Cathy Free: Tiny town loves its library

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 2 2011 10:00 p.m. MST

NEWTON, Cache County — In a town of 803 people, one market and about 2,400 cows, a room filled with 25,000 books is something to marvel.

Besides supplying the main ingredient for gourmet cheddar cheese, this small dairy town's claim to fame is that it has the smallest certified library in Utah — a remarkable feat when you consider that 12 years ago you had a better chance of being beamed up by space aliens than getting your hands on the latest Stephen King.

Best-sellers were a rare thing in Newton before then, unless families chose to fork over more than $100 for a library card to check out books in Logan, 15 miles away.

Now, thanks to dedicated volunteers and a handful of part-time paid employees, the Newton City Library is the hottest gathering spot in town.

It's also the only gathering spot in town, but no matter.

"We love our books," says library director Sarah Rigby, 37, taking a Free Lunch break from cataloging to share the story of Newton's greatest asset with longtime volunteer Cleo Griffin, 82.

"Having a library has opened the world up for everybody in Newton," says Rigby, who has worked there for nine years. "Probably the nicest thing is that when people come in, they're not just another face. In such a small community, I get to learn a little something about every single person in town."

Located in the town's old schoolhouse, the Newton library was started by Griffin, a book lover who grew up in the small town of Georgetown, Idaho, where a visit to the library required knocking on her neighbor's door and browsing the shelves in her living room.

"She was a wonderful lady, devoted to providing books for our little town," Griffin recalls. "She introduced me to the classics and helped me develop a love for reading."

After she married and moved to Newton to raise a family, Griffin always longed for a nearby place to check out mysteries and historical novels. When she was given the title of literary specialist at her Mormon ward, she decided to take her new task a big step further and start a town library.

"My living room wasn't nearly big enough," she jokes, "so we talked the city into giving us a space in the school, next to the town hall. Basically, with $50 and a box of books, we were in business."

For 11 years, Griffin worked as the head librarian, cataloging all the books that townsfolk contributed, ordering new books on her limited budget, setting up a computer system and holding children's story time.

Now retired, she still comes in several times a week to look after the library's historical archives and browse through the mystery section. "Books are my daily Prozac," she says. "Whatever would we do without them?"

Rigby concurs. In a world where a Nook is now a handheld gadget for book downloading, it's nice to have a cozy place in Newton to escape for an hour or two.

"Electronic books might be good for some people," says Rigby, who still calls patrons personally if they have overdue materials, "but I think in Newton, most everybody prefers a trip to the library."

Good, old-fashioned books, she says, will always outnumber those Holstein cows.

Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. Email your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to freelunch@desnews.com.

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