Ten-year-old Library Journal program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation highlights the annual Best Small Library in America, and Mill Valley’s treasured 104-year-old institution was named a finalist.
The surge of momentum seized by the Mill Valley Valley Public Library for its Centennial Celebration in 2011 continues to reap huge dividends four years later.

Library Journal, a trade magazine focused on the library community, named the Mill Valley Library a finalist for the Best Small Library in America 2015. The 10-year-old program funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation seeks to showcase the exemplary work of public libraries serving populations under 25,000, with the Belgrade Community Library in Montana taking top honors and the Red Hook Public Library in upstate New York joining Mill Valley as finalists.

“Our innovations have brought us closer to the public we serve,” City Librarian Anji Brenner says. “We are incredibly thankful to that community – our patrons, volunteers, support groups, donors, and City Council– for the award reflects their enthusiasm, generosity, and engagement with their local Library.”

Those innovations kicked into high gear in 2011 when Daniel Ellsberg, who made the Pentagon Papers public in 1971, was the subject of the inaugural First Fridays event, a free series of lectures and performances that continues to this day.

Immersive dance performances, poetry slams and live radio shows and myriad other programming followed, including the groundbreaking and incredibly popular Naked Truth live storytelling events, which put library patrons and featured guests at center stage to tell true, unscripted stories. Mill Valley Library officials say that in 2014, the Library offered 1,000 programs attended by 33,000 participants.  

Members of Library Journal’s editorial board, librarians from around the country, and a representative from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation judged nominees. In explaining the Mill Valley Library’s honor from Library Journal, Frances Gordon, director of the Larkspur Public Library, compares the events’ vibe to a TED talk, saying the “staff bustle, they rock, they engage the community.”

Best Small Library in America 2015 Judge Carolyn Anthony says the library’s efforts “suggest that the library is ‘constantly evolving,’ a real plus in these changing times.”

And while its event programming has continued to expand on the definition of what a library looks like in the 21st Century, the Mill Valley Library has continued to push the envelope with projects like the seed-sharing program SeedSmart and the SmartGarden, a demonstration garden, debuting later this year, to promote the need for water conservation and management and educate the community about how to do so, in an outdoor space adjacent to the library.

“All libraries are working hard to redefine their relevance,” Brenner says. “We are excited to stand out amongst this impressive landscape. We have redefined our relevance while staying true to our original purpose, an organization rooted in literary connections, cultural enrichment, and intellectual pursuits.”

The Mill Valley Library will receive a $10,000 cash award as well as conference costs for two library staff to attend the 2016 Public Library Association conference for an award celebration.

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