Return to rural roots puts Michigan’s Librarian of the Year right where she belongs

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the Fennville District Library to temporarily close, librarian Teresa Kline knew the community institution had to find another way to serve patrons. She found inspiration from restaurants. 
 
“We needed someone from a restaurant to tell us how to do curbside service. What bags do we use? Where do we get waterproof signs?” says Kline, who was calling restaurants to find the information she needed. An expert in helping people find resources, Kline, herself, turned to resources in her own community to help her continue to meet the needs of her patrons.
 
Kline's focus on inclusivity and her efforts to achieve equity for a diverse community earned her Michigan's 2021 Public Librarian of the Year. 
 
Given by the Michigan Library Association, the award "recognizes outstanding library professionals that inspire people, provide innovative library service to their community, promote collaboration among libraries, and show evidence of personal and professional achievement as well as initiative and creativity." 
 
Kline’s unique approach to problem-solving is one among many talents that garnered her the award.
 
Grant-writing talents
 
Kline wrote two grants "near and dear” to her heart that help Fennville District Library offer an innovative approach to reaching all in the community — a community that includes a large population of Spanish-language speakers. Of the library's 14,230 patrons, many live outside of the city in a handful of townships stretching nearly 20 miles to the south, says Kline. 
 
In 2019, Fennville was one of four libraries in the state to receive a three-year grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services that allowed for “impacting families through literacy,” says Kline. “We established literacy materials, support, early literacy, and address ongoing literacy needs." 
 
The grant fuels programs including “Reading buddy,” where members of the community read stories with children at the Telamon Migrant Head Start Center in Pullman, sing songs, and do projects together. The grant also provides the means for weekly backpacks the students take home with literacy supplies so all family members could have access to reading materials. Kline adds, “My hope is other libraries will pick up on this and serve their underserved populations.”
 
The second grant awarded to Fennville District Library was the American Library Association's COVID Relief Fund. Fennville, the only library in Michigan to be awarded the grant, was given $30,000, of which $8,000 supported Spanish-language and English language learner materials for children and adults. Many of Fennville's patrons live in rural settings without access to resources such as the Internet. Part of the grant money was spent on creating 16 Internet hot spots throughout the district.
 
Inspired by experience

When asked what inspires Kline to do this kind of work, she says her own experience growing up in a rural community in southern Michigan gives her insight into what these communities face. 
 
“I always wanted to be a librarian,” says Kline, who, after earning her bachelor's degree in history at the University of Michigan, stayed on campus to earn her master's degree in information and library science. She worked in a large multi-branch library outside Detroit but returned to her rural roots by working in a district like Fennville.
 
Sometimes, it’s the little things that encourage Kline. 
 
“We did a report for the first grant, where I included a response from (one of our community partners, who said), 'You can tell our books are getting used, because when we opened one up, there were Cheetos fingerprints on the pages.'” 
 
The commission got a kick out of that, she says. 
 
The Fennville District Library's October newsletter echoes praise for a job well done: "The Fennville District Library staff, board of directors, and patrons are very proud of the multiple improvements that Teresa has made (since she started in 2013) for the library and community during her time as director here. Being named MLA Public Librarian of the Year is a well-deserved honor." 
 
Kline believes that libraries have almost become community centers, offering everything from seeds for growing vegetables to workshops and what is traditionally considered social work. 
 
“There are so many opportunities,” she says. “I could not be happier doing what I do. It's a great time to be a librarian.”

Read more articles by Kathleen Schenck.