In Mark Twain’s Storey County, the struggle to keep a library alive


Matt Hufman

At the historic Gold Hill Hotel, shown in 2013, a sign on the ceiling of the bar asks for donations to the effort to open a new public library. The Storey County Public Library closed in 2012.

Finding Nevada: Library

Michael-Ann Lazzarino shows children a book in the children's book nook in Virginia City in 2013. Lazzarino is the elementary programs director of Community Chest, a nonprofit group that opened the book nook last year  in its community center.  The Storey County Public Library closed in 2012. Launch slideshow »

Virginia City launched Mark Twain’s celebrated career, and today, his name and image are painted on buildings and appear in the shops that line the rustic wooden sidewalks. There is even a museum in his honor.

But don’t expect to find his work in the public library. In a situation that might have provoked a pithy Twain quote, there no longer is a public library in the ironically named Storey County.

The library, which was at the town’s high school, lost its county funding and closed in the summer of 2012. The move stunned residents, including some of those involved.

“What made this a community rather than a town was we had a school, we had a newspaper, we had a market and we had a library,” said Erlene Flanagan, a former county commissioner who was on the library board when it made the decision to close.

But, to paraphrase Twain, the story of the library’s death is grossly exaggerated thanks to a show of the pioneer Nevada spirit that Virginia City celebrates.

Shaun Griffin, the executive director of Community Chest, a local nonprofit group, recalls the day the library was going to be dissolved. His wife, Deborah, showed up and told the library board: “This is wrong. We’ve got to find a way to save this.”

The library board had little choice but to close the library; the Storey County Commission already had voted to defund the $100,000 operation to save money for more pressing county issues.

Community Chest took the library’s 18,000-volume collection so it wouldn’t be lost or stolen. Griffin found a building with enough space to store the books, and Community Chest set out to reopen the library. It was a departure for the organization, which Griffin and his wife founded in 1991. Community Chest provides social services for children and families in the region.

Nancy Cummings, the retired director of the Washoe County Library System, learned of the library’s closure when she and her husband dropped by to donate books. The library was being boxed up, and the librarian told her what had happened. To Cummings, it was unthinkable that a county would close its library.

A longtime leader on state library issues, Cummings rallied a group of volunteer librarians from Northern Nevada to sort the collection. They pulled out titles for a children’s “book nook” in a community center run by Community Chest.

“It’s a tiny little children’s area, but to us it was a giant step,” said Cummings, a fourth-generation Nevadan whose family has roots in Virginia City. “You get the parents and the kids back into being involved; they want it, they love it, their kids need it.”

The book nook was the first step in a campaign to rebuild public support to reopen the public library.

There are still sore feelings in this town of 830 people over why the library was closed. There was bad blood between the county commission and the library board, which was independent but relied on county funds to pay the bills. Flanagan said it came down to being a budget issue.

“It didn’t make fiscal sense, that’s the bottom line,” Flanagan said. “The budget was so tight there weren’t available funds to buy books or keep current.”

Flanagan said the collection included a 1987 book on DOS computer programming. And given the library’s location inside the high school, adults couldn’t be there during school hours, and that resulted in fewer patrons.

A published poet, Griffin sees a real need for a public library in Storey County. The population of 4,100 is spread out over a mountainous area, and not everyone has Internet access, so a library with an up-to-date collection, filled with print and digital resources, could be a real asset.

Griffin wants to raise $1.3 million to construct the second phase of his group’s community center — and include room for a full public library.

People are responding, including the county commissioners, who have chipped in out of their own pockets and directed some county money to library operations.

Community Chest has raised more than $50,000 so far and plans to have a librarian on staff this year. Flanagan said she was proud of the community for a “creative, if not perfect, solution.” That, she said, was typical of Virginia City.

“It may be out of the box, it may not be the way they do it in Las Vegas or anywhere else in the universe,” she said, “but we do it.”

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