ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s a place to socialize, use the computer, buy some groceries, draw water from the well, find a pen pal, make a phone call, hang out after school, look for a job, walk in an orchard, picnic, meditate and learn about the natural world.
It’s not a private business, shopping center or even a block in a busy urban city. It’s the Embudo Valley Library & Community Center, which serves rural communities within Rio Arriba County.
The public library in Dixon recently received national recognition for its contributions in northern New Mexico. New York think tank the Manhattan Institute has named the library as one of its 2020 Civil Society Award winners. The library will receive $25,000 and be recognized at a virtual award ceremony on Oct. 29.
The award was given to five nonprofit organizations and their leaders nationwide who have addressed social challenges in their communities.
“The Embudo Valley Library & Community Center is both a nonprofit public library and the local hub for educational, cultural, and recreational resources in rural New Mexico’s Rio Arriba and Taos counties,” the Institute said in a news release. “The Manhattan Institute is very impressed with the variety and success of the library’s programming and the educational opportunities it brings to children in the area.”
Gone are the days when libraries were simply for checking out books or doing research. Libraries are often a hub in any given community but become more so in communities where resources and supplies are limited. The closest cities to Dixon that have a large selection of amenities are Taos and Española, which are each about 20 minutes away.
Velarde resident Sandra Klessen has been using the library on a regular basis for about eight years. She said there is no library in Velarde. Her number one reason for visiting the library is to use the computers for personal research. She does not have reliable internet at home. She also rents DVDs and checks out books.
“It’s (the library) wonderful,” she said. “It’s like a social hub.”
The award also recognizes co-founder Shel Neymark, who helped get the library started. Neymark said a friend approached him around 1988 with the idea of starting a library in Dixon.
“The local bar was closing,” he said. “The grocery store would follow. Those were real gathering places. There was nothing here that really belonged to everyone, that could really foster community.”
A core group of about eight people got to work researching what they needed to open a library, finding a place for it and securing furniture and books. Fate intervened.
A house in Dixon that had once also been the local post office came on the market for rent. Not long after, a used book store in Santa Fe closed and the owner donated all of their books and bookshelves to the group. A local group of woodworkers offered to make more shelves and a volunteer with a degree in library science agreed to help organize the collection. They opened in May of 1992, paying $200 a month for the small house they had converted into a library.
“We had no idea if it would work or if anyone would come,” Neymark said. “We checked out 50 books the first day.”
For two years the organization was run completely by volunteers until they got grants to pay their librarians. They also outgrew their little library house and saw an opportunity when the general store property went up for sale.
“The board decided we wanted to buy it because it was in the center of town,” he said. “We had no money and no idea how we would do it.”
A private donor came forward and offered to donate $200,000 if the board could raise $50,000.
They did it in three weeks.
The purchase included not only the store, but the house next door and one and half acres of land with an apple orchard. The library was placed in the house and the store was used to expand programming and set up a small food co-op. The entire general store is now a co-op, which has given the town its only grocery store.
“Now the town has a fantastic grocery store,” Neymark said. “I can get everything I need there.”
Library Director Felicity Fonseca has been working there for 17 years. She said the 3,000-square-foot library has served many needs during that time. It has an after-school program (pre-pandemic), it allows community members to draw water from their well, use the phone and use their grounds for activities. They have a physical collection of about 16,000 items and about 17,600 digital books. They even had their own radio station, KLDK-LP 96.5 FM.
COVID-19 has put a damper on a lot of that programming, but the library is still a place for the community to gather. Fonseca said some groups hold exercise sessions in the orchard behind the library, while others have a picnic. The library set up picnic tables on its porch so the community can access Wi-Fi. They have also teamed up with Pajarito Environmental Education Center to offer grab-n-go naturalist activity kits that include a book and four different activities.
The library is open 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. They are closed Sunday. For more information, visit embudovalleylibrary.org.
“We have had hundreds of volunteers over the years,” Neymark said. “It’s rare to have such a sense of community like we do here. We are lucky and the library has really fostered that.”