2002 Barbara Kingsolver Award Winner
Friends of the Pelican Rapids (MN) Public Library
Pelican Rapids is a small town in West Central Minnesota -- founded by Norwegian immigrants in the late 1800s. It remained blonde and blue-eyed until its complexion changed with the arrival of immigrants who in the past decade came to work in a new meat-packing facility. The immigrants challenged the community in more ways than could have been imagined. Suddenly, Pelican Rapids spoke 11 languages --English plus Spanish, Somali, Cambodian, Bosnian, Albanian, Kurdish and others. Twenty-five percent of public school students here do not speak English as a first language.
The Pelican Rapids Friends played a major role in easing the pains of change in their community. They sponsored diversity workshops, provided foreign language and learning materials to English as a Second Language courses and helped the library offer free Internet access for the first time.
Then last year, the Pelican Rapids Friends of the Library and Library Director Pamela Westby realized libraries could be much more than buildings with books.
They created a "Tapestry of Friends" by collecting fiber art from representatives of all the ethnic backgrounds now in their community. But contacting immigrants turned out to be a challenge for industrious volunteers. Advertising and direct mail solicitations of potential quilt artists yielded few responses.
That's when Friends members started talking to people from other countries living among them. New immigrants with halting English skills were asked to find fellow countrymen in Pelican Rapids who knitted, crocheted, embroidered and wove. The volunteers went to English as a Second Language classes with samples of fiber art -- to show what they wanted to create. Letters, translated by Mexicans, Bosnians and others were given to students to take home to their families -- in their native languages. Twenty-one artists are represented in the final "Tapestry of Friendship" -- Hispanics, Bosnians and Somali, Czech, Norwegians, Native Americans, French and others.
A local photographer was hired and a local writer brought aboard to photograph and interview each of the artists. Volunteers laid out the quilt. Local students created block prints to the theme of Friendship to be used as quilt borders. Another volunteer pieced the fabric art into a quilt. When the project was unveiled, people who had never before been inside the Pelican Rapids Library came to see their friends' work on display. Bosnians met Norwegians. Mexicans shared stories with the Dutch. The Somali women of Pelican Rapids, who don't speak English and seldom smile, laughed and shared stories by having their children and grandchildren translate to English.
A $3,000 grant came from the regional arts council, so that each artist was paid for her contribution. Friends of the Library donated $75 for supplies, and the library covered the $25 in copying and postage charges for publicity and brochures.
The cost was low, and the results were high Perhaps the greatest result of the "Tapestry of Friendship" has been the unexpected unification of a community and its library. The feature stores about each artist, with photos, will appear weekly for 21 weeks in the Pelican Rapids newspaper. Foreigners are now locals, known by fellow community members.
A project that started as a way to influence the thinking of library users affected all of Pelican Rapids -- and now Friends groups and libraries across the nation. With the Kingsolver/HarperCollins award, these Friends of the Library are in the spotlight of the nation itself, and all the nations it embraces.