A fifth-generation Kansas farm girl, Sarah Smarsh was the first in her family to attend college was able to break out of a rural poverty cycle.

Her local libraries, the New York Times bestseller author says, played a role in that.

Smarsh, whose debut book “Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke in the Richest Country on Earth” has been a critical hit since its debut last September, gave the keynote address at Friday's fifth-annual Mid-Continent Public Library Legacy Luncheon at Arrowhead Stadium.

“The reason I was able to write this book is because there were public institutions that cared about me,” Smarsh said.

People who maintain and promote libraries – where in addition to countless books people can often find community events, gathering spaces, educational programs and internet access – “You are on the front line of democracy, as far as I'm concerned,” she said.

Smarsh said her mother was somewhat a family outlier in that she was a voracious reader and always found some money to order from a school book sale catalogue, visited garage sales for books and loved libraries. Her father was never encouraged to read, she said, but now he puts his iPad to great use for that.

Too often, Smarsh said, people aren't accessing the opportunities available from libraries. They face barriers like time and energy or transportation or even a sociological one like shame – something she said hardscrabble working people like her father have encountered.

“What you have built is the antithesis of that,” she said, calling the library a welcoming place with a treasure trove of resources, including the newest outlet in Independence's Susquehanna area that partners with Community Services League to have a food pantry.

Mid-Continent Board of Trustees member Brent Schondelmeyer announced at the end of the luncheon that a foundation has been formed to help maintain the library's long-term future. The library system also handed out a trio of awards.

The Victor Gragg Library Champion Award went to the Woodneath Campaign Committee for its efforts to help restore the house at the Woodneath Library Center. Jenellie Ketteman, a PC technician in the information technology department, received the John Ferguson Legacy Award for outstanding service.

The inaugural Maggie Jackson Community Spirit Award, honoring a beloved Liberty Branch staffer who died recently from cancer, went to Michelle Vitale, a customer service associate at the Oak Grove Branch.