By Sue Moore
From rags to riches: That epitomizes the history of the Schoolcraft Community Library. “We started on a shoestring with stars in our eyes,” said Nancy Rafferty, one of the founders of the library in 1988. These days the library has a budget hovering near $200,000 and more than 34,000 items in the collection.
To recognize the progress the library has made, the community is invited to celebrate its 30th anniversary by attending an open house from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. on Saturday, August 25.
Since the early 1900s, the Ladies Library Association had offered books from its small library in the building on N. Hayward Street. A school library existed in Schoolcraft primarily for students. In the 1970s and 80s the village had been served by the Kalamazoo County Bookmobile which stopped in downtown once a week. The county discontinued the service due to cost concerns at the end of 1987. Bob Eberstein, a village council member at the time, came to Rafferty for advice on what to do next as she was the school district’s K-12 library coordinator. He asked her to look into the possibilities for the village to have its own library.
“Several of us concluded that a millage campaign would be necessary in order to start our own library,” Rafferty said. “To get a half mill on the ballot in 1988, Matt Hanichen – the principal – and I went to a basketball game, divided the balcony viewers up and collected all the signatures we needed. We only had about eight days to file the papers to get on the ballot. The proposal to tax the village residents passed on an overwhelming margin, she said. That raised $7,800 in revenue the first year. Expenses were $12,773 and revenue was $13,575 with $1,998 collected in penal fines, $375 from a state grant, and the rest were contributions. Circulation statistics from the 1988 Annual Report show 316 patrons served, 267 books circulated and 1,130 books in the collection.
Where to locate the library and how to fill its shelves was the next challenge. Pearl and Paul Fulton, a Schoolcraft dentist, owned an unoccupied building on Grand Street. They offered it for the library to use. Bill Mills helped to obtain shelving and many people donated books, including a set of encyclopedias from one of Rafferty’s library salesmen.
“We opened on December 3, 1988 with Sandy Capp of Three Rivers as our first librarian,” Rafferty said. “I don’t know what she saw in us unless it was the huge challenge we represented.” Previous to opening, the small collection of books were housed in the Prairie Ronde Township Hall. A fire in the building destroyed most of the accumulated books. Insurance covered some of the costs of replacement.
The downtown location was temporary. The elected board looked around for a permanent location. Locating a lot on N. Centre Street, board members entertained the idea of utilizing pole barn construction to create a building that would look like a library. They pushed ahead, purchased the lot, and completed construction to move everything to the new location in 1990.
Some debate was held about becoming a District library which would afford the library with more dollars to operate. The District officials could not guarantee that it would stay open in perpetuity, so that was a non-starter, Rafferty said.
Instead, they asked Schoolcraft Township for a half mill of tax dollars from the residents who lived west of 18th street. The township agreed in 1991. Prairie Ronde Township took the same step in 2003.
The pole barn proved to be too small, once the collection began to grow and staff was added, including Bobbie Truesdell. She came on board as the children’s librarian but didn’t want to take the job as the head honcho. After several directors came and went, she finally gave up and accepted the position, Rafferty said.
Truesdell was a force to be reckoned with. She saw the need to enlarge the footprint of the building and launched a two-year campaign to raise $500,000 for a practically new building. She was an expert at fundraising with the capstone being a spell of living atop the roof until the requisite funds were raised. She was aided by lots of volunteers who looked after her. Enter Bob Crissman, the former Schoolcraft building and trades teacher. He organized many of his former students to do the buildout and took charge of it himself as a volunteer. The current value of the building is estimated at $750,000 because of all the free labor and even some materials, with no tax dollars spent and no debt incurred on the project.
The current director, Faye VanRavenswaay, joined the staff as they assisted with renovations in 2011. The doors were flung open in the fall of 2011 and it’s been a beehive of activity ever since. A reading garden was built on the west side of the building and a butterfly garden cultivated on the northside across the street from Burch Park.
Besides the elected board that oversees the library, the Friends of the Library was organized with seven members in 1988. They have been very active in helping to raise money and sponsor events. Their activities include the Summer Palooza, the Christmas Tree trimming contest fundraiser, the Historic Homes Tour and the Tournament of Writers.
Truesdell brought the Battle of the Books, which just completed its 23rd year. It has been a tremendous way to encourage young people to read books and challenge themselves to learn. “It’s the little things now that we need to do in the future,” VanRavenswaay said. “We will be updating our strategic plan as the world goes digital. Today there are 2,114 patrons on file.” The library circulates over 19,000 materials in a year and has over 34,000 items in the collection.
“Most people still want to browse the bookshelves, hold a physical book in their hand and socialize when they come to the library,” she said. “We are still very relevant to our patrons who love books and like to learn.” The entire community is invited to celebrate 30 years of service with board and staff members at the Aug. 25 open house.