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Sunday, September 22, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane librarian selected for national award

Librarian Vanessa Strange, who has won the Gordon M. Conable Award from the Public Library Association, poses for a photo on March 17 at the North Spokane County Library (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Librarian Vanessa Strange, who has won the Gordon M. Conable Award from the Public Library Association, poses for a photo on March 17 at the North Spokane County Library (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Most Americans are familiar with the Bill of Rights included in the U.S. constitution, but not many know the American Library Association also has a Bill of Rights, adopted in 1939.

Vanessa Strange, librarian at the North Spokane Library, knows all about it. Recently, the Spokane County Library District announced Strange has won the Gordon M. Conable Award from the Public Library Association because of her commitment to intellectual freedom and the Library Bill of Rights.

She won the award for her role in creating library exhibits and programming that show a dedication to free and uncensored information for the community – important tenets of the aforementioned Bill of Rights.

Strange has always loved learning and libraries.

“Once a week my parents took me to the downtown library when it was in the old Sears building,” she said.

The Lewis and Clark graduate earned a degree in anthropology from the University of Washington and tried a variety of jobs. Nine years ago, she took a page position at the library and enjoyed it so much; she ended up earning her master’s degree in library science and information in 2012.

“I love seeing people get excited about topics,” she said.

Over the course of 2016, Strange developed programs that promoted community dialogue on controversial issues. For example, she wrote the grant and facilitated the Smithsonian exhibit “Exploring Human Origins” at the North Spokane Library in January.

“We anticipated negative feedback because we’re in a primarily conservative community,” Strange said. “We tried to be inclusive and incorporated religion and spirituality in the discussion of what it means to be human.”

Pastors as well as scientists presented during various programs.

“You can have a religious life and still be able to embrace and understand the science,” she said.

In preparation for the event, she created a handbook for library staff to help them navigate difficult conversations with the public regarding evolution and the nature of the exhibit.

Ultimately, Strange said there was a lot less controversy than they’d expected.

“It was actually really positive. At least three of the programs had over 100 attendees.”

Strange also spearheaded a series of community conversations at all 10 library locations about the environmental and human impact of the wildfires in Washington state.

“I came up with the idea when we had that really bad air,” she said. “I think in terms of questions. What caused the fires? Who was affected most? What responsibility do we have to the earth or this planet?”

With support from a grant from Humanities Washington, the project was developed to provide a venue for citizens to express themselves to local officials, firefighters and environmentalists in a friendly, open conversation about potentially hot button issues.

“What we’re trying to do is engage the community,” Strange said. “We want to be proactive and turn outward instead of inward. Libraries are a trusted institution in people’s lives.”

Strange will receive the Gordon M. Conable Award in June at the American Library Association Annual Conference in Chicago.

The award consists of a $1,500 check and a plaque.

“I plan to wear the plaque around my neck all the time,” said Strange, laughing.

Her colleagues are delighted for her.

In an email, Patrick Roewe, deputy director at the Spokane County Library District wrote, “Intellectual freedom has always been a cornerstone of the Library District’s work. We aspire to be a place where people can engage with new ideas free of oversight and undue influence. Vanessa has led the way in finding innovative ways to encourage the community to engage with complex issues in open and inclusive formats. Her recognition is well deserved.”

Strange isn’t resting on her laurels. She’s already hard at work creating more exhibits, events and programs, including a partnership with KSPS centered around the upcoming Ken Burns documentary about the Vietnam War.

“I’m passionate about helping adults spark that passion again that maybe they haven’t had since college – that kind of intellectual stimulation you don’t get when you’re working,” she said. “I love giving people opportunities to be lifelong learners.”

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