SMALL TOWN. BIG LIFE: Pinedale Librarian Knows Just Who to Call
Sublette County librarian Michelle Humber strives to create a community knowledge hub
- Published In: Other News & Features
- Last Updated: Dec 28, 2023
By Elizabeth Sampson
What do a llama, a piano player and a pile of crafting pom-poms have in common? They are all things one rural librarian can source without the aid of Google, Amazon or a phone book. That’s the benefit of knowing almost everyone in a small town.
When Michelle Humber, executive director of the Sublette County Libraries, and her staff prepare for community programs, they never know what they might need. And living 77 miles from Jackson — the nearest large town — means not always being able to run out to buy supplies.
“Collaboration is so easy since you know everybody,” Humber, 42, of Pinedale, said. “If we have a program planned and we accidentally forgot the pom-poms and our local art store is out, we can’t just run down to the store and grab them.”
Her counterparts in bigger city libraries can find the people they need online, but Humber gets a warm feeling from knowing her community personally. For an animal-themed summer reading program, she knew who could bring in a llama. When she needed a piano player, Humber knew about four people she could call.
Humber loves being the director of both libraries in Sublette County—Pinedale Library and Big Piney Library. All of Sublette County has a population of about 8,728, but the two towns are relatively small: 2,262 and 395 respectively.
Humber said over half of the community has a library card. Of the 500 students in Pinedale’s elementary school, 350 participated in the summer reading program that serves children from birth to fifth grade.
Humber said small-town life may seem ideal for an introvert, but she believes it’s actually an extrovert’s paradise.
“You would think as an extrovert you would want to live in a big city with a lot of people, but I find that living in small towns is really great for an extrovert,” she said. “ . . . you see so many people you know, and you end up having many conversations running into the same people all the time.”
Humber’s childhood in Waleska, Georgia helped prepare her for life in Pinedale—a western Wyoming town that is the gateway to the Wind River and Wyoming ranges. But her hometown was closer to Canton, Georgia’s population of 35,000 than Pinedale is to Jackson’s 11,000. For the library, the remote location means it can take longer for interlibrary loan books to show up, internet access might be slower than in larger towns and it can be harder to book entertainers for the summer reading program.
Humber first fell in love with Wyoming when she was a teen on a pack-horse trip into the Wind River Mountains. She worked in the area during college breaks from Montana State University and met her now-husband, Nathan Curry, a Jonah Energy operator, in Wyoming. They made their home in Pinedale with their two daughters, ages 9 and 12.
She loves raising her kids in a rural town, where there are frequent deer and moose sightings near the library and in the town’s parks, along with easy access to the mountains for camping and hiking. She likes knowing she could get caught in a cattle drive on the way to work and recalls that once, when snow-closed roads made driving to the library impossible, another librarian offered to cross country ski to the building to open it.
“I like that we take care of each other’s kids,” Humber said. “If I am driving up my road and see my neighbor’s kid, and it’s snowing outside, I will say, ‘Do you want a ride home?’ I know everybody’s always got an eye out, so it’s not just me looking out for my kiddos. It’s the community. I really value that.”
Humber worked at the Sublette County Library as an assistant, became the assistant children’s librarian and then served as the children’s librarian for five years. For a year, she held a dual role as both the children’s librarian and the assistant librarian before being named executive director in July 2022.
She jokes that her job entails sending a lot of emails, but she also reports directly to the library board, oversees the library system’s $1.2 million budget, hires and trains a staff of 18, enjoys helping people find books, and runs the circulation desk when needed.
“That’s one of the benefits of being in a small library—we’re not completely confined to our job descriptions,” Humber said.
Beyond housing a combined collection of 72,000 books and providing reading programs, the library is a community hub and a safe place to ask for help without embarrassment. Patrons may arrive in a panic, because they need an important form printed but have no way to do it at home. The librarians can step in and make their day.
“[Patrons’] relief they feel when we are able to help them, and the way my staff is just amazing at making them feel no sense of embarrassment…and seeing how much that helped them and how grateful they are—that really blows me away,” Humber said.
One regular patron, an illustrator and writer, doesn’t like to use computers. So she seeks assistance printing documents and navigating computer writing programs at the library.
“Every time she comes in here, she tells us how much she loves us,” Humber said. “I really do feel like the library has helped her a lot.”
The library staff even helped a patron who could not connect her hearing aids to her phone, which prevented her from communicating with her family and calling anyone for help. An employee connected them to the woman’s phone, prompting her to cry in relief.
“That is the power of libraries,” Humber said. “It’s one of the only places where there is no expectation for you to come in. You don’t have to spend any money; you don’t need a reason to be here. You can just come in here and get help with whatever you need.”