic. I've always liked Ester, in an abstract sort of way as the village closest to my childhood home on Ester Dome Summit. It's felt like a place with a center, a heart. Yet, it also has all the flaws of a small town, which I've reluctantly had to accept, and I've seen Ester divide into some ugly pieces during crisis, as well as come together in a neighborly, noble way during other crises. The problem with small towns is that they can become parochial, suspicious and jealous places where difference of opinion or change is unacceptable. The people living there can become so fond of the image of the place that anything that exposes or challenges or changes the image—the messenger—becomes the enemy, and never mind if the image is true, or if the image and/or the reality could be better.

Yet no place is perfect, and a neighborly, friendly, independent yet welcoming community is not something that just happens. You have to create it, tend it, rather like a garden. I think that's one vital function served by the Ester Community Association: it tends that neighborliness by helping to maintain the social fabric of Ester through events and through tending the actual physical environs of the village.

The Ester Community Park is another really good example. It's maintained by volunteers and the ECA. It's a physical center to the village. Any town needs gathering spots, locations that people can come together in. Ester is small, but it has the Golden Eagle, the post office, and the park as physical "market squares" where people interact. The physical structure of a place helps determine whether it encourages meeting and talking and all those other community-building events (parties, barbeques, hanging out), or whether it does the opposite and discourages human interaction. The park actually creates a space to meet—and thus creates community, village life. That's one reason why farmers' markets are so important: they strengthen communities because they create a physical space where people actually talk and hang out and do things together—which is what a community does. A place with a bunch of buildings in it, a "bedroom community," isn't a village. It's not a destination, it's a place where people store themselves in between the times when they are in some other spot where they really live—living being all those things you do when you are interacting with people, creating things, enjoying your life. The park, and gathering places like it, helps create a place where we live.

Those spaces in Ester each have their devotees, their clientele. They aren't neutral, because no place can be all things to all people. The Ester market is an example of something that happens at the park that attracts a certain group of people that you won't see at any other events or places. The same thing is true of the rink and the soccer field. The entire park brings in quite a variety of people, but some people never go there, or go only once a year. Same thing with the post office, or the Eagle, or Hartung Hall. The music jams at the hall and at the bar bring yet another group. In the Ester vicinity, there are other community-creating spots, like the Annex, or Calypso Farm, or Gold Hill Liquor. All of these add to the liveliness and sheer pleasure of being part of the Ester community. If we only had the Eagle, or only the park, or only the post office, our town would be poorer for it—and we'd have to create something that would fill that void, or lapse into being a suburb of Fairbanks.

The library just hasn't been able to be a gathering spot, really. It's been too small, too crowded. Now, however, with the Ida Lane Clausen Gazebo finished, that's beginning to change. We've got a new hang out, a new and different place to create and tend our community life. The fundraisers we sponsor are important for that community-building, and are held at places that themselves help enhance village life: the Eagle, the Malemute, the Annex, the gazebo.

When the library building is done, the dynamics of the village will change further—there will be yet another spot where community can be created, and it will reflect some of the characteristics of existing gathering spots, but it will also be different, because it will attract its own clientele, new people who may have lived in the vicinity but never participated in village life before because there was nothing really here that was right for them. So the new building will in fact change Ester. I think it will make it better, stronger, a nicer place to be. This is something that the Noel Wien Library and its library van simply cannot do for us. They can enhance our intellectual life, and the van can enhance our social life once a month, and if we go all the way downtown we can do our living at the library, in Fairbanks—but having a library, a real library, right in the village, will add something wonderful to the village and much much larger than the books and movies on the library's shelves. Being a vibrant part of Ester's community life is what the Ester library is growing into, and it will be far beyond what the JTEL has been over the last decade. It's becoming much more than what I ever envisioned, certainly—and I'm very glad of that.

The survey that the JTEL is conducting right now, about the library and the community, and what's important about libraries, has me thinking about all this. Working on the budgets and the plans and preparing for grants and writing up policies and all that has been a contributing factor, too. We're creating something larger and better than ourselves, something that will outlast us, and, I hope, make Ester grow into something better than it is now. That's worth working for.

Addendum: I spoke with Judy Stauffer this evening about my essay above, and she reminded me of an important point. Part of the reason that we continue to have a post office with a postmaster, and not just a Fairbanks contract station, is because we have a library here in the village. Libraries, like schools or museums, are considered cultural institutions, and such institutions are the mark of true municipalities (as opposed to, say, suburbs of towns or cities). At least, we were told that this was one of the requirements for maintaining a post office in a village back when Ruth Jasper retired as postmaster and Ester was faced with the potential loss of its post office—or the demotion of its only legal existence to a Fairbanks station-for-hire. The other institutions that we needed were: a village government or community association, a newspaper, a park, and a fire or police station. This may no longer be the case (I haven't been able to verify or refute it). Still, it IS something to consider.

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