Library district director, who led through adversity and uncertainty, resigns
Grand County’s library district is in good shape, with a clearly realized future and exciting new programs and services for its patrons.
That’s the legacy Stephanie Ralph said she feels will be left behind once her resignation as the district’s executive director becomes effective March 8.
Ralph, 69, has served as director of the Grand County Library District for the last six years, but has worked in various positions within the district for the last 17 years.
“The library district has been really so much part of my life,” Ralph said. “It’s like leaving home.”
Ralph will be taking on the position of library director in neighboring Summit County. It’s convenient, she said, since Summit and Grand County are pretty much equidistant from her home on Ute Pass.
“It’s just time for a change for me,” she admitted.
But it’s a comfortable transition for Ralph.
She believes Grand County’s libraries have dramatically and successfully shifted with the times while she has been part of the district. It has become more of a relevant community organization that really listens and responds to the needs of the local mountain communities, she said.
Ralph believes that trend will continue with the next executive director.
“I think there’s a lot of great talent and new ideas that can come into this position and keep things going in a really excellent way,” she said.
But the library district hasn’t been without its challenges.
In 2016, the outlook for the five local libraries was considered bleak, facing depressed property values and, as a result, uncertain funding.
The idea to shut down at least the Hot Sulphur Springs Library was tossed around, much to the chagrin of the public.
“Three years ago, when I came onto the board of trustees for the library district, the district was facing declining revenues, cutback service hours and a bleak future for funding all branches and programming,” said Sally Leclair, board president.
It was under Ralph’s “stalwart commitment, support and creative thinking” that a mill levy campaign began, according to Leclair.
“The public appreciated that no branches were closed,” Leclair emphasized.
Passage of the mill levy allowed the district to pay towards debt on two of its buildings, the libraries in Granby and Grand Lake, with those funds no longer having to be taken out of the district’s operating budget.
“That has been a tremendous boon for us,” Ralph said.
Now local property taxes are on the upswing.
The library district, however, still has some challenges ahead, including the potential effects of the state’s Gallagher Amendment, which sets forth guidelines for determining the actual value of property and its valuation for assessment. It could mean cuts in funding for various public entities, including local libraries.
Though, Ralph said the district is feeling optimistic.
“I feel we’re in a better position to do financial forecasting and work out exactly where we are and what action we need to take,” she explained.
According to Ralph, the library district maintains solid reserves and is in a good position to shift and change as necessary.
Much has already changed since Ralph began working with the library district years ago. One of the biggest transformations she has seen is going from physical books to more online access.
“We have what we call the Sixth Branch, which is our online library that allows people to place holds, have access to our libraries collections all over the state,” she said.
The library district checks out a much wider selection of materials now than when she first began and offers a much larger range of pertinent programming.
Those changes came with the realization that people are accessing information in much different ways than they did over a decade ago, putting some pressure on libraries across the nation.
But Ralph challenges that with emphasis on the quality of information a library offers, and its resource as a community gathering spot.
“There is a huge supply of immediate information, but the quality of information that the library can offer is fairly unique,” she explained. “(People) can get online and learn a language or take a course that can improve their tech skills or business needs.”
Leclair said library courses, writing groups, social networking and programming has flourished under Ralph’s leadership.
“Stephanie’s response to trends, branch use and figures is more than commendable,” Leclair added. “She has been a valuable asset.”
Ralph said what’s most exciting is that the library is a place where people can connect with their neighbors and share ideas in an atmosphere of respect.
“I think that communities need a kind of a heartbeat place, where folks can come and be recognized and respected and meet their neighbors and feel that they really belong to the area that they live in,” she said.
What Ralph has observed over the years is that, while it’s true that anyone can sit at home with a computer and get what they need, they also require their human needs to be fulfilled. It’s about feeling part of something, “and the library provides that.”
It’s particularly important for children to have a place that respects them, provides them with an alternative approach to reading and a place that they can visit with their parents and meet other families, she said.
“It’s just a wonderful platform for communities to operate,” she added. “And I think healthy communities really do need that place.”
A specific example of the library’s purpose, which Ralph said she would cherish for years to come, is the recently launched career online high school, with the library helping those who did not graduate from high school obtain their diploma.
Its graduation was held late last month, and Ralph said it was heartwarming to watch.
“It was so thrilling to watch those … young women who graduated high school through a library program,” she said. “The graduation ceremony was quite extraordinary — I just really had to pinch myself.”
For Ralph, it was seeing exactly what libraries are able to do well, to provide people with access to something that can open their lives to boundless opportunities.
“That is really a huge moment for us,” she said. “I think it just exemplifies so perfectly what libraries can do, to exemplify the democratic idea of everybody can be who they want to be. We see tangible proof of that all the time.”
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