Let’s imagine something together.
You walk into a small building. The outside seems small, anyway. The moment you walk in, though, the place feels much bigger. The wooden beams supporting the roof conjure up the coziness of a log cottage with a little fireplace in the corner roaring warmth and comfort. The building is full of gentle faces wandering about with purpose, no hurried bodies running to finish tasks.
The walls are lined with books of all types, there are cute sections for kids to listen to stories, there are laptops, computers and tablets free to use. As you walk in someone greets you with a kind voice, soft against the muffled serenity of this space but just loud enough for you to feel welcomed. You feel safe here, allowed to be vulnerable enough to learn, and free to learn without borders.
This place isn’t some magical space that exists in a movie wonderland. It’s a library. More specifically, it’s the Ralston Baright Public Library, a cozy, little spot tucked away just around the corner from Ralston’s town center. In May, I was contacted by Amy Ellefson, the adult programs coordinator at Baright. She emailed to ask if I’d be free to run a couple of writing and poetry workshops over the summer. The conversation we had went so well that in July I was brought on as Baright’s first artist in residence. It was an exciting time, and I was thrilled. Not just because I would get to work at a library, but also because of the way the staff made me feel. The first meeting I had with Ellefson was when I met Amanda Peña, the director at Baright, who was filled with this overwhelming sense of passion, this need to offer more to a growing community.
During that first meeting I learned that one of the biggest goals the library had was to offer more services. Peña had found out that Ralston’s demographics showed a significant and quickly growing Hispanic/Latinx population — people she noticed were not showing up at Baright. “I started working in libraries when I was 15.” Peña said. “Libraries are really for everyone and they’re one of the few places in the world that are like that.”
The library started making changes and offering services that aren’t exactly traditional but that Peña believes are essential to building community and creating a place for people to find consistency and safety. “I think we’re one of the few places where people can be vulnerable and ask us questions that they don’t want to ask other people,” she said. “Its simple things like, ‘How do you use a mouse?’ You don’t think about it until somebody asks you. ‘How do I print?’ I think we try to build this environment that is open to everybody and nobody’s stupid and nobody has a bad question, and it’s free.”
I had a chance to speak with Peña and Ellefson, as well as Tiffany Zuerlein, the youth services librarian. The idea of building safety and openness is huge for Baright, but the services it offers are the most exciting part of what the library hopes to bring to the community. Zuerlein hosts many programs for youth in the community and is dedicated to creating more. “Every day is different,” she said. “First of all, there is a lot of cleaning. I’m in the kids’ room so there’s a lot of cleaning, but outside of that it’s trying to build awesome programs to help these little people.”
Zuerlein is always looking for new things to bring to the youth, not just literature-based activities but all art, and she is especially interested in trying to get more science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programs. “We already have great partnerships with 4H,” she said. “They’ve been amazing bringing in STEM teachers, so these kids get awesome experiences. The symphony, they’ve been coming in and doing story times, and we’ve had a cool cultural event with the Omaha Sister Cities Association.”
Ellefson has been working at the library for the least amount of time, but she has been one of the biggest parts of Baright’s new direction. Everyone does an immense amount of work, just to be clear, but Ellefson is the communicator. She isn’t just in charge of adult programming, but she also does the networking to get programs and organizations into the library. That means she’s always on the phone or answering emails, always talking to new people to try to bring as many services to the library as possible. “My grandma told me when I was growing up that the only way to truly understand humanity is to see how other people live,” Ellefson said. “She also said you can do hard things, you just have to figure out who can help you do them. I use that. I want our Ralston community to understand that the community is changing.”
Ellefson wants to build programs that are for everyone, for the new residents who need help learning a different language to the families that have been here for a long time. She wants people to know that the multilingual events the library hosts are for everyone, that they can be a chance for cultures to learn more about one another and build a stronger sense of community. Ellefson expressed that this isn’t just about cultural lines — she’s using her programs to bring younger and older generations together as well.
Peña said she tries to build an environment in which everyone can feel free to bring ideas. She even said, “As long as it’s not crazy, we can make it happen.” Ellefson remarked that sometimes they do try the crazy ideas, and all three laughed.
Zuerlein and Ellefson go out of their way to find exciting programs to bring to Baright. Zuerlein tirelessly works to know what is trending with the youth she serves. She is always looking up the new books that kids are into, the shows, music, and trying to translate that into programming for the library.
Ellefson is trying to bring set-aside and criminal record-sealing services to Baright, to help people seal old records that can keep them from applying for housing, getting jobs, and accessing other essential needs that could make life much easier.
Zuerlein enjoys a teen game night that she runs, an event she’s seen as an oasis for students who may not have the best experience at school. “This is their one place, where they are completely free to be themselves,” she said. “They act how they want to, and I love it.” She’s also looking to build a robust offering of STEM programming.
Ellefson, Peña and Zuerlein are a dynamic team on a mission. Not just to change the library and the way people see it, but to make Baright something else. Or, as they would say: To make it what a library should be. Ellefson wants the Baright Library to be an “absolutely essential community resource.” It might be there now. Offering free tax help, free food truck lunches over the summer for kids up to age 18, Baright just wants to serve the city and people who make their way into the library.
With the right support, the Ralston Baright Library could wind up changing what libraries are capable of offering the communities around them, and I’m proud to be a small part of such a massive endeavor.