The writer Jorge Luis Borges never visited the Grand County Library, but he could have been speaking for any number of Moab residents when he rhapsodized about libraries in general.
“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library,” he wrote.
In the last 100 years of Moab’s history, the community has shown its passion for its own literary paradise in a way that few other places can claim.
The most dramatic example of that support may have come in the spring of 1967, when students and others rushed into a burning library auditorium to rescue thousands of books from the flames.
“I think they saved 15,000 books or something,” Grand County Library Director Carrie Valdes said.
It’s the kind of act that the library can depend on in times of need, according to Grand County Head of Library Services Meg Flynn.
“The library has had so much support from the community,” Flynn said. “It’s been made clear from the get-go.”
As the library prepares for the century to come, staffers are inviting residents to join them for its 100th birthday on Tuesday, Feb. 17.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a proper birthday party without free cake, so to prepare for the centennial, the library plans to offer about 900 servings. Valdes hastens to add that they may run out of cake before the day is over, so birthday visitors are advised to show up sooner rather than later.
“We’ve got bets going about how long the cake will last,” she said.
While free cake might be the main draw, birthday visitors will also be able to pick up coupons that offer them $1 off library fines through the rest of 2015.
Library staffers also want to give residents the chance to explain what the library means to them.
Beginning Monday, Feb. 1, the library will be handing out blank cards of appreciation that patrons can fill out.
Entries will be posted around the building ahead of the birthday celebration on Feb. 17. They will ultimately be included in a raffle drawing; the winner will receive a $20 gift card from Back of Beyond Books, as well as a T-shirt or book bag designed by local artist Chad Niehaus.
The activities are designed to promote the library’s 2015 motto, “a century of service.”
“It’s really all about reminding those who might not be avid library users what is available at the library,” Valdes said.
The amount of materials that are available now has grown exponentially from its earliest collection of 425 donated items, as the community clamored for a library.
In 1912, Moab residents voted “almost unanimously” to levy a special tax to create and maintain a new facility, according to Flynn.
“It just goes to show that Moab wasn’t a town for that long before people organized to get a library in place,” she said.
However, that work wouldn’t pay off for another two and a half years.
As community leaders gathered hundreds of items during a book drive, the first library began to take shape inside a corner of the former county courthouse in February 1915.
That same year, the library’s first governing board acquired the land that is now home to the Grand County Sheriff’s and Grand County Attorney’s offices for just $255.20.
At the time, board members hoped to build a new library on the spot, so they approached the foundation of East Coast capitalist-turned-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie for help. However, even though that foundation helped build almost 1,700 libraries in other communities around the U.S., it turned down Grand County’s requests no fewer than three times between 1915 and 1921.
“The town and the community really had to do it on their own,” Flynn said.
When the county demolished the old sandstone courthouse in 1934 to make way for a new courthouse on the same site, the library moved to the former high school building’s auditorium, where it remained for the next three-plus decades.
Years of relative stability went up in flames in May 1967, when the wiring inside the school’s auditorium malfunctioned, setting the curtains ablaze.
Fittingly enough, the librarian at the time discovered the fire as she went to turn off the lights for the evening, according to Valdes.
As dozens of firemen battled the blaze, local residents and students rushed in and out of the building with armloads of books. By the time they were done, the LDS seminary building next door had been turned into a makeshift warehouse, with books piled from floor to ceiling.
“(It) was just crazy,” Flynn said.
As luck would have it, the library was able to procure federal funds that same year to build a new facility on the vacant lot it acquired nearly 50 years beforehand.
“So the library finally had its own home for the first time,” Flynn said.
The next big milestones came in 2004: Not only did the library open a new branch in Castle Valley; almost three out of four county voters approved a $2.5 million bond to build a new main library at 257 E. Center St.
The new building, which is three times the size of the previous space, quickly gained a national reputation: Just one year after it opened in 2006, the Library Journal named it the “2007 Best Small Library in America.”
Last year alone, the library logged 163,554 checkouts – an impressive number, considering that Grand County is home to less than 10,000 people.
As patrons’ tastes change, Valdes and Flynn noted that the facility has kept up with the latest trends and technological innovations.
Computer usage has more than doubled since 2007, and the library now offers its patrons Kindles, iPads and digital content, including newspapers and magazines.
By Valdes’ estimates, the library offers residents and patrons $4.5 million in value.
“For every dollar that we collect in county property taxes, we provide the community with $8 in services. That’s a pretty good investment for the community,” she said.
“The library has had so much support from the community … It’s been made clear from the get-go.”
When: Tuesday, Feb. 17 from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Where: Grand County Library, 257 E. Center St.
For more information about the library’s birthday celebration, call 435-259-1111, or visit its website at www.moablibrary.org.