Shell in gallery

(SUNfoto by Molly Montgomery)

Shel Neymark, who was recently recognized with a Civil Society award from the Manhattan Institute for his involvement with the Embudo Valley Library, is also a talented glass artist.

   The first week after the Embudo Valley Library opened, in May 1992, Library cofounder Shel Neymark watched two grade school children wander out of the Library clutching books.

    “I just went, ‘Yes! Yes! This is going to work,’” Neymark said. “At that point I knew that it wasn’t going to be just a club for the people who started it. The whole town was going to use it.”

    Over the course of the last three decades, the whole town of Dixon and surrounding communities have indeed used it––and not just to check out books.

    Librarians have helped people apply for unemployment and jobs, find tutors and complete assignments to obtain GEDs.

    “There’s lots of people who fall through the cracks, so any time that we can help them not do that, that feels like we’re meeting our mission,” said Library Director Felicity Fonseca, who understands the mission to be increasing community wellbeing and connection.

    The Library also promotes economic development in the surrounding area by lending and renting space to local businesses, including the Dixon Coop Market.

    It hosts a radio station and annual fiestas and after school, summer, STEM and early literacy programming for children; provides free access to internet and computers; and offers 17,000 books, movies and other reference material to its 1,500 cardholders.

    Since COVID-19 struck the region, the librarians have been organizing grab-and-go educational kits, with picture books and hands-on activities, for local children.

    “The Embudo Valley Library makes me feel like they know the whole reason for a library, which is to go be supported in reading books,” said Rebecca Gonzalez Mitchell, a frequent patron and the mother of four kids who often visit the library. “And not only that, they’re a support to the community.”

    The Library has won numerous awards for its service, including the 2015 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the highest national award a library can receive.

    This fall, the Manhattan Institute, a conservative New York City-based think tank, is recognizing the Library and Neymark, who has been actively involved in the Library’s development since the beginning, with a $25,000 Civil Society award.

    The Institute will present the award during an Oct. 29 virtual ceremony.

Beginnings

    The idea for the Library was born in the late 1980s in now-Board President Marcia Brenden’s living room, where friends would gather.

    Neymark said a core group of about eight would meet once a month or so to discuss possibilities, tossing around thoughts about lending out tools and toys and hosting community events.

    They would invite others from the community to come share their views about what they wanted to see.

    “Part of my impetus at the time is I had this collection of kind of left-wing books about the dastardly deeds of the CIA that I wanted to share with people, and I thought that would be a good way to get them out,” Neymark said, laughing. “If they were in the library people could just check them out.”

    After two years of talking, the group decided to move forward and rented what had once been the Dixon Post Office with the support of its then owner, University of New Mexico professor Tomas Atencio.

    A few members of the group pitched in money for rent, and Dixon-resident Eloy Duran gave $800 for a carpet.

    A used bookstore in Santa Fe that was going out of business donated its shelves and books, which formed the basis of the Library’s collection.

    With $2,000 gathered from the community and hours of volunteer labor, the Library opened. At first, librarians worked on a volunteer basis, until Neymark, serving as Board Treasurer, was able to secure a grant from the McCune Foundation to pay them.

    From the beginning, community members were busy expanding the Library’s services and resources: Jane Kaluta spearheaded the early childhood development and youth programming; Clark Case had the idea for the radio station and the fiestas; Adrienne Rosenburg wanted to open the Library’s pollinator garden and Estevan Arellano decided to found a heritage apple orchard there.

    “I like to say we have a culture of ‘yes’ at the library,” Neymark said, explaining why he thinks the Library has been so successful. “Somebody comes and says, ‘I want to start a radio station.’ What’s the answer? ‘Yes!’”

‘An Indictment

of the State’

    That culture of “yes” extends into the Library’s funding––numerous private donors have chipped in to keep the Library going.

    At first, a couple grants Neymark applied for and annual fundraisers––ranging from an annual pesto fiesta to a square dance called by now-State Senator Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque––kept the Library afloat.

    In 2002, the Board decided to buy the old Zellers General Store building, a couple blocks away from the Library’s original location, to house the Library and its community programming. The building cost $250,000.

    A private donor told Neymark that he would pledge $200,000 for the purchase if Neymark and the Library could raise $50,000 in the community.

    Neymark led an effort to gather that money in just three weeks.

    “People who I know could barely afford to buy their groceries were pledging $500,” he said. “I have a hard time asking anybody for anything, especially money, but I was like a man on a mission.”

    The Library was then moved into the space where the Community Center currently is, while youth programming and community events were held in the building where the Dixon Co-op currently sits.

    About a decade later, because of another community-funded effort, the Library and the Community Center were able to shift into their current space.

    The Library’s private funding is part of the reason the Manhattan Institute is honoring it with a Civil Society award––the Institute only gives the award to organizations that receive less than 20 percent of their funding from the government.

    “I feel like we are being honored for the incredible private philanthropy that has happened around the Library,” Neymark said.

    At the same time, though, he believes that the government should be providing more funding to libraries throughout the state, and disagrees with the Manhattan Institute’s free market philosophy.

    After receiving the award, he began to research what “civil society” means, and now understands it to refer to all of society excluding the commercial and the political realms.

    He holds that the commercial and the political realms should be in service of civil society––though currently the political realm serves the business realm more than it serves civil society, he said.

    “Even civil society serves the business realm in our culture,” he said.

    Resources that the government should protect and keep affordable for the people––including various medicines and natural resources––are instead held by corporations that charge exorbitant fees for access to them, he said.

    Libraries, too, are an example of collective resources that the government should support and to which it should ensure accessibility, Neymark said.

    Since 2017, he has worked tirelessly to lobby the State Legislature to establish a $50 million endowment for rural and 501(c)(3) libraries throughout the state.

    In 2018, the Legislature approved $5 million for the endowment, but it got stripped down to $1 million at the last minute; in 2019, again the Legislature approved $5 million, and then it was stripped down to $2 million. So the endowment currently holds $3 million.

    Neymark said the Embudo Valley Library has transformed Dixon––socially, economically, educationally-–and that libraries throughout the state do similar work, helping people find jobs, apply for unemployment and write resumes, encouraging young people to dig into their interests, hosting vibrant community events.

    “That the state doesn’t recognize that they are a way to save struggling rural communities and doesn’t fund them is a total indictment of the state,” Neymark said. “That they would not take a tiny part of their budget and put $50 million in this endowment is so shortsighted and stems from an ignorance of what these small grassroots organizations are doing for their communities.”

    Fonseca said the Embudo Valley Library is “in it for the long-haul, in terms of making long-term commitment to community development.”

    She said she is thankful that the Manhattan Institute recognized the Library but noted it is doing the work all public libraries do.

    “Maybe there should be more ways to recognize the work of public libraries,” she said.

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