Featured Library: Ak-Chin Indian Community Library

By John Walsh
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Name and Location Address: 

Ak-Chin Indian Community Library

46521 West Farrell Road

Maricopa, AZ 85139


https://www.ak-chin.nsn.us/index.php/departments/membership-services (link is external)


Public library, Tribal library

This beautiful tribal library is located 35 miles south of Phoenix, just outside the City of Maricopa. The Ak-Chin Indian Community is nestled into the Santa Cruz Valley of Southern Arizona, in the northwestern part of Pinal County. Ak-Chin is an O’odham word translated to mean “mouth of the wash” or “place where the wash loses itself in the sand or ground.” The Ak-Chin Indian Community has an enrollment of more than 1,100 tribal members and a land base of just over 22,000 acres. The community’s purpose statement is so moving, it deserves restating here. “We are here to preserve our culture, language and traditions—not just for ourselves but also to positively impact our neighboring communities and the world we all share. We have 32 departments dedicated to meeting the needs of our People and fulfilling our mission on this Earth.” Could there be a more perfect purpose than that to exist? This library is much more than just a traditional library with books and computers, it is a true social gathering place for the community. The implementation of new programs encourages creativity and promotes literacy within the community through a Film Program for youth to produce short films. The library also publicizes O’odham language classes that document the construction of Community Developments. The shared entry foyer into the building is breathtaking presenting an impressive Native American design.

The entry foyer into the library building
The entry foyer into the library building

The shared space is 6000 square feet, half of which is the library, the other half is the education department. Desert landscaping surrounds the building.

Desert landscape surrounding the library building
Desert landscape surrounding the library building

The library has an operating revenue of $76,350.00 and operating expenditures of $301,466. The collection includes 13,425 books and 2,787 audiovisual materials. The service population is 1351 with 1449 registered borrowers. The year before COVID, the total circulation was 4045 and the library had 42,037 visits. Pre-COVID, the library provided an average of 51 service hours a week. Pre-Covid M-F 9-6PM S 12-4 Sun closed, and Post-Covid M-F 9-5PM by appointment, 6 users at a time inside. The most utilized service PreCOVID was the computer bank of 20 public access computers. During full service hours mostly all computers were in use.. Other popular programs included storytime, all in-person programs, family storytime and arts&crafts, coding club, movie club, and STEAM programs. Post-COVID, with limited access to the building, users have mostly utilized the digital resources like The Libby App by Overdrive to access ebooks and audiobooks.

In response to COVID, the library was closed March 24 through May 24. During the closure, the staff have provided services remotely, filling requests, conducting reference, and providing a virtual storybook program. Since the end of May, these virtual library services have been provided and the library reopened with limited hours allowing 6 people in the library at a time. Pre-COVID staffing including a Director/Manager and 6 full time staff that included a librarian. Post-COVID, the librarian position has been dropped. Now the Director/Manager acts as the librarian with four full time paraprofessional staff members. In a recent interview, the Manager revealed the staff are very creative, well organized, and well trained. They work closely together like family, they are a tight knit group and depend on each other. 

The manager of the library is Melanie Toledo. She has a delightful personality and a positive attitude, even during these uncertain times. Her educational background includes an ASU Bachelor’s degree in History, with a Minor in Ethnic Studies. Like so many of us in Arizona librarianship, she graduated from UA SIRLS, with her Master’s in Library Science. She was also a member of KR1, the first Knowledge River cohort at SIRLS.

Melanie Toledo, Manager of Ak-Chin Indian Community Library
Melanie Toledo, Manager of Ak-Chin Indian Community Library

Her professional experience began as a student worker at ASU West, in the Fletcher Library. She moved up to a Library Associate position at Labriola National American Indian Data Center, a department at the ASU Hayden Library. Since 2008, Melanie has been the Manager of Ak-Chin Library.

Melanie was born and raised in Phoenix, AZ and she has a daughter and two grandchildren. She lived on the Navajo Reservation in northeastern AZ when she was young and went to public and reservation schools. She even taught elementary school on the Navajo Reservation for a few years. That early experience of teaching is one of the motivations that drew Melanie to the library, she loves the educational aspect of librarianship. She claims, “I would be a teacher if not a librarian, if I did not work with Ak-Chin, I would be working with another tribe because I love working with indigenous peoples.” At Ak-Chin, Melanie cherishes the interaction and outreach with her patrons in the rural setting of the library. She admitted, this library is ideal for her, the building is not in the city surrounded by concrete. When asked to describe herself in a few words, she replied, “I am happy, I love to laugh and I am energetic, I enjoy promoting new library services, and I am very easy to get along with.” From experience, this is more than obvious. Some of her favorite things to do outside work are to go camping with her beau and her family, and travelling the beautiful state of Arizona. 

When asked what she thought her library did very well, without hesitation Melanie talked about her outreach and program offerings that invoke the interaction with the community. She talked about the  book bike program, “Read and Roll”, which had to stop due to COVID, but she hopes to bring back post covid. She also mentioned her storytimes and early literacy programming. 

The book bike program, "Read and Roll".
The book bike program, “Read and Roll”

When asked about her own favorite service offerings, like so many of us do nowadays, she broke them into two categories, Pre/postCOVID. For PreCOVID, she loves the kid programs, movie nights, coding, arts/crafts, and makerspace activities. As the interview progressed, it was easy to tell where Melanie’s heart was, she kept referring back to the children’s services programming.

Kids playing with tablets.
Children’s services were Melanie’s favorite service offering pre-COVID.

She related a recent story that had to do with library offerings during the time of Halloween. Usually Halloween is a big affair for the Ak-Chin Library community with children’s events and at night, Scary Campfire Tales. Melanie claimed that “Since we can’t have Halloween in-person programs, I felt I needed to spread a little Halloween cheer in the front of the Library.” She set up a variety of inflatables, hoping Ak-Chin families would walk or drive by in the evenings to enjoy them. Normally in October the library staff tell scary stories around a real campfire. The staff provide S’mores ingredients, and families take turns roasting marshmallows.

Inflatables outside the library.
Inflatables outside the library during Halloween.
People surrounding a camp fire under the night sky.
This photo is from Scary Tales 2019 taken by one of the staff.  Notice the desert in the background. Just one of the reasons why Melanie loves working at Ak-Chin.

When defining her postCOVID favorites, she struggled some then revealed that most children are still not accessing building, and offering technology for learning to children in need, and chromebooks and hotspots for higher education students, has been a blessing. 

Texts from users of the library's hotspot program showing gratitude.
Anecdotes for the library’s hotspot program.

Melanie’s staff primarily serves residents within the tribal boundaries, but there are guest passes for Maricopa City users. The users are far ranging in age from early literacy readers, to older users. Her patrons have the same information needs as most libraries post covid, access to Overdrive, ebooks, audio books and more technology ways to access the library system. The library is welcoming and the community and all the library programs are much appreciated by the community, especially the Children’s Food Program, the summer youth food program. When talking of her service population, Melanie smiles, saying, “they are very happy with the library, very grateful, we always have high usage statistics.”

Melanie is proud to serve the community she loves. She is dedicated to them and has gone to great lengths to secure additional external support to serve them better. Her grant proposal success rate is insane and she has been awarded over $271,000 over the past 10 years for a variety of initiatives including an $86,000 IMLS grant that she received recently which will bring the Pepper Robot for Libraries to her facility. Melanie also was able to acquire two nao robots to use in outreach events. The list of her grant awards is below.

A chart of grants received by Ak-Chin.
Ak-Chin IMLS and LSTA Grants
PEPPER, the robot that reads to kids and can teach kids coding
PEPPER, the robot that reads to kids and can teach kids coding

Like most library directors, budget allocations have been a challenge for Melanie, however she overcame this challenge by writing a number of state and federal grants. Now she believes her biggest challenge is engaging teens and getting them to participate in library activities. She was a little envious of all the teen activities and resources that the Young Adults departments have in the big city libraries. She claimed that Ak-Chin has none of these. Though she countered this with what she believes are the biggest benefits of running a tribal library, the support of her Tribal Council and the expanded grant opportunities that are open to her library, that may not be open to public libraries. 

It would be easy to describe Ak-Chin as quaint, however, this is much more than a quaint little library. Melanie has developed a thriving community center within her building, and before COVID, this was most likely the place for social gathering for everyone (even the local wildlife)  in the Ak-Chin community. One of Melanie’s favorite stories to tell about her library is the arrival of their annual summer visitor, a rattlesnake. The rattler arrives every summer to sun itself on the sidewalks of the library, often trying to enter the building. Every year Melanie has to call the fire department to take the snake away to the desert. The snake somehow finds it way back every year. Before leaving Melanie, I asked her one final question, “ What is the one thing you most wish will happen at your library within the next 2–3 years?” Melanie did not hesitate to answer “Hoping and praying COVID will go away and get back to normal.” Melanie, we all wish for that, and thank you for a wonderful time learning about your awesome library.

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