Library director says International Falls needs to “destroy the box”

In January, the International Falls Public Library will be one of just eight libraries in the country to host a traveling exhibit about engineering called “Discover Tech: Engineers Make a World of Difference.” The installation, which includes the kind of hands-on features you might find in a science museum—turning a crank to light a bulb, building an arch with bricks—is designed to spark interest in engineering among kids.

Rethinking a Company Town

Other cities chosen by the American Library Association include Spokane, Washington and Huntsville, Alabama. International Falls is the smallest city to draw the exhibit.

This northern Minnesota community of 6,400 is on the list because of Diane Adams, the library’s energetic director, who believes kids in International Falls need to broaden their ideas about the future. “One of my big goals in the community as library director and as someone with three kids is to help kids and even adults… re-identify their dreams and hopes and goals,” she said. “My goal is to provide as many opportunities as possible.”

Diane Adams, center, directs the International Falls Public Library. Flanked by fellow residents Jordan Pearson and Jenell Feller, she thinks the town needs to think differently. (Derek Montgomery for MPR News)

Adams said that is especially important since the Boise paper mill, a central institution here for more than a century, cut 265 jobs in October. She is among an engaged group of people pushing to broaden the local job base, encourage more business start ups and generally get people thinking about new ideas. “In the wake of the layoffs, we need to get people to think outside of the box or destroy the box and say there is no box.”

Engineering is just one of the ideas Adams is putting in front of kids. She’s also stocked the library with technical, gaming and film-making equipment and launched an annual film festival called “On the Edge.” It’s so named because International Falls sits on the edge of the country.  Also, “We are on the edge of a new time,” she said. “We shouldn’t just be consumers, but creators as well.”

Adams moved to International Falls from Monmouth, Oregon, where she was a children’s librarian, with her family 10 years ago. “We went in 13 weeks from not knowing this place existed to being here,” she said. She’d never visited the Midwest and had only seen International Falls on television weather maps, but the position as library director appeared on a job line and caught her imagination. “I couldn’t get rid of it,” she said. “I kept thinking about it. So I finally mentioned it to my family thinking they would laugh and we’d have a good joke. But everybody responded positively.”

Her first thought upon seeing International Falls was, “Goodness this is a big town.” Though Monmouth had slightly more people, it was much more compact geographically. She also noted that the real estate was cheap and she and her family could buy quite a large house. “It was like, this is kind of cool. We have a big old home, 100 years old and fun for entertaining in.”

She and her husband, Jeffrey Adams, who founded and is artistic director of The Icebox Radio Theater, have embraced the city as only outsiders can. Where others see obstacles, she sees possibilities. Besides her regular work hours, Adams puts in as many as 20 volunteer hours per week. “We were welcomed,” she said. “People said, ‘We’re glad you’re here.’ My husband and I do what needs to be done.” If people look at them cockeyed, “We write it off as we’re one of those crazy west coast couples.”

Adams loves International Falls, calling it a “gorgeous area” with a strong sense of history. At school, one of her kids was part of a project involving grandparents. “She was the only child that didn’t have a living grandparent in the county,” she said. “That really changes your perspective. There is a longevity here. Everything is remembered. Somebody remembers.”

“They may not always remember correctly,” Adams said with a laugh.

The library benefited from that sense of history in 2006, when an anonymous donor who grew up in International Falls but lives in New York City contacted Adams a few days before Christmas. Through a lawyer, the donor said he would give the library $300,000 if Adams could come with a plan for spending it by the end of the day. “I thought is this a joke?” she said. But it wasn’t.

Her first plan, to invest the money and spend the interest, was rejected. “He said, ‘You have to spend this,’” she recalls. So she came up with another plan, which passed muster. Besides the collection of alternative health and energy materials requested by the donor, Adams bought new furniture for the junior reading room. She subscribed to expensive databases and bought big screen televisions, a video projector, gaming equipment, two cameras and a Mac editing computer for film. “We have been able to get teens back into the library again,” she said.

Now some think International Falls needs to let just a little of that reverence for history go, in order to open the door to new opportunities. “The way the 21st century is shaping up, you have to be a renaissance person again,” Adams said. “You have to do it all. That is not the way the community is geared at the moment. They talk about wanting to bring a factory up here. I’m like that is not realistic. What we need are people to do their own businesses.”

She said International Falls is a little stuck, “Because we had that mill that was so strong.”

“Okay, you want to live here, you will probably have to be an entrepreneur,” Adams said. “Explore those dreams. What did you dream of doing? That is the direction we need to help people explore.”