Essay Project 2021: The Portland District Library’s Value to the Community
By Olivia Smythe
Libraries are not only a place to learn and gather information but a place for community and making memories as well. In the city of Portland, we are fortunate to have a place that provides these things for all different types of people. Through the building itself, the programs and activities available, and care from its organizers and the community; the Portland District Library is a place with great significance to the city, both historically and through its benefits and connection to Portland residents.
It can be easy to forget just how far back in time the buildings and organizations of Portland can go, yet the history of the Portland District Library predates the building and formation of itself. Portland District Library Director Cory Grimminck gives an interesting insight on what Portland had as libraries before the Carnegie building we know and love today was constructed, stating that “the city's library had been housed in a drugstore, a doctor's office, and even a woman's house.” There were initially two different library systems. The first being a subscription library that was made in April of 1873 with a membership fee of $1.00 yearly dues. This was known as The Portland Library and Literary Association. The second was created “in January of 1884, [where] another library was formed known as the Portland Loan Library.” Eventually, these two organizations merged together but needed a place to house the overwhelming growth of resources and readers.
Andrew Carnegie was a millionaire and a philanthropist who, according to History.com, “funded the establishment of more than 2,500 public libraries around the globe.” To receive one of Carnegie’s many donations, a member of the Ladies Literary Club, Annis Bandfield, decided to take action by writing a letter to Carnegie. “In her letter, she explained that the club wanted to buy a site for a library if Carnegie would finance the building” as stated by Mark Neese, writer of The Portland Area 1860-1930. As the project moved forward, township officials got involved. Grimminck details the agreement stating that “Portland had to provide a site for the library and no less than 1000 dollars per year for operating expenses, and in return, they received $10,000 to build [it].” While Carnegie is the most readily credited contributor, people such as Bandfield and Samuel Jarvis, who gave three lots to the cause at $1.00 per lot, were important in making the idea of the library a reality. In July of 1905, construction of the building that would become the Portland District Library began. These generous donations and the work of the people that went into bringing the vision of the library into fruition were able to create a space that would be loved, appreciated, and improved on by many for years to come.
One of the most major improvements to the building itself includes a major renovation. “The building had an expansion in the mid-2000s, adding a teen section, a nice view of the river, meeting room, and a much larger children section,” says Michigan blog post writer and Portland citizen Kendra Horvath. According to Grimminck, the renovation “increased the square footage of the library from 4000 to 14000. This gave so much more room to add to [their] collections, and to do more programming, have more computers, and allow more people to come in.” With so much more space, some areas were moved. “For example, the upstairs ladies' bathroom used to be the library director's office!” While these renovations added to the atmosphere of the building for the library, there is tons of love and work that go into managing and creating experiences for everyone to enjoy.
It is evident that the Portland District Library is doing its best to adapt to obstacles as well as planning for a successful future. In the COVID-19 era, the library has chosen to move to curbside service and computers by appointment only many times. When the library is able to be open, some of the measures being taken for more ensured safety include, “[doing] hourly cleaning, quarantining books when they are returned,...[installing] plexiglass shields at checkout, [and having] no toys in the children's area” Grimminck details. It is also mandatory for everyone inside the library to wear masks, and as stated on the Portland District Facebook page, “[they] are also now taking information for contact tracing.” This means that you must indicate if you have had any potential exposure to the virus. There are bottles of hand sanitizer and tissues set up all around the building and in the downstairs children's area there is minimal furniture. Portland District Library staff writes in the Ionia Sentinel-Standard updating visitors, “While all of our toys and most of our furniture is still in storage for the time being, we still have a lot to offer in the way of programming and materials.”
With the constantly changing guidelines, workers are doing their best to provide as much of the library and its benefits as possible until we are past the pandemic. There are also many digital resources that are readily available on the Portland District Library website (pdl.michlibrary.org) in the meantime, including ebooks and virtual events. For example, the library holds virtual storytimes where, as written in the Ionia Sentinel-Standard, “families can enjoy...prerecorded videos over and over again, to read, sing, and dance along with library staff!” While these solutions have been put into place for the foreseeable future, there are also more permanent plans for building upon the many things that are already offered.
The library is always planning for the future, with the aforementioned activities that are relevant to the holidays and seasons, and even bigger plans for improving and expanding upon the current experience. There are plans to construct a “sensory garden” at the library that is, according to Grimminck, to be “dedicated to Diane Wdzenczny, a beloved local teacher who had passed away and whose family and friends wanted to do something in her memory.” This is just another example of how the people who work to maintain and organize parts of the library for the community always strive to do more for the people it is available to enjoy. “It is designed to contain plants and features to stimulate all the senses--plants that feel soft or prickly, plants that smell good, plants and artwork that looks bright and colorful, plants that you can eat, and a music cube for making all sorts of sounds.” The sensory garden should be a great way to get kids outside and learning with a hands-on experience through their senses, which will all be provided by the library. The past should be appreciated, and the future should be eagerly anticipated, but it’s important to acknowledge what the library has done for us in the present and in recent years for all of us that have used the resources that they have made readily available to us.
Most importantly is the long-lasting impact that the library has had on Portland over time, and how it’s still a significant establishment to this day. Today, the library remains a place for people to obtain information and make memories, which has become ingrained into the culture and community of Portland. Grimminck supports this message, saying that “[they] do work to involve as much of the community as possible…[the] idea is that anyone, regardless of their background or race or age or level of education or class, could use the library and find what they wanted and needed.” There are many people behind the scenes who go out of their way to plan frequent activities for members of the community. “The children's department works together to create programs--they brainstorm ideas, divide up the work, and then make the magic happen.” Says Grimminck, who is responsible for the majority of the adult programming. “I basically come up with the ideas, develop them, and put the programs on. We get ideas from all over...other libraries, circulation trends, school, pop culture, the interests of the staff, etc.” The idea that there should be something at the library for everyone is one that keeps it accessible and engaging, as well as an active part of the city.
The Portland District Library is such an iconic staple of Portland as a whole and has been a part of so many of our lives. Personally, I remember being taken to the library all the time by my parents when I was younger. It was one of my favorite places to be, with its expansive children’s section. I would listen to people read, use the computers, pick out all sorts of books and audiobooks to read and listen to, meet with my girl scouts group, and even rent movies. The library was the setting for so many fond childhood memories and I am so grateful I was able to have it available to me growing up. To this day, there are so many resources that I find myself taking advantage of; all for free. Although there are clearly benefits for children, the library can be a huge help for parents as well when encouraging their children to learn and when keeping them entertained. The librarians clearly strive to make everyone’s experience a convenient and memorable one as well, including Grimminck who says, “When a patron comes in and wants a good book but doesn't know what to get, or when we can supply a frazzled mom with something to keep her kids busy, it's very satisfying.”
Some would argue that the functionality of libraries is being replaced by the recently rising popularity of ebooks and digital literature, but the digital medium simply cannot recreate the overall experience that a physical library provides. While libraries do tend to support and offer ebook options, Portland’s library especially offers unique activities and opportunities for people of all ages. The library has been able to create a stronger sense of community in Portland, as something that all of us have equal access to. Writer Katie Brum encapsulates this message succinctly, with her poem “Unity is Community” saying that, “To enrich the minds of young ones...it is all about positive opportunity / And bringing the community together in unity / Because with-out unity / There is no such thing as community.” While the vast selection of free-to-borrow books will always be the main draw of libraries in general, the memories and opportunities contained within the building are something special to many people, and that cannot be easily replicated.
The concept of libraries is something that almost seems unfitting in our dominatingly profit-driven society; but, the fact that Portland has such a well-maintained and interactive library for anyone to enjoy is something that greatly reflects the culture of Portland as a whole. Many residents have their own memories and unique attachments to the library; whether it be from the many clubs that it hosts, to engaging in activities like painting classes, to simply checking out a book, the library has so much to offer for almost every type of person. There is an immense amount of passion that goes behind creating a space that can benefit so many people, and the positive effect that has come from it is evident. By providing a sense of community, resources for education and enrichment, and a safe space for many to enjoy, the library has been an extremely beneficial part of Portland life.
This essay is part of a writing project by students in Chandra Polasek’s ELA class at Portland High School. The project asked students to focus on elements of their own town while getting students engaged with the community. The essays were written with the intention of being published in The Portland Beacon.