A week before this week’s dedication of the new Jackson County Library complex, this newspaper’s 12th birthday passed almost unnoticed by those of us who work to put it out each week. Where there used to be celebrations, we just don’t make a big deal out of it anymore. Another year, another number — now at 13 — on the volume that shows up on the front of each week’s paper.
The first edition of The Smoky Mountain News hit the streets of Western North Carolina on June 2, 1999. The Jackson County Library saga has run like a thread through our paper’s history, starting that first year when there was talk about expanding the library into the land where the Hooper House now stands.
This issue was has been important to me professionally because it acquainted me with so many Jackson County leaders. After having been a reporter and editor in Haywood for nearly eight years, this story got my feet wet in Jackson and was the first issue our newspaper got very involved with. From day one we’ve covered it very closely, following all the twists and turns.
Way back then I got to know people like Jay Denton and Stacy Buchanan, Gail Findlay and Cecil Groves, Julie Spiro and Joyce Moore and many others as these community leaders all got involved in this long, somewhat convoluted debate.
Now, it ends with the Sylva’s oldest Victorian-era home — the Hooper House (once slated for demolition to make way for a new library) — serving as the gateway for visitors and the courthouse (sitting empty and unused all these years) getting a second life. What was once the home of law and justice is now the epicenter of culture and history for Jackson County.
In an era where football stadiums and corporate headquarters too often depict our most ambitious building projects, it is nothing short of brilliant that the citizens of Jackson County have, through heart-rending, sometimes tumultuous debate, ended with this library and the renovated Hooper House. It’s one of those not-so-small miracles that define a community, showing what it values and what is important. What a grand statement.
I told someone last week that an idea was percolating for a column about our newspaper’s anniversary coming at the same time as the library dedication. To me the correlation is simple: when we started this paper, we did so under the pretense that people in this region would value a journalistic endeavor that sought to reach between counties to discuss issues that are important to all of us who live in these mountains.
We are no repository of learning, like the library, but this newspaper has taken a stand against the notion that everyone wants short, surface-level articles without meat and depth. We’ve rebelled a bit against the notion that newspapers needs to dummy down to a populace that has a short attention span and can’t digest complicated issues.
There’s no doubt we lose a lot of readers because of what we don’t do with our newspaper. We don’t try to be a community newspaper — this region has several that are very strong and very good — because that’s not our role. We aren’t an entertainment and music mag, though we do try to cover these areas. I’ve come to the conclusion that we are a hybrid, and our goal is to be interesting, informative and useful each week. Our success, I believe, is a testament to some of the same values that led to the success of the drive to build this new library.
There are many who would argue that neither libraries nor newspapers are needed these days. The digital literary catalogues created by companies like Amazon and Google and the Internet’s infinite news sources have rendered us both obsolete. At least that’s what I’ve heard — at least about newspapers — many, many times since we unloaded those first issues in those brand new blue boxes 12 years ago.
But here’s the truth: both the library and most good newspapers are embracing the digital revolution while still acknowledging many peoples’ abiding love affair with real words on real paper.
What’s important, at least by my estimation, is that this region still shows such strong support for knowledge and civic engagement. That’s worth remembering as we celebrate the people and the accomplishments that led to this one-of-a-kind facility atop that little knoll in downtown Sylva.