SANTA FE, N.M. — Books. The words, pictures, ideas and knowledge contained within them empower, educate and entertain.
New Mexico resident and famous author George R.R. Martin says, “A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge.”
The town of Bernalillo is doing its part to keep minds sharp with its library box program.
“It’s an effort to take the library to the community when the community is somewhat resistant to coming to the library,” says Maria Rinaldi, Bernalillo’s director of Community Development, who initiated the program.
The library boxes are meant to be free or exchange libraries, Rinaldi says, and placed in areas that have lower numbers of library card memberships. A sign in each box encourages users to “take a book, read a book or leave a good book for others to enjoy.”
The boxes are funded by bond money, and designed and built by resident Richard Catanach. The books that inhabit the boxes are library donations, or books that have been removed from regular circulation, says Kathy Banks, director of Library Services, adding, “We get a lot of donations.”
Selections within the boxes include fiction, nonfiction, children’s and young adults’ books, and cookbooks. Some titles are available in both Spanish and English.
Rinaldi says she was inspired by similar library box programs in cities such as London; Berkeley, Calif.; and Albuquerque, and had talked about bringing them to Bernalillo for a long time.
She was able to implement the program earlier this year when the funding for a different project fell through. “Everyone thought it was a great idea,” Banks says.
In addition to the boxes, there are two reading rooms that are set up the same way as the boxes, but also provide sheltered reading space.
The Well House reading room is a repurposed and restored historic well and pump house, formerly belonging to the Sisters of Loretto convent.
The Rotary Park reading room, which Rinaldi says should be open by the holidays, is in an old train engine once belonging to the New Mexico Lumber and Timber Co. that used to bring lumber from the Jemez Mountains via Gilman.
Rotary Park was once part of the lumber mill property. A third reading room is in the planning stage.
The first box was placed in Fred Saiz Park in April, shortly after the Well House reading room opened in March.
Maria Moclova, a library aide, visits the boxes and reading rooms weekly to rotate the book selection, making changes as necessary.
“Usually when I go out I see what’s popular right away because I have them alphabetized so I know what’s been taken and what hasn’t,” she says. “So I know what kind of things people like to read, what genres.”
“She can gauge demand, and likes and dislikes, based on what’s in there,” Rinaldi says of Moclova. “She’s exceptional because she’s the one that makes sure there’s continued interest.”
Moclova says romance novels are popular in one area, while mysteries are preferred in another. The most popular books overall are children’s books, she says, particularly those geared toward the very young or Spanish-speaking children. Classics tend to be the least popular titles, Moclova adds.
Banks and Rinaldi say the boxes have been a hit in the community. “The people really do like them,” Banks says.
Rinaldi took a friend visiting from England to see the library boxes, and at the Fred Saíz Park location, “the little girls in the neighborhood came running to that box to show him how it worked – how many doors there were, how many books were inside, and point out which ones they had read. It was just amazing,” she says.
Rinaldi says her 4-year-old nephew makes his mom stop at the Athena Park location daily on their way home so he can check on it, and make sure the doors are closed to protect the books.
The boxes and reading rooms are “something [residents] can take ownership of in their own neighborhood,” she says.
Banks says the library community outreach has been very successful, with record numbers of new library cardholders. September saw 101 new cards, she says, up from the monthly average of 50.
“I grew up in an inner-city [neighborhood] in the Los Angeles area, and our closest library was a car ride away, so something in our neighborhood would have been really nice,” Banks says. “Anytime you can get books into the hands of kids or adults – anybody – it’s awesome.”