In November 2010, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) announced that Peter White Public Library in Marquette, Michigan was among five libraries in America to be honored with the 2010 National Medal for Museum and Library Service. The National Medal is the nation’s highest honor for libraries.
The winners of the National Medal for Museum and Library Service are selected each year by the Director of IMLS, following an open nomination process and based on the recommendations of the National Museum and Library Services Board.
For Library Director Pam Christensen the award is a tremendous honor for Peter White Public Library (PWPL) and the greater community of libraries in Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.
“I view the National Medal as an award for our entire community,” she said. “All of the libraries in the Upper Peninsula.”
“Everything that Peter White does, we would never be able to do on our own,” she explained. “Because there are limited resources in the Upper Peninsula, we all have to work together.”
In December, PWPL joined a contingent from fellow 2010 National Medal Library recipient, West Bloomfield Public Library and representatives from three other 2010 National Medal Library recipients at the White House, where they accepted the National Medal from First Lady Michelle Obama.
“The First Lady was very gracious,” Christensen said. “She did an excellent job of conveying how truly important libraries and museums are to communities across America.”
Christensen believes that PWPL’s long-standing commitment to cooperation and collaboration impressed the IMLS Board. In addition to recognizing PWPL as an advocate for the arts in their community, IMLS cited Peter White’s strong partnerships and lifelong learning programs as examples of excellence for other libraries nationwide.
In 2009, Peter White hosted the travelling exhibition, Fine Line: Mental Health/Mental Illness. It featured over 50 black-and-white photographs and audio recordings of individuals impacted by mental illness. The artist, Michael Nye, lost a close friend to mental illness, and sought to give his audience a better understanding of a condition that affects many.
“The Library understood the photographs as an effort to address the stigma of mental illness,” explained Pam Christensen. “People just don’t feel free to talk about it.”
Because of the extraordinary amount of interest Fine Line generated in the Marquette community, Peter White Public Library set to work to organize and launch its Your Mind Matters Programming Series in conjunction with Nye’s exhibit.
Your Mind Matters featured 30 mental health programs over the course of 3 months that engaged local schools, physicians and psychologists. The programming was made possible through partnerships with Marquette General Health System, CUPPAD (Central Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Regional Commission), MCACA (Michigan Counsel for Arts and Cultural Affairs), Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, and the Marquette Alger County Medical Society Alliance.
Peter White Public Library and its partners were amazed by the success of Your Mind Matters – so much so, that the Library returned to the series in 2010.
“It had an absolutely transformational effect on the community,” said Christensen. “It helped establish and reinforce that the library is a safe place for anyone in the community. It’s wonderful to know that Peter White can develop programming around sensitive topics, and that the community feels comfortable coming in.”
“A real reward was when a patron told me that they had a very close tie to mental illness and appreciated the fact that they could attend events and programs without knowledge of that being readily apparent to the gathering – others simply assumed that the patron was there to learn like everyone else.”
Jane Ryan, Marquette-Alger Chapter Chair of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), helped secure funding for Fine Line and was instrumental in the planning for Your Mind Matters. The success of the program series prompted NAMI to award PWPL with a state award and inspired Ryan to think big for the small library in the Upper Peninsula.
It was Ryan who began the IMLS National Medal nomination process for Peter White Public Library. She initially wanted to surprise the Library’s staff with the nomination, but the application required information she did not have access to.
And what Ryan found when she delved deeper into the Library’s details impressed her even more—like the fact that PWPL has circulation and attendance figures that are three times higher than other libraries its size in Michigan.
In addition to its impressive circulation and attendance figures, Peter White Public Library also boasts over 85,000 library computer sign-ins last year—a very high figure for a library of PWPL’s size. And where most libraries have seen the number of patron sign-ins plateau in recent years, PWPL has continued to increase the number of sign-ins and expects even higher numbers this year.
According to Christensen the high sign-in statistics translate to high demand for computer and Internet usage at Peter White. About a year and half ago, PWPL upgraded their Merit Connection to a Merit Fiber Connection, tripling their bandwidth, and PWPL patrons have noticed the difference and responded with increased usage.
“In today’s economic environment, I come to work each morning and expect the unexpected,” Christensen said. “I worry about changes at the governing level and funding cuts that could impact Peter White Public Library, but I never worry about Peter White’s Internet connection from Merit. It is part of the infrastructure in place that helps me do my job.”
Library staff utilize their Merit network connection to access MelCat, the Michigan eLibrary Catalogue, and interlibrary loans. One indicator of the quality of Peter White Public Library’s collection is that PWPL lends out twice as much as they receive in materials.
Peter White Public Library’s relationship with Merit Network dates all the way back to 1986 when the Upper Peninsula Region of Cooperation (UPROC) received a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to improve educational resource-sharing and accessibility to the records of over 100 Upper Peninsula libraries.
The development of the first Automated Library System (CRISTAL) followed as the system became operational in May 1989. At the time, roughly 870,000 library records from university, community college, public, public school and special libraries were available through the system. CRISTAL was connected to a mainframe computer database located at Northern Michigan University, and Merit Network provided connectivity for the system between each of the participating institutions.
Today, Peter White Public Library is a Merit Consortium Member through the Superiorland Library Cooperative (SLC). Peter White Public Library boasts the distinction of the only library in the Upper Peninsula connected by fiber.
Part of the infrastructure in place that helps Christensen and PWPL be so successfully is the Superiorland Library Cooperative. The SLC serves over 60 public and public school libraries in Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula.
According to Christensen, Superiorland Library Cooperative Director Suzanne Dees deserves credit for enabling Peter White Public Library to accomplish all that they have. Dees has implemented a variety of technology projects for SLC member libraries.
Dees was instrumental in the planning, implementation and operation of the first CRISTAL system. And over the past 20 years, she has worked to update the system and its services to grow with the needs of SLC members.
Dees also pioneered a patron-initiated interlibrary loan and delivery system among UP libraries which demonstrated that such a system could work in Michigan. This groundbreaking project was the forerunner of the Michigan MelCat interlibrary loan system in use today.
“Participation in these projects would not have been possible without the leadership of Dees and the connectivity provided by Merit,” Christensen explained.
Just as libraries have proven to be an important resource that many Michiganders have turned to for help in today’s difficult economy, Pam Christensen points to mechanisms in place that libraries can utilize to make it through the tough times that lie ahead and continue to provide valued service.
“Local libraries are losing funding battles every day,” Christensen said. “Communities are being forced to make tough decisions, but as grim as things may seem in our state these days, Peter White’s National Medal is a great thing for Michigan.”
“The infrastructure is in place that helps librarians do our job. We just need to rely on what we have now, and work with one another to weather the storm. In a few years, I am confident things will get better.”
Peter White Public Library (PWPL) and fellow 2010 National Medal recipient West Bloomfield Public Library are only the second and third libraries in Michigan to win the National Medal for Museum and Library Service. Flint Public Library won the National Medal in 2004.
“There are probably libraries in Michigan that are deserving of this award and all they need to do is apply,” said Christensen.
In addition to the National Medal, PWPL received a $10,000 award and a visit from National Public Radio’s StoryCorps. There are still plans in the works on how the $10,000 prize will be spent, but the PWPL Board has made a decision that the money will go toward improve programming and library services.
StoryCorps will visit Peter White Public Library the last week of March, 2011. A total of 36 residents will be interviewed in pairs by the StoryCorps team. The interviews will focus generally on Peter White Public Library and the importance it has played in the lives of community members. The recordings will be preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and archived at Peter White Public Library, adding to the PWPL’s rich 140-year history.