On the Record

If you build it, they will read

On the record with ... Barb Coward

Cortland Community Library Director Barb Coward.
Cortland Community Library Director Barb Coward.

CORTLAND – When Barb Coward was growing up, her mother told her she should be a librarian. Coward, of Cortland, did her one even better – she started a new library.

Coward was among a group of women who opened the Cortland Community Library in 1984.

“It’s kind of fun, but it is also means I jump off a cliff without a parachute,” she said. “It’s been my obsession for 30 years; just ask my friends.”

As a teenager, Coward worked at her school library in Chicago. She then taught sixth grade in Burlington for eight years before leaving the work force to have her children.

Coward sat down to discuss libraries with MidWeek reporter Doug Oleson.

Oleson: So how does one start a library?

Coward: I was one of seven or eight crazy ladies. We didn’t have anything before. ...I honestly don’t know now, but we were probably standing on the corner by the post office, four or five of us. One of the women, her husband owned the land where Casey’s is now. There used to be three little houses on it. I think the conversation was, ‘That is a really excellent building; what can we use it for?’ We got permission to use one. We painted it blue and got a new roof and indoor plumbing. It didn’t have that. The town gave us federal revenue sharing money while that still existed.

One room in here (the current library) would have held everything. It was quite small.

Oleson: When did you officially open?

Coward: July 3, 1984. I was the first director. It was a bunch of women working together to get something done. We didn’t know what we were doing.

Oleson: How did you get books to fill it?

Coward: It was really hard to purchase new things, but it’s amazing how generous people were. My children don’t really like the library. They’re all grown now, but I robbed my kids of books they were done with. I think I had 27 boxes of (their) books. I think I only donated about three boxes. There wasn’t a lot of room for books anyway.

They were not very happy with me. Now, it’s a good reason to tease Mom.

Oleson: How long were you in that location?

Coward: Once Casey’s came, we moved to town hall for eight years, then we came here in May of 1993. This used to be the old fire barn.

Resource Bank was very good to us (with the loan). It is paid off now, thank goodness.

Oleson: Did anyone get paid?

Coward: We were all volunteers at first. Then we got a charter through the court system, and we passed a referendum. In May of 1996, we had enough money to hire a librarian, and become a part of the real library system. That was the first day I worked for pay. You have to have a director even if there’s only one of you.

Oleson: What do you mean a ‘real library?’

Coward: You have to be open 25 hours a week to be recognized by the state as real. Then you can join the inter-library loan system, so our small size isn’t so much of a liability.

Oleson: How big is this library?

Coward: We have 27,000 materials. I can’t fit any more in. We have tried to hang things from the ceiling.

We have 1,800 card holders and a staff of 12. Two are full-time. I am semi-retired. Small libraries have to take advantage of women and part-time workers.

Cortland has grown a lot since then. It was 1,000 then; it’s 4,270 now.

Oleson: Aren’t you an original member of Libraries Working Together?

Coward: I think Peggy (Wogen, director of the Malta Township Library) started it. Peggy and I met at a training session a few years ago at Kishwaukee College.

We’re all so small. We saw the benefits of getting together. We kind of pulled together. We were just helping each other out and sharing ideas.

Oleson: What do you like about being a librarian?

Coward: The magic is handing a new book to a small child and seeing the smile on their face, or helping someone with a medical problem. That’s the best part of being a real library.

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