By Dedra Cordle
When law enforcement agents, fire emergency crews, and local government officials find their way to a party, chances are something has gone wrong. But in the case of a recent gathering that took place at a local library, their presence was an indication that something had gone completely right.
On Sept. 10, deputies with the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, firefighters with the Prairie Township Fire Department, and representatives with the Prairie Township government assembled alongside hundreds of community members at the Westland Area Library in order to celebrate its 50th anniversary.
“I think it was important for all of us to be here today so we could give back to this place that has meant so much to our area,” said James Jewell, township administrator. “For five decades, they have been serving our community so well and we wanted to show them our support by coming out and saying thank you by celebrating this milestone with them.”
Housed within the Lincoln Village Plaza on West Broad Street, the building opened on Sept. 10, 1972 under the name “Prairie Branch” as a small satellite branch of the Grove City Library. The original design encompassed 6,000 square feet – a far cry from the 27,000 square feet of today.
Jewell, a native of the westside, said he remembers going there often as a child to check out books and magazines.
“That was all they really had back then, books and magazines,” he said. “But they always had the latest Sports Illustrated which I appreciated.”
Donna Carter, a current member of the Southwest Public Libraries board of trustees, said she remembers it being an excellent source of material for her students.
“I was an educator at Prairie Norton back then and I would always come into this library to find material for my children,” she said. “While much has changed with the look of the libraries throughout the times, the commitment from the staff to find and provide any kind of assistance needed has never wavered.”
Over the course of five decades, the library has undergone major renovations – the first large scale update took place in 1991 when it was expanded, remodeled and reopened under its current name. The latest took place in 2019 when the youth services area was expanded and remodeled to include new programming space, a sensory play area, and a new teen space.
Having moved away from the area for several decades before taking his position as township administrator, Jewell said walking into the facility they have now was like a dream for library supporters like himself.
“It is so different from the building of the 70’s and it can now offer so much more for our community.”
Like most libraries, it has thousands of books and educational materials (including computers), it offers a number of educational and entertaining programs for youth and adults, and it offers skill building services for job seekers or assistance for those looking for financial, housing, or emotional needs.
“We really do a lot here at the library,” said Denise Southworth, the interim assistant director of the WAL. “This community is why we are still here today and we have made it our mission to try to help them with anything they need. It could be just help finding a book or learning a new craft, or it could be something of a more fundamental need. If they need anything, we will try to find the resources to improve their lives.”
Because of the strong relationship between the community and the library, one might think a massive celebration to commemorate its 50th anniversary would have been years in the making. Not so said Meredith Wickham, the director of the SWPL.
“It almost didn’t happen,” said Wickham.
The near disaster was discovered in May when Wickham was reading an email from local activist and community organizer David Donofrio. In this message, he spoke about the history of the community and the library and inquired as to whether she had planned a celebration for the upcoming 50th anniversary.
She had to admit that she had not.
“I couldn’t tell him that we had anything planned to commemorate this milestone because I did not know the anniversary was forthcoming,” she said.
She said the accidental oversight happened because the grand opening for the library is listed under its former name on their website. Having only been the director for a year and a transplant from Mississippi to boot, Wickham said she wasn’t aware of that local history and did not make the connection in time for extensive celebratory planning.
“I knew we had to come up with something fast, but I also know that we have a wonderful and creative staff who would help throw an event that is fitting for a 50th anniversary celebration.”
Leading the party planning charge was Southworth. With the help of the library staff and assistance from Friends of the SWPL and members of the Lincoln Village Residents Association, the team started to put together a party for the ages.
At the event, the interior of the building was transformed into a 70’s theme fantasy, filled with disco balls, pet rock creation stations, and games and activities from that era. As music from Bill Foley reverberated across the stacks, dozens of people lined up to watch a slideshow with old photos taken of patrons as they visited the library and families as they attended festivals outside of the plaza.
Listening to the recollections and watching their reactions was Donofrio, the community member who sent that celebration inquiry to Wickham in late spring.
Donofrio is not originally from the area, but he has lived on the westside for a number of years. He said he was overjoyed to see this place that has been making a positive impact on the community for five decades celebrated.
“I believe a library is the heart of a community, just like a school,” he said.
He commended the staff for putting together such a groovy event and added he was grateful they reached out to local organizations for their ideas and input on this milestone celebration.
While smiles and laughter were found all throughout the library that day, perhaps the biggest displays of delight came from Wickham and Southworth and the library team who worked quickly and tirelessly to throw such a festive event.
“I’m looking at all of these smiling faces, all these people having fun, and I’m happy with the way things turned out,” said Southworth.
She added that while she will probably not be able to plan the 100th anniversary celebration in 2072, she believes another party will take place because the library and its connection with the people will only grow stronger throughout the years.
“We are here for each other, and I hope we always will be.”