National Association of Counties
Washington, D.C.

 Smallest library in W. Va. recognized with national award

By Christopher Johnson

With a service population of 496, the Southern Area Public Library (SAPL) in Harrison County, W. Va. was recently recognized as the 2013 Best Small Library in America.

Sponsored by Library Journal and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the award was founded to encourage and showcase exemplary work of small libraries. Now in its ninth year, the award honors the public library that most profoundly demonstrates outstanding service to populations 25,000 or below and achieves accomplishments over time.

“It’s great to be recognized for our hard work,” said Mary Beth Stenger, SAPL director, who wrote the winning grant application. 

Courtesy of Southern Area Public Library

The smallest library of the 175 in West Virginia, Southern Area Public Library, moved into this former bank building off Main Street in 1984.

Patron Pam Eakle (r) and library assistant Wilma Bennett show off the “geekthelibrary” banner, one of the many programs run with the help of volunteers.

Stenger became the library director in July 2010 after running the library’s book club and helping the previous director obtain grants for new shelving. When the director stepped down and the position opened, Stenger answered the ad.


“I have wanted to do something to help my community,” she said. “I love to read and help others. The library gives me that opportunity.”


Under Stenger, the SAPL has been transformed from a basic, traditional public library into a modern, bustling center of community activity, information and learning. It has seen much needed technology updates with new computers, new programs, books and movies, and an increase from 3,000 to 8,000 patron visits in and out of its doors annually thanks to those improvements.

Stenger’s predecessor ran the library solo, and when it hired her, the board planned to only bring her in. In her interview, Stenger told the board she didn’t want to work alone without backup.

“The budget does not allow the hiring of two people for all the library open days, so I recommended that they hire me to work 20 hours, and an assistant that could work the remaining 15 hours to complete the 35 hours SAPL is open weekly,” she added.

Wilma Bennett is the only other staff member paid to work at the library and oversees the after-school program. Twenty volunteers pop in and out throughout the day to help run the circulation desk so Stenger has the chance to work on the library’s pressing issues such as fundraising and events.

She credits implementing a technology mandate, setting goals to bring in more patrons and increasing the number of library volunteers and programs offered to the public for the turnaround.

They accomplish this on a 2013 budget of just under $35,000 and the labor of a staff of two, a band of 20 volunteers, and a small board of trustees. Harrison County contributes $11,000 to the budget, while other local and state government agencies fill in the rest.

When Stenger started as director, they were still checking out books the old fashioned way using book cards and had no computer system to keep track. Now people check out books using a yellow card that is scanned, becoming the last of the 45 libraries in the West Virginia Northern Library Network to use it. The network includes 18 counties that promote cooperation to enhance and expand availability of resources and information.

In addition to electronic checkout, the new system runs bills, overdue notices and interlibrary loans. All libraries in the network can share books, run circulation statistics and issue new cards



Click here to learn all about Southern Area Public Library  

Bullet For 2014 nomtination guidelines, contact Michael Kelley at; 646.380.0740; or visit

The library also has a website, a Facebook page, a Google calendar, and accounts with Twitter and Pinterest. Two new computers from the West Virginia Library Commission bought with funds given by the Legislature will bring the SAPL computer total to eight. They are constantly in use as many residents widely depend on dial-up, and people who need to use faster wireless Internet to complete homework and other tasks come to the library.


Last fall, the library started a charity program called “Little Library with a Big Heart” ­— something really close to Stenger. The library sponsors different charity events each month and invites patrons to make donations. In March, the library will be making gift bags for HOPE Inc., a task force on domestic violence, to give to women in their shelter. 

The library also provides after-school snacks for the many children that school buses drop off every Tuesday through Friday and has become another vital program for the community. The snacks—mostly healthy fruit and other foods—are donated by several local families. While there, children can get homework help and computer support. High school students get essential assistance with their student resumes and college applications, including editing and proofreading.

SAPL receives a $20,000 cash award, and membership and conference costs to attend the Public Library Association Biannual Conference in 2014 in Indianapolis, Ind. The library will use the award to start opening every Monday and enrich existing programs.