Lynne Turner checks a book out for a Blue Rapids patron
Photos by Tom Parker
The heart of a city:
Blue Rapids Public Library — a potential not realized
To get to the Blue Rapids Public Library off Highway 77, the main road linking this small northeastern Kansas town with Marysville to the north and Manhattan to the south, one must first circumnavigate the round town square almost in its entirety. The circular square is unique to the state, based on a wheel hub in the New England style. Randolph had a similar configuration before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers relocated the town to higher ground for the creation of Tuttle Creek Reservoir; the old square is now buried under floodwater and silt. Bad for Randolph, good for Blue Rapids.
In the town’s heyday, travelers passing through on Highway 9 entered and exited the square on what is now 6th Street. The square itself was impressive, fronted with two-story limestone buildings and a dizzying array of businesses, a central fountain, a Gatling gun and bandshell in the small central park, with the library anchoring the east-northeast corner. Even then the library was fairly old, and heavily used by locals. It opened on Oct. 20, 1875, with much fanfare, a brass band leading the ladies of the town to the doorstep, much more pomp and circumstance than the number of volumes on the shelves would dictate, but vision was everything, and the future bright. More books would follow.
In keeping with the dissolution of prairie towns everywhere, the main thoroughfare shifted to 5th Street, half the buildings burned down, businesses failed, the Gatling gun was melted down for scrap metal and the library with its round town square receded into a quiet, unassuming background. But, with the exception of a short period when the interior was remodeled, the library never ceased operation, making it, according to popular legend, the oldest library west of the Mississippi in continuous operation in the same building. Which sounds like a mouthful but libraries are all about words, so perhaps it’s fitting.
To survive in the opening decades of the 21st century, though, libraries have to be more than repositories of words and pages and texts. Much has changed in the last 135 years and the Blue Rapids Public Library is no exception. Some of it has been through necessity, others through the philanthropic giving of others. Through it all has been a vision focused on the needs of the community—a rural town in constant flux, population 1,100 and declining—with a ceaseless optimism matching that of the founders.
And, says librarian Lynne Turner, “The potential hasn’t been realized yet.”
She says this knowing full well that many small libraries are struggling for existence, that the number of readers continues to plummet, that the cost of inexpensive computers has dropped to where most families can afford one. In a town where more than half the population struggles in the low to moderate income level, a library is vital resource and a bargain as well.
“We’re able to provide reading materials for free, so people don’t have to buy their own books or magazines,” Lynne says. “It’s another way for readers to cut back on their expenses.”
Reading remains the focal point of the library, though technological advances have crept in over the past decades. Harking back to the original library is the catalog card file, which is still kept by hand. There are no plans for upgrading. Lynne calculates that about 60 percent of adult patrons are there for books or periodicals, with about 40 percent of children and young people following suit. The rest utilize the library for its computers and the Internet.
Lynne is unfazed by the encroachment of digital technology. After all, she says, “Everything we do now is through computers. I don’t have a problem with them because they bring kids to the library. Sometimes they check out books while they’re here, plus they get exposed to books and literature. After all, they’re surrounded by books.”
The library has three laptops and two desktop computers, plus wireless Internet. Most were paid for by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, with the remainder paid for by library funds.
It wasn’t always so. When Lynne took over as librarian in 1998, computers were fairly new to the facility. For her, they were a whole new universe. She had absolutely no exposure to computers and found them bewildering and not a little frightening. As a voracious reader, she never felt the draw of the Internet. In fact, she didn’t—and still doesn’t—own a television. Nor does she view this as a handicap.
“When I started, most customers were there for the books,” she says. “This was in the late nineties, just as the Internet was taking off. More patrons read back then, too, and more parents read books to their children. I think younger children were encouraged to read more, too.”
To survive the new digital age, libraries must learn to evolve and adapt, she says. Computers are merely the manifestation of that adaptation. While students and kids prefer the computers for social networking and game-playing, the Internet has other uses whose potential is just being tapped.
Blue Rapids has a burgeoning Hispanic population, and many of them use the library’s computers to e-mail relatives back home in Mexico. For one individual, a young man employed at the dairy farms in Linn, it’s his sole method of communication with his daughters, Lynne says.
Lynne’s ability to speak fluent Spanish also makes them feel welcome and at ease. That personal relationship is the most rewarding aspect of her career.
“I love my job, but not because of the books and the computers,” she says. “The best part is interacting with people.”
The building encompasses 700 square feet with about 6,000 books. It’s not a big library, something first-time visitors are quick to point out. And because it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, strict regulations dictate how the library must utilize its space, or make changes.
“The size of the library limits what we can do,” Lynne says. “People walk in and remark how quaint it feels, and how historic, but if we’re going to grow we’d have to expand—and the economy won’t allow that.”
A small bare lot exists on the north side of the library, which would enable room for expansion. And, because nothing would have to change in the existing library’s facade, the NRHP would approve the addition. All that’s missing is the money to do it, a common rural shortcoming.
Not to be deterred, the library board is constantly seeking new ways to expand the library in other ways. Last summer the library stepped in to provide Accelerated Reader tests for the summer reading program at the local grade school. It was the first time the library networked with the school district, which Lynne sees as a outreach to the community. If kids won’t come to the library, she says, the library needs to go to them. Already she’s brought books to local daycare providers for one-day reading programs, something she says is easier for her to do than the daycare providers.
“It’s one way to work together in tough economic times,” she says.
And, in a tough economic climate, it’s the perfect time to support your library.
At heart, though, Lynne remains a book person. Computers, e-readers and iPads might indeed be the future, but they lack the tangible heft of a real book. Without the tactile pleasure of turning crisp pages, the aroma of fresh type, of even of finding space on already-groaning shelves for one more volume to read and admire, electronic readers will always play second fiddle.
As Lynne says, “There’s more to reading a book than reading the words.”
The Blue Rapids Public Library is open Mondays and Fridays 1 to 5 p.m., Wednesdays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays 9 a.m. to noon. Lynne can be reached at 785-363-7709.