The Library Lovers Expedition led me to Harvard Diggins Library, a library that I had walked around the outside, but had yet to venture inside. But it was inside where I had the chance to sit down with Karen Sutera, the Library Director, who explained how the library in Harvard goes back to 1909. The original library though was located downtown on Church Street.
They actually have two stained glass windows on display from the original library. The current building was a great leap forward, dramatically increasing and improving the space, making it handicap accessible and adding space for programming, which they do a lot of and we’ve featured in our Events calendar.
The Harvard Diggins Library is nestled within Lions Park in Harvard, easily accessed from East McKinley Street, East Brown Street, or Galvin Parkway.
This unique combination of Library and Lions Park greatly enhances the library space, seeming to extend the library beyond its walls.
Address: 900 E McKinley St, Harvard, IL 60033
This article is part of the Library Lovers Expedition articles, all of which will be linked from the Library Lovers Expedition article as they are published.
McHenry County Library Lovers Expedition at the Harvard Diggins Library
When the 2023 Library Lovers Expedition launched in February, Harvard Diggins Library was undergoing renovations. It was a challenge sitting out the first month of the Expedition, but then again, it had been expanded this year to two months as it was. Fortunately, renovations remained on schedule and they were able to officially welcome explorers in March.
Due to the challenges and unpredictability of renovations, Karen said they elected to keep things fairly simple. They went with a library scavenger hunt that would take explorers throughout the library, and learn a little library history too. Most importantly, they were just happy that they would be able to participate again.
Karen also revealed that, even though the first Expedition had been a huge success, the initial consensus was that it was a one-time event and it should be left at that. But then one of the library directors pointed out that they had only scratched the surface. While they were blown away by the number of registrants, that number was also a very tiny fraction of the population within McHenry County. And as the running numbers for 2023 have shown, this event has a lot of life and a lot of interest to grow on.
Beyond the numbers though, perhaps the greatest surprise was the audience. “You saw all of a sudden this was something that we thought we were gearing towards families because we thought, ‘Why would retirees be interested in this?'” Karen said. “Or single adults…this is for kids. Lo and behold, it worked out that it was everybody that was really interested. It was intergenerational.”
In many ways, that realization may have also played a role, along with the fun of it, that got the attention of the adult services staff. They wanted in on the action as well.
One of the things that Karen is most proud of is how the libraries incorporated local businesses into the Expedition through the prizes. Rather than just seeking donations from businesses, they purchased gift cards and gift certificates from those businesses. This was also a great way to say thank you for support that some of these businesses have given the libraries in the past.
Additionally, they’ve also tried to include smaller, lesser-known businesses as a way to boost that local community connection. Karen said that some patrons have even mentioned that they used the Expedition’s list of businesses as a recommendation for businesses to visit or try.
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Beyond the Expedition
Built with Pennies
The current building that houses the Harvard Diggins Library was built in 2001. When it was being planned, a local teacher wanted to get the school children involved and challenged them to collect a million pennies that would go toward the construction of the library.
The Penny Project not only empowered the children, but it was a story that fueled others. When the architect heard about this, he came up with the idea of inlaying the penny rug to commemorate this great effort. Karen says there are still times when older kids or even young parents stop in and mention that they remember collecting pennies themselves.
The library also has three quilts hanging inside the entrance that were made by a local quilt group that tells the story of the Penny Project. In the end, the Penny Project demonstrated to the children that they can make a difference.
Renovated, Just in Time
The library had hoped that their renovations would have been done in January, but they had to be scheduled for February. Due to the work that was being done, the library was closed for the entire month during renovations.
Now when you walk in, you’ll see a nice new wood-look vinyl flooring running throughout the entrance area and behind the circulation desk. They also completely renovated the bathrooms, rebuilding them from the ground up. And following conservation and environmental trends, they installed a new drinking fountain system with a water bottle filling station.
The current renovations aren’t the only changes that the library has seen over the years. Like many libraries, the Harvard Diggins Library has had to shift with changing demographics and demands over the years, and the current renovations were just another example of that.
Seeding and Cultivating Community
Another new addition is the Seed Library. A number of McHenry County libraries have started seed libraries and Harvard Diggins was very excited to jump on board this trend as well. Seed libraries are a way for patrons to stop in the library and get free seeds to plant, and hopefully, later harvest seeds to help replenish the stock at the library.
Karen mentioned that they’ve also connected with a young family that recently relocated into the area and became first-time farmers. They’ve now partnered to put together a program in the fall to help educate patrons on how to go about seed saving, which can vary depending on the plant.
Seeing trends across the library space, they also recognized the growing needs of teen patrons.
What was originally slotted to be a business and technology room ended up mostly being a big empty room that housed reference books and became a storage area. But as more reference materials have migrated to digital collections, this room became underutilized.
Around 2017, this space took on new life housing the newly developed Teen Space. Before it was completed, a local artist stopped in and was chatting with Karen about what was being done with the space. He asked if he could design a door for the entrance into the space, and that’s how the one-of-a-kind door came into place.
Another fairly recent addition is the Story Walk which was added in 2020. A local arts organization was disbanding and approached the library to make a donation of their funds. With COVID being a major driving force and everyone shifting to how they could do more things outside, the Story Walk was ideal. The organization jumped on the idea and volunteers came together to help with the installation.
The Story Walk begins near the library entrance, passing by the playground, and ends up at the picnic pavilion close to the swimming pool. In this way, it further connects the park and the library as a destination for a day’s worth of fun and activities. Fortunately, it can also be used year-round.
The library is continually evolving as the needs of the community change. Some of these are smaller, like adding materials, services like Hoopla, or new programming, while others, like physical renovations, are much larger.
Addressing the challenges of COVID identified weaknesses as well as opportunities. Due to the dramatic shift of focus on getting outside, the library had to react to a fairly sizable challenge…”library” and “outside” have not generally been common themes. But as Karen said, “It’s actually made us rethink our property a little bit differently.”
The entrance plaza provides a large, covered concrete space for holding outdoor events. But it is not ideal for afternoon and evening sun. Thanks to being located in Lions Park, they were able to shift story time and a few other activities over to the picnic pavilion during COVID.
Karen said the library has another covered space along the back side, but it isn’t paved. They had hoped to pave it as part of the most recent renovations, which would provide a great outdoor space right there at the library, but unfortunately, there wasn’t enough funding to do that at this time. However, she is optimistic that they’ll be able to tackle that project in the future when funds allow.
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Local History and Butterflies?
Like many of the local libraries, Harvard Diggins Library has a Local History collection filled with great resources detailing the founding and life-and-times of early Harvard and the surrounding area. Perhaps more unique though is the custom-made cabinet that houses a 100-plus-year-old butterfly collection within the Local History room.
This collection was donated by the original owner, Harriet Ayer Towne, who was the daughter of one of the town founders. The cabinet features a glass display top, and numerous drawers contained behind the cabinet’s front door. Each of these drawers is filled with small display boxes, each housing a butterfly specimen that features information on the date it was acquired, the specific species, its habitat, and more.
It is a very impressive and priceless collection worth checking out.
So whether you are a bookworm or a butterfly lover, whether you prefer tactile materials or digital, the next time you are looking for a fun day out, don’t forget Harvard Diggins Library, nestled right there in Lions Park.