Midday on a gray Saturday in October, Richard Guscott, sporting a Mario Brothers sweatshirt and jeans, presides over a sprawling, custom gaming table. Hand-crafted and -painted rivers, valleys, dead trees, and ruins populated by the plastic figures of a Warhammer session await a few young men who will be arriving shortly.
“We’re just getting ready for our game today,” he said as I walked into the Willamina Public Library. He credits the imaginary world spread out before him to his friend Caleb Wellbrock, whose son is playing back in the stacks with Guscott’s son. Nearby, curled up in a chair, a 20-something woman plays a video game on a Switch. Elsewhere in the library, a couple of children can be heard talking quietly in the stacks.
There are books here, of course, and in 2022 more than 15,000 flew off the shelves for both adults and children. But depending on the time, day, and season you drop by this green, ramshackle pole-barn building that used to house the city’s fire trucks and ambulances, you’re likely to see any number of activities not directly connected with reading.
OREGON’S CULTURAL HUBS: An occasional series
You might wander into a meeting of the South Yamhill River Astronomy Club or find the library’s 3-D printer in use in an area set aside for “makers.” If he’s not leading a role-playing game, Guscott might be presiding over a Project STEAM workshop for teenagers. You might find a professional comics artist teaching children and adults how to draw or make zines. You could find a computer coding class, or an elderly couple doing ancestry research on a computer. Or locals watching a film.
Of course, it is a library, so it could be story time.
This is the Little Library That Could, and under the leadership of Library Director Sarah Frost, with help from a small but spirited team of volunteers, it has emerged as a very busy gathering place in this rural community of about 2,200. “The library absolutely is a cultural hub, and the passion Sarah brings to the library and the community is incredibly infectious,” said Guscott, who works part-time as a clerk — and volunteers a lot, too.
“It’s really hard to talk about Sarah without sounding like a maniac,” said Tyler Crook, who chairs the city’s library board. “The story I tell most often about Sarah is that when my wife and I were considering buying a house in Willamina, we stopped by the library to check it out and started talking to Sarah. She’d only been in the library position for a little while at that point, but she spoke so passionately about the community that it helped us make the decision to move here.”
Economically, Willamina is familiar with struggle. A few years ago, a study showed more than half the households in Yamhill County either below the poverty line or in that economically liminal space of not necessarily poor but living with a day-to-day balancing act of meeting basic household needs. In Willamina, that figure is more than 80 percent.
As the community has struggled, so has the library.
Back in 2008, plans for a new, larger space got as far as rough sketches before the project ran aground, lacking both funds and suitable property for building. Eight years later, in the summer of 2016, an interim city manager trying to balance the budget eliminated two full-time library positions for a library that was used little.
That jeopardized Willamina’s membership in the Chemeketa library cooperative that comprises 17 libraries in Yamhill, Marion, and Polk counties, so the city put up the bare minimum: a 20-hour library position. They hired Frost, a 1999 Willamina High School graduate who had spent a few years working at Starbucks and in Spirit Mountain Casino’s human resources department before being hired as Willamina’s code-enforcement officer.
What Frost found in the library was dead space. There were too many books, no volunteers, and other than some youth activities in the summer, very little programming.
“There was an excess of inventory,” she told me. “It was overwhelming, the collection couldn’t really breathe, and people weren’t encouraged to go in and browse. You had to know what you wanted and where it was. It was a much quieter library then. Other than summers, I’d have been lucky to see five people a day who would come in to see the library.”
Frost saw her first mission as rebuilding the library’s relationship with residents.
“We needed people to want to use the library before I could justify moving forward and trying to get funding,” she said. “I spent a good solid year going to chamber of commerce meetings and connecting with Kiwanis and civic clubs and just talking about libraries and what libraries can do for communities.”
Frost attended school here, so she had street cred that enabled her to connect with local teachers. In Willamina, the entire school district has one library, but it’s in the elementary building, which means teenagers don’t often go there. So Frost started personally delivering young adult material to the high school’s freshman English class once a month. She also helped teach basic computer coding in the kindergarten class.
Then there was the monumental task of dealing with the library’s collection, which was simultaneously too big and not enough. The library had children’s books and materials for adults, but little in the YA category. The library’s few graphic novels were scattered.
Frost started recruiting volunteers, talking up the library with anyone who would listen. “These were people who are very passionate about what the library could be, and they helped me that first year going through the inventory, looking at what hadn’t been touched in five years and was just gathering dust,” she said. “It was a heavy project, just getting the collection down to where it would fit on the shelves.”
Kepola Napoleon, a homeschool parent who started bringing her toddlers to the library in 2017, is among those who came for the books but realized a larger project was in the works.
“Sarah’s aspirations for the library were a huge motivator,” she said. Volunteering here and there led to more ambitious efforts. Napoleon joined the Love Our Library fundraising committee, which she’s chaired since 2019, in addition to serving on the library board.
Between the committee’s fundraising efforts and a flurry of grant-writing, Frost was able to secure about $24,000 for renovation projects. She got help from students at Portland State University thanks to one of her many local connections. Tracy Dillon, a local resident, teaches a PSU class in grant-writing and sits on the library board. The students also helped her apply for another grant for technology improvements. She’s still awaiting word on that, as well as another grant application.
With those financial resources, the city’s help, and volunteer labor, supporters were able to remake one side of the interior. An office wall was removed to make room for computers; shelves were arranged to create a conference/meeting space. A new rug was added to the children’s area. Acquisitions included more young adult books and videos. Like most libraries these days, it’s also possible to check out board games. A shelf contains materials curated for homeschool families.
The comics and manga shelf, while small in comparison to those in McMinnville and Salem, is impressively stocked. Frost had some excellent help there. Crook is a comics artist whose Harrow County series was published by Dark Horse in 2015. One day, he walked in with a bankers box full of comics donated by the Milwaukie company. You’ll occasionally find him at the library at a big table working with children, teens, and adults on drawing, making zines and comics.
“We live in some pretty challenging times and libraries are uniquely suited to provide the things that our community needs,” Crook said. “There has been a growing nationwide movement to expand what it means to be a library. It’s not just books, but it’s also computers and internet access, it’s movies and video games.” The library even has a small food pantry and outreach to homeless youth.
“There are very few places where a person can go and hang out and not be asked to spend any money,” he continued. “As far as indoor spaces go, the public library is the only place I can think of like that.”
Frost’s relentless outreach has turned the once-quiet library into a thriving space for creativity, community, and camaraderie. As the Warhammer game got going, I got a taste of what’s coming this weekend. Rhyne Nelson, a local high school senior and one of the library’s faithful patrons, dropped by with one of his latest Perler bead creations: the library logo, created with nearly 3,500 tiny beads sealed into place with an iron.
“I saw it online and thought, ‘I have to try this,’” he said proudly. Nelson pulled out his phone to show another of his creations: an impressive Perler bead rendering of Heath Ledger’s Joker from The Dark Knight film. This weekend, Nelson will join Crook and seamstress Linda Voeks at the library to demonstrate their work. This will be one of the stops on the two-day Willamina Coastal Hills Art Tour, now in its third decade, set for Nov. 10-11.
Nearby, Guscott was busy with several young men on the latest edition of Warhammer, one of many role-playing games he’s into. Some players are experienced, but one is learning as he goes. Guscott, working his phone with the game app, offered a simple takeaway: “If you want to play a game like Star Wars, where you use the Force and end up summoning demons, then Warhammer 40K is the game for you.”
I asked him what the players, regardless of age, get out of the game.
“They get math skills, they learn how to collaborate,” he said. “Playing the game is just part of learning how to tell a story and finding a comfort zone. Because we have kids who don’t want to do the role-playing side, they won’t want to be ‘actors,’ but they want to be writers. And then there’s the hobby side, the crafts, and building stuff. So we kind of do everything.”
Off to the side, Frost watched all this with a grin.
“What Richie does with this stuff just blows my mind,” she said, noting that the younger kids call him “Wizard Richie.” “It’s amazing how he brings this storytelling and world-building together.”
Like everywhere else, the pandemic dealt the library a blow, coming just as volunteers had finished the remodel. But already they were in a better place than four years earlier. Frost added a part-time library assistant, Karla Johnson, in 2017. Supporters soldiered on, and in January of this year, Frost was able to boost Johnson’s hours to 32 per week, the same as her own. Guscott started doing part-time work in 2021 thanks to grant funds, and this year he officially joined staff as a part-time clerk.
In 2022, library volunteers logged more than 500 hours. Last summer, more than 1,100 people participated in summer programs. During her tenure, Frost has secured five grants that total more than $61,000 and is awaiting word on two more.
Dillon, who joined the library board in 2017, said he has a pretty good before-and-after perspective of what Frost has managed to pull off and that “nothing suggests that she’s slowing down anytime soon.”
“She is a champion of student learning and life-long learning for adults,” he said. “Her energy is contagious. She has a talent for recognizing a community need and inventing imaginative ways to address it.”
As in 2008, the library is looking to the future. Organizers say there’s still much work to be done rebuilding the volunteer stable to pre-pandemic levels. More crucially, establishment of a Friends of the Library nonprofit group, with greater flexibility and latitude in chasing grant money, will enable the group to build on the work done by the more informal fundraising committee.
“The big dream that we currently have visualized is new and much bigger space,” Frost said. “A space to meet the demand for more services in our community. We have plenty to keep us busy while we work up to that future.”
“The most rewarding part of this experience has been that we have created a space that means so much to others,” she added. “People find themselves wanting to be involved. My favorite moments in the library are when activity and energy is high, and the space is alive.”
The Willamina Public Library is at 382 N.E. C St. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Thursday, with the first Thursday of the month window-service only and special events as announced, sometimes on weekends. The library can also be found on Facebook and Instagram. For more information, call 503-876-6182. Frost can be reached by email at email@example.com.