It's little wonder Carrie Valdes is so comfortable in her new position as Library Director of the Grand County Public Library‒she's sitting in our living room.
"Public libraries that are able to redefine themselves more as community centers are succeeding," Valdes said. "When we won Best Small Library in America, the headline was "Moab's Living Room,' so I think we've been very successful with our past leadership in being able to present ourselves as a great place to be."
That past leadership left some large shoes vacant. Former Library Director Eve Tallman is pretty universally regarded as a local visionary, having insisted that even a small town deserves a big library. While the vision for a new library came from the library board, and Tallman was hired partly to fulfill that vision, she earned the community's respect with an effort that resulted in a new facility which was almost immediately honored by the Library Journal and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as the Best Small Library in America.
Valdes worked alongside Tallman through that process, while earning her Master's of Library Science degree from the University of North Texas. "I learned more from Eve than I did from my Master's program," Valdes said. "I had an official mentor who was a wonderful library director ‒ they wouldn't allow Eve to be my mentor because I worked for her ‒ but Eve was the one that helped me when I needed help."
So, with her de facto mentor gone, is Valdez concerned about taking the helm of so prestigious an institution?
"I'm not anxious at all. I know Eve's phone number," Valdes joked. "It's a great time to be where I'm at. I feel 100 percent capable of doing this job. I'm not worried, but my primary concern at this time is I don't want the library to become complacent. We don't want to think that we're there, and there's nothing left to do. We may be the best small library in America, but we still have improvements that need to be made."
Valdes credits the library's success to the devotion of the staff and the support of the community. The second half of that equation was confirmed in 2004, when 72 percent of those who voted in the Grand County special election approved the bond for a new library. Valdes points out that, unlike many other campaigns, the library board fully intended to live up to every promise.
"I'm very confident that if we were to have to go to the voters again in the future, and say we need a branch library in southern Grand County, or we need to look at service in the surrounding areas like Castle Valley or Thompson, the voters would be behind us on that," Valdes said. "They know that it's not going to be a waste of money, that we're going to do what we say we're going to do, that it's a true benefit to the community."
That benefit goes well beyond the traditional role of the library as a repository of books, periodicals, and special collections, she said. "We definitely stress information; it fits in line better with what we actually do," Valdes said of the library's mission. "It would be great if every person that came in here took a book home with them, but not everybody does. We have the audio-visual, we have the DVDs, the books on CD, we have the MP3 downloadable books, we have so much more to offer. That's not even talking about the computers. We have over 60 computers, and over 50 of them are public access."
At one time that access was controversial, with some librarians questioning the value of Internet information and the need for access. Today, with some 98 percent of public libraries offering computer services, electronic access has become a major part of library service. In Moab, that need can be different than other places.
"We get a lot of visitors who've been to Arches and around the area, who've filled up their digital cameras because there's so much to take pictures of," Valdes said. "So they come in and burn the pictures to CD so they can take more pictures of the beautiful scenery."
Of course, the library's main function is to serve Grand County residents, who pay for most of the facility and its services. Visitors who need Internet access are relegated to the lobby computers, where they can enjoy the "public" in the library's title without intruding too heavily into a space locals often regard as personal.
"We try to emphasize appropriate behavior. We have a code of conduct that we try to keep people within, but I don't think people come in here expecting dead silence and nothing going on," Valdes said. "We have an active children's program; our children's staff is fantastic. A three-year-old's not going to have much fun being quiet."
Conversely, a 43-year-old might not have as much fun without quiet. So the library was designed, with Valdes's input, to separate without segregating. Different user groups can share the space while pursuing diverse interests.
"It's amazing how some of these mental separations work," Valdes said. "The young adult and the regular computers, there's no physical division between them. We've got that six-foot concrete pathway that walks through there, and that's it. Kids tend to do a lot of group projects, they like to be together in groups, and of course the noise level tends to rise when that happens. The separation of the pathway, which does nothing for the noise, works to keep everybody happy. We don't want to isolate the teenagers, and we certainly don't want to make them feel like they're not welcome. We want to have them here."
With her husband Miguel, Valdes is also partners in Miguel's Baja Cantina. She says they chose Moab to raise their two daughters after careful consideration, looking at factors including proximity to her family and a climate approximating Miguel's native Baja. Ultimately, they chose Moab for a reason which probably figures into the town's desire for an upscale library ‒ diversity.
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