AK: Libraries

Photo by Ellen Lockyer, KSKA - Anchorage

A library is more than a collection of books. In a small town like Sutton in the Matanuska Valley, the library serves many functions. It’s a meeting place for people of all ages, a storehouse of information, and a door allowing a peek into the community’s past. Sutton residents have worked for years to raise funds for a new library, and last month, that dream became reality.

After year’s of bake sales, grant applications and planning meetings, Sutton’s new library opened quietly in mid June of this year. A grand opening a few weeks later drew a crowd. Perhaps in keeping with the hush normally associated with libraries, the chamber music group Fireside String Quartet entertained

“And then we had bluegrass music, so it was a full afternoon,” librarian Nancy Bertels said.

But now, in mid July the tidy, cedar sided building surrounded by murmuring cottonwoods already fits the town like a favorite pair of sneakers.

Bertels is just finishing up pre-school story hour with a few rambunctious members of Sutton’s future generation.

“Our parking lot has been full every day since we opened. And I think, part of it it’s a beautiful facility and we’re offerering some great programming to our community, so people are excited to come and participate. We had over twenty kids for a story hour this morning, and then arts and crafts and a little chaos afterwards,” Bertels said.

Bertels finally gets a quiet moment to reflect on the new library’s significance

“It creates a perfect community center here in Sutton. People are walking through the park, visiting the library,” Bertels said.

As if on cue, a teenage girl walks to the front door with at least 10 books piled high in her arms. Sutton is a readers’ town.

The library replaces the worn out old frame building down the road that served the community since the 1980s. Bertels says the old library was so cramped for space, that when a new book came in, an old book had to be disposed of. This new one is purposely located next to Sutton’s Alpine Historic District . The Historic District is an acre of green lawn, on which are displayed in haphazard fashion, the rusted hulks of coal mining paraphernalia from ninety years ago. A crumbling foundation marks the spot where the Sutton coal wash house stood. The wash house’s dimensions were used in the library’s floor plan

“And it’s designed after the old coal washing facility that used to sit on the cement ruins in the historic park right in front of our building,” Bertels said.

Sutton is sticking to its heritage. The town was founded on coal, although more recently, opposition to that type of mining is rife. But the controversy has not rocked Sutton as it has split other communities.

“It’s part of the history of this community, and it [the library] was designed in that period, to look like that period of housing. I don’t think that anybody disputes the fact that coal has been a part of this community’s history. Nobody had anything really bad to say about that,” Bertels said.

Once barely a blip on the map, Sutton has become a not quite suburban community popular with young families.

SUVs and compact sedans have replaced battered pickup trucks on the local roadways, a sure sign of gentility moving in. Bertels says the iconic Alaska bachelor, once prevalent in these parts, is now a rarity

Bertels: ‘Even those old bachelors have kind of cleaned up and at least bought a new truck.’ Ellen: ‘Do they read?’ Bertels: ‘They do, they read a lot, and they use the computers a lot.’

Although improved Glenn Highway conditions bring Anchorage and Wasilla closer now, Suttonites identify strongly with their town and are a close knit bunch.

“We are so proud of our new building. The visibility between the library and the Historical Park has been a wonderful partnership,” Former Matanuska Susitna Borough Assembly member Lynn Woods said.

Sutton got lots of help in paying for the new building. The Borough, the Rasmussen Foundation, BP and Conoco Phillips, and Usibelli coal added corporate dollars to the donations gained from garage sales and benefit raffles. Names of donors large and small are engraved on gilt leaves decorating a tree mural inside. Free first time library cards are a bonus for Borough residents, but woe to the procrastinator. Late book return fees will be strictly enforced.

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