Natrona County Public Library Director Bill Nelson is retiring after 16 years, and looks back with pride on the strides it has made, he said Monday.

"When I got here, we were one of the poorest libraries in the nation, and so it's been a long road," Nelson said.

"We've come one heck of a long way," he said.

Nelson arrived at the library in June 1999, and has served longer than and other director, he said.

Back then, about 450 people a day used the library, and that number has climbed to more than 1,100 day, Nelson said.

Likewise, patrons checked out about 1,000 materials a day, and that number has more than doubled.

Sixteen years ago, the library offered about 150 programs a year for children, and that has increased 10-fold, he said. Those programs have included Launching Little Readers, summer programs and class visits, he added.

"It's important to get kids started so that they're successful later on in life," Nelson said.

The Natrona County School District has a dropout rate of more than 20 percent. Literacy programs such as We Read program to encourage reading to someone 20 minutes a day, and the Sue Jorgensen Library Foundation's Wyoming Reads are trying to reduce that rate, he said.

Adult programs also have grown from about 15 a year to more than 200, he said. Adult programs include author visits, technology training programs, and lectures.

Nelson credited the success of those programs to the people who work in the library, he said. "The biggest thing is developing and retaining an extremely strong library team."

According to a news release issued Monday, Nelson served on the Wyoming Library Association Legislative Committee that promoted the Public Library Endowment Challenge Match program during 2008 Legislature. The program continues to provide more than $18 million of state funds to match private contributions for public library endowments statewide.

In 2006, he received the McMurry Wyoming Community Service Award, and in 2008 he received the Wyoming Library Association's Distinguished Service Award.

Nelson was a Navy Seabee officer for 24 years before taking the helm of the library. He and his wife Beth plan to travel after he steps down in September. The library board has set up a search committee to look for a new director.

Nelson declined to talk about the narrow failure of ballot measures in 2008 and 2012 to raise money to build a new library.

"The community is going to get a library someday that is appropriate for its size, and I'm really glad to see that the (county) commission and the city council and now the school board are beginning to grapple with that," he said. "It's going to happen some time."

The library is more than a building with books inside, Nelson said. "It's a community center and a place that transforms lives from small children to older adults, for people looking for jobs, for people traveling through."

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