The Northfield Public Library in 2009

Northfield Public LibraryA look at changes and challenges the library will face this year

Amy Sack, intern

In hopes of learning more about the services that the library provides for the Northfield community as well as the library’s outlook for 2009, I spent the last week visiting the library, interviewing librarians (including the Booker outreach coordinator), and observing the children’s programs.

Recent trends

Following national trends, the Northfield library is increasing in both book circulation and patronage in light of the recent economic downturn—while at the same time facing large cuts in funding from the state. 

The budget cuts will make it difficult to meet increasing library demand while keeping old programs running. Lynne Young, director of the Northfield library, reported that circulation went up seven percent in 2008. In December alone, circulation was up 17 percent. “We are starting to see it pick up as the economy gets more difficult,” Young said. “People need inexpensive entertainment.”
Kathy Ness, children’s programming librarian, noticed the same trend. “People in book groups are saying, ‘I used to buy my books and now I’m coming here [to get them],’” she said.

People across the country are also turning to public libraries for help finding jobs.

“With the downturn in the economy we are seeing more and more people looking for jobs,” Young said.

Bridging the gap between increasing demand and decreasing funds will be the greatest challenge for the Northfield library in 2009. Young and the library board are facing difficult decisions as they decide how to balance new community needs and a significantly smaller budget.

Booker outreach program at risk

BookerBooker, the library’s community outreach program, began in 1999 as a way to get books to kids in underprivileged areas and daycares that couldn’t bring their kids to the library. Booker is the brainchild of Ness and Leesa Wisdorf, the adult and children’s services manager at the library, who together decided that if kids couldn’t make it to the library, they would bring the library to them—on a bus named Booker.

“All research shows how important those early years are for brain development, so that was the original focus for Booker. And then we also thought here we have a couple areas of town where transportation is maybe not so readily available and where there isn’t necessarily a tradition of using a library service…I think it’s a much-appreciated service,” Young said.

“Booker is trying to reach people…who aren’t able to be here [at the library],” said Ness. Using $1500 in grant money that Wisdorf applied for, the library was able to buy the first Booker bus.

Today, Booker remains the main outreach program at the library.  While Booker remains stocked primarily with children’s books, it also carries adult fiction/nonfiction, magazines (including several in Spanish), English Language Learner (ELL) tapes and other ELL materials, a large video section, and even backpacks.

“It’s like driving the library around,” said Diana Tallent, the current outreach coordinator.

Tallent estimates that Booker serves about 600 people every month and makes around 35 stops in a two-week period, making rounds every-other week. Among the many places Booker visits are Viking Terrace, Florella’s, and numerous daycares. During the visits, children and adults come on the bus to check out books, and Tallent leads story time for the kids.

Before becoming the driver behind Booker, Tallent shelved books at the library for a few months before Young approached her and asked if she would be interested in driving the bus. Tallent was only slightly wary; as a Georgia native, she was inexperienced driving in the Minnesota snow, and driving a bus sounded all the more daunting. But she took the job, and three years later couldn’t be happier with it.

“It’s the best job in the whole world,” she said. Her position is tough—after all, she must fill the roles of a driver, mechanic (Booker is “high-maintenance”), and librarian—but it’s rewarding.

“There’s never a dull moment,” she said.

Booker is well loved, especially among the preschool crowd. “After Booker visits, kids come home and they are talking about Booker,” Tallent says. It’s not uncommon for kids to run up to her in the middle of the grocery store for hugs. Sometimes children too young to understand Tallent has her own name simply call her “Booker,” or “Booker bus.” She doesn’t mind that either.

“Kids are so much fun,” Tallent says. One day as she was leaving one of the kids yelled out to her “Ms. Diana, you rock!” and another one, not to be outdone, yelled “Ms. Diana, you’re a rock star!” Tallent loves this part. “It’s just so sweet—I get to hear that kind of stuff on a regular basis!”

Booker provides a crucial link between the low-income community and the library, but the program is expensive. The library already had to cut two routes due to county funding issues, one to a Morristown trailer park, and one to Warsaw, where elderly patrons with limited mobility enjoyed the convenience of Booker. When I met with Tallent on Tuesday, she was about to make her last visits with Booker to those two stops.

“The economic downturn has affected everything,” Tallent said. “It’s sad to say that some of the most needed programs might be cut.”

Ness is not optimistic. “Booker [may be] close to ending. It looks pretty severe,” she said, referring to the diminished 2009 budget.

“We are a small library to have a bookmobile, but then again Booker is a really great outreach…It’s very tricky to know what we’re going to do,” Young said about the possible cuts to the program. “No decision has been made yet, but it [cutting Booker funding] has to be on the table.”

Ending Booker will “cut off the people who need it the most,” Ness said, adding that she has been thinking about the possibility of a fundraiser to keep Booker running.

Meeting new needs

One way the Northfield library is responding to the economic downturn is to create a Job Resources section.  “[Help with job searching] is a community need we really want to help meet…this is one way we felt we could support this,” Young said.

The job resources section will provide important tools, such as computer access (one computer will be reserved solely for those job hunting) and books and other materials offering search advice for community members seeking jobs. Ness noted that computer availability is crucial for people job searching as more and more job applications are available only online and many more require e-mail addresses. She added that numerous people starting over in their job searches lack computer access at home.

“One of the interesting things with the demand of the online applications…[is that] some people come in and have no idea how to do that, so we help on a one-on-one basis,” Young said. “I’ve had librarians spend a lot of time with people to help with that.”

She added that librarians have also helped people apply for immigration papers and file for unemployment.

The Northfield library wants to stay up-to-date with both job help and entertainment services. The library recently purchased the popular Wii game. Several Playstation video games are already available to check out, and the Wii game will be available soon. In the past when kids requested video games, the library tended to shy away from such purchases. “But with the popularity of the Wii—we thought we’d give it a try,” Young said.

Continuing programs

“One of our big issues is trying to communicate to the community what’s going on at the library,” Ness said. Citizens often are not aware that programs such as the book clubs and children’s programs exist. Ness and Wisdorf run the children’s programs at the library, which take place every Monday to Saturday morning at 10:00.

The First Steps Literacy Center, open every Monday, Friday, and Saturday morning, provides children too young to go to preschool (usually between two and three) a chance to interact with other children and be exposed to important learning tools. First Steps is an unstructured program supervised by library volunteers (the librarians don’t lead the program, as on other days).

“They [children] get exposure here they might not have at home,” said volunteer Shari Wadleigh.

On Tuesdays, Wisdorf runs the Patty Cake Infant Lapsit program. For the first twenty minutes, she leads fingerplay games and reads favorite children’s books like Dinosaur Stomp! After that, the parents visit and the infants play with the plethora of toys available. On Wednesday and Thursdays, Ness leads the Toddler Rhyme Time and Story Time for 4’s and 5’s, respectively. The toddler program follows the same structure of the infant program, while the program for 4 and 5-year olds on Thursdays includes stories, films, and crafts.

At the Toddler Rhyme Time program last week, Ness teased the children as they arrived. “Is it cold today?” she asked about the well below zero temperature outside. “Did you wear flip flops? Did you wear suntan lotion?” The children all emphatically answered “Nooooo,” then finally “YES!” when she asked if they wore boots. To the delight of the kids, later Ness led several rounds of “If it’s winter and you know it clap your mittens.” She added, “Kids in California don’t get to do this!”

“The programs are designed to bring children into the library and to develop a strong love of books, reading, learning—and to make it fun,” Wisdorf said. “It gives them [children] the building blocks for how to read later.”

The programs also fulfill an important social need for new moms and dads. “It’s a good networking spot to learn about other places in town,” Wisdorf said.

“All of our programs are free for families, Wisdorf emphasized. “Just come on in whenever.” The programs run from now until May. The only requirement is that parents must accompany children to the programs.

“The library [instills] lifelong learning, and that starts with kids,” said Ness about the importance of the programs.

The future of the library

The library will not find out for certain how severe the budget cuts will be until the legislative session is done in May, but the outlook is dismal, with state programs across the board expecting budget cuts. “We are being very conservative in spending right now,” Young said.

Even though the final budget weigh-in won’t come until May, Young wants to be proactive with the budget cuts. She noted that 70 percent of the budget is staff salary, with 13 FTE (Full time equivalent) staff members and roughly 24 staff members who work very few hours. “It boils down to the people who provide the services,” Young said. “We’ve already done a lot of creative staffing to cover the hours that we are open.”

Talks about expanding the library aren’t completely off the table, although they have quieted. “Expansion talk gained momentum in the spring of last year…before the economy tanked,” Ness said. Now, there is more talk about “how to reconfigure the library space to maximize it.”

Still, Young says, “our library board is very committed to making sure that the idea of an expansion remains on the table, even though we realize that with this financial pressure it may not happen on the schedule we would like…we just don’t want it to get lost.” The Northfield library, built in 1909, was already expanded once in 1985, but was geared towards fulfilling the needs of the 1985 population. Twenty-four years later, space is getting tight.

Despite the limited space, the library staff tries to be as accommodating to the community as possible. “We try to make the building as open as we can,” Young said, to give patrons more flexibility and access. (The library is currently open four nights and seven days a week.)

“We have a great staff that’s very willing and able to help, and we actually have pretty good technology right now,” Young added.

Most importantly, Ness said, “We’re here and available.”

To find the library’s current hours and additional programs not mentioned in this article, please visit:

To learn more about Diana Tallent and the Booker bus program, view her blog at:

To learn more about the children’s programs at the library, visit the blog at:

Amy can be reached at:

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Library in 2009

Amy this is an outstanding story! The background information, interviews and quotes provide even library users information we have other wise missed. I particularly like how you have personalized the various aspects of your report.

Clearly, we are fortunate in Northfield to have this resource - both the people and the programs of the Northfield Public Library. How sad that our economy has put them at such risk.


Thank you!



Thanks, Amy, for diving into

Thanks, Amy, for diving into this story and telling it so well!

This is a timely article as the use of the public library increases (record circulation in December 2008, up 17%) and funding decreases.

Thank you.

Library Challenges

Nice work Amy.   This piece really goes beyond library programs.  It give us a sense of the struggle the library faces of meeting increasing needs with a debilitating source of funding. 

Ellen Iverson

A Wonderful Library and Staff Deserve our Support

Thanks, Amy, for this terrific article! We are so fortunate to have in Northfield such a dedicated and talented Library staff and impressive resources.  The Friends of the Northfield Public Library is an organization committed to supporting them in their mission in every way we can, and your article makes clear why our Library deserves and needs Friends!

For more info:

Thanks again.