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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘It’s up to us’: Rural town of Fernwood will break ground on new library after community effort

By Frankie Beer For The Spokesman-Review

FERNWOOD, Idaho – Last year, wind storms battered this community’s library until the roof lifted off. When carpenters came to repair it, they found it was rotten underneath.

“If it blows off again, there’s nothing to screw (it) back down to,” said John Smith, a librarian at Tri-Community Library. “At that point, I don’t know what we’ll do.”

Librarians in rural Fernwood, about 20 miles south of St. Maries on State Highway 3, already were counting the days until they could construct a new library before the old one, which was partially built in 1905, caved in. One year later, their wish came true.

The Tri-Community Library – one of five Idaho libraries to receive a $500,000 grant this year – will construct a new building by 2026. The Idaho Commission for Libraries awarded one-time federal funding of $3.25 million to 15 public libraries. That funding also included projects in St. Maries, Lapwai, Burley and other areas, where libraries often serve as community hubs for rural populations.

The Tri-Community Library still needs to raise $330,000 for construction expenses in addition to the funding, said Myrtle Mellen, who has lived just outside of Fernwood for 35 years and teaches kindergarten readiness classes at the library. Construction will cost $830,000 in total.

Mellen said Fernwood residents and local Idahoans will donate time and money to cover the cost of building, engineering and plumbing expenses, starting the foundation in October. The small community sits 90 minutes southeast of Coeur d’Alene, relying on locals to support each other.

“If there wasn’t that support, we wouldn’t be where we are now,” she said.

Jasper Wilson / WSU Murrow College of Communication

For rural town, library more than books

As the only community hub besides the grocery store and senior center, the library is vital, especially for wireless internet, said Head Librarian Terri Wood. It serves three small towns: Fernwood, Santa and Emida.

Each day, more than 90 residents sit in the parking lot from dawn until dark for work and school, and to keep themselves connected to the “outside world,” Wood said. The county’s 13.7% poverty rate, which is 3.7% higher than the state average, means not everyone can afford internet at home, Wood said.

The library also serves a local homeschool cooperative, which has grown in recent years and now includes at least 70 students who often use the library. Mellen said the new library will be built near UpRiver School for elementary and junior high school students, so they can access it during school hours. The library will also include private meeting rooms for quiet places to do homework.

“It can get really crowded in (the library), so it’s nice to have your own space to go do school or be with friends,” said Ellie Allman, a 14-year-old homeschooler.

Smith said some residents who live near the school are concerned about the new library, thinking it may increase traffic. Although librarians are discussing measures for traffic control and slowing cars, the rapid growth in Fernwood is responsible for much of the traffic.

After remote jobs became more popular, people moved from cities in California, Eastern Washington and Ohio, Smith said.

WSU students lend design expertise

Fernwood’s campaign for a new library began over five years ago, when Mellen and other community members formed the New Library Team. After searching for a space to build upon and agreeing to swap land with a local family, they began to look for a group to create the design for a new building.

In 2019, the local library board reached out to a team of Washington State University architecture and design students, who were a part of the Rural Community Design Initiative. The faculty-led internship program revolves around the concept of co-design – building with communities rather than for them, said Harleen Kennedy, an architecture intern.

Kennedy said students and faculty met with Fernwood residents five times throughout the project, drafting a new two-story floor plan with multipurpose spaces, moveable furniture and more storage. The library board paid the program $5,600 for its services.

Mellen said the students seemed to really care about the project, and she wishes they were in town all the time.

“Older generations are making sure what they’ve created doesn’t just pass away, so I think getting used to or involving younger generations in these projects is essential,” Kennedy said.

Bake sales and printed shirts

With much of Idaho’s federal funding going toward broadband internet, libraries’ needs are often pushed to the side. In June, Idaho was awarded over $583 million to build broadband infrastructure.

It was a “hard fought battle” to approve the libraries’ construction funding in the 2022 legislative session, said Idaho State Librarian Stephanie Bailey-White. The state library commission initially asked for $10 million in grants two years ago, but eventually settled on $3.5 million. If the grants had not been approved, funding would have gone toward broadband instead.

Twenty-four libraries did not receive federal funding this fall after they made a request. They did not secure enough initial funding for their projects and were considered “high risks” compared to those like Fernwood, Bailey-White said.

Fernwood raised about 20% of its initial funding for the new library itself. When she visited Fernwood in 2019 on an annual library tour, Bailey-White noticed volunteers holding weekly sales for baked goods and sweatshirts, just to earn $40 at a time for the new library. Bailey-White said she still holds a Fernwood sweatshirt in her closet four years later.

Communities are on their own to raise private funds or get bonds, but the federal grants became a silver lining, Bailey-White said. With funding for a new building, librarians like Wood hope it allows them to reach more community members.

“Especially being this far from everything else, we feel quite solo often,” Wood said. “I know that we’re not, but it really does begin to feel like it’s up to us.”