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Nebraska town (population one) opens treasure tome of love

MONOWI, Neb. -- Weeds twine around the disintegrating remnants of the water tower and sprout in a tangle through the floorboards of the grandest house in town. The Methodist church, gray with rot, slumps toward the frozen ground. An empty mailbox flaps open on a gravel rut that was once a road.

The people of Monowi have died or moved -- all but one: Elsie Eiler. Brisk and unsentimental at 71, she lives in the one home still fit for living in, a snug trailer with worn white siding. She runs the one business left in Monowi, a dark, wood-paneled tavern, thick with smoke.

She also runs the library.

The sign outside the library is painted on a section of a refrigerator door. The floor is bare plywood. There is no heat. But there are thousands upon thousands of books. ''The Complete Works of Shakespeare." ''Treasure Island." Trixie Belden and ''The Happy Valley Mystery." Zane Grey's westerns, every one of them, lined up across two shelves. Homer. Tennyson. Amy Tan. Goethe.

Elsie's late husband, Rudy, read them endlessly. He farmed and tended bar, he ran a grain elevator, he delivered gas to filling stations, and when the town was down to just him and Elsie, he served as mayor, too. But he always found time to read -- science fiction, history, the classics, anything but a Harlequin romance.

When he got sick with cancer two years ago, Rudy confided a dream to Elsie: He wanted to turn his collection into a public library.

Rudy ordered a custom-made building and set it a few steps from his home and his tavern. The Eilers' son, Jack, wired the lights, and friends built floor-to-ceiling shelves. Rudy died in January 2004, before he could fill them.

Five months later, his friends and family came together to pack the small white building with Rudy's books. Elsie estimates they shelved at least 5,000 volumes.

Monowi, population 1, had its library.

Farm children who tumble into the tavern with their parents run up to the library now and again to paw through the magazines, looking for pictures of man-eating snakes. Friends visiting Elsie from the neighborhood -- any town within 50 miles -- stop by every few months to browse.

Monowi may be the smallest town in the nation with its own library. But the bounty of books here for the taking is very much in the spirit of rural America.

All across the Great Plains, towns that have long since lost their schools, their banks and all hope of a future still keep their little libraries going. Volunteers open them for a few hours a week.

Nearly 30 percent of the nation's libraries serve communities of fewer than 2,500 people, including almost 3,000 libraries in towns where the population is measured in the hundreds.

Rudy's Library is less than 350 square feet. The books are worn, disorganized, and eclectic beyond description.

The library runs on the honor system: Take what you want, return it when you can.

''You just have to look around till you find something you want to read," Elsie says.

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