The case of the mysterious library donor. Anonymous gifts a lifeline for Washington County libraries

22February 2021

The first donation, a check for $5,000, arrived in 2005.

The following year, the Washington County Library system received another check for $5,000. Like the first, it arrived via the U.S. Postal Service with a return address listing a trust company in Sioux Falls, S.D. The only stipulation: Library officials must respect the donor’s anonymity.

The following year, a $20,000 check arrived. It was from the same trust company and had the same stipulation.

Over the years, the donations grew. The library received checks for $25,000 in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Since 2011, checks for $30,000 have arrived every year like clockwork. Over the past 17 years, the library has received $435,000 from the same mysterious donor.

“We have no idea who it is, but we are certainly grateful,” said Amy Stenftenagel, library director, who admitted she was nervous even talking about the donations. “I really don’t want to jeopardize us getting this donation, because it’s a lovely donation.”

The checks usually arrive around the end of the year, but library officials never plan for their arrival, Stenftenagel said. “We don’t know each year if the check is coming or not. It’s not part of our budgeting. We just hope that we get it.”

HOW THE MONEY IS USED

The money has been used for a variety of purposes, including purchasing materials, furnishings and equipment; staff training and development; and developing a winter reading program for adults.

This year’s gift of $30,000 will be used “to strengthen the library’s collection in areas identified by a diversity audit,” Stenftenagel said. “This money will be perfect to help us fill in any gaps that we identify. We want to make sure that we are cultivating and promoting an inclusive and equitable collection — that’s our real goal.”

The Washington County Library system receives about $5,000 a year in other donations from 15 to 20 donors per year, Stenftenagel said. Many of the donations come as “In Memoriam” gifts.

The money is a boost to the system, which circulated more than 1.8 million items in 2020 and operates seven public libraries, three express locations and the Washington County Law Library. Stenftenagel oversees an $8.7 million budget and a staff of 90 employees.

One of the largest gifts, a check for $61,122, arrived in 2017 from the estate of Anna Myer; Myer, 88, of Woodbury, had died in 2015. That money was used for staff training and development and to support various library services, Stenftenagel said.

‘WE’RE JUST SO GRATEFUL’

Stenftenagel said she talks with people who want to make donations “in the name of someone else … to come up with a plan as to how we are going to use the money.”

“Oftentimes people will say, ‘My mother loved mysteries, and she loved to go to R.H. Stafford Library. Could you use this money to purchase some mystery books in the name of my mother?’ Then we put a bookplate in the front of the book that says it was given in their memory.”

Stenftenagel, who has been library director since 2019, said she hopes the anonymous donor realizes the impact he or she has had.

“We’re just so grateful,” she said. “They clearly understand how important libraries are and how we change lives.”

ON THE WEB

For locations, hours and other details on the Washington County Library system, go online to www.washcolib.org

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