“I had no idea what I was getting into,” said Cele Wolf, as she recalled her naiveté at being the newly hired Soldiers Grove librarian.
“Did any of us?” added a laughing Barbara McGlynn, her predecessor in the librarian position.
The two women represent over 40 years of the public library’s history and evolution in the village of Soldiers Grove. Those years have seen the library evolve to embrace the digital age and increase its community programming.
As fellow librarian Maura Otis in Gays Mills would attest, there is a great deal more to the job than meets the eye.
“I was hired in my late twenties and truthfully, at the time, it was just a part-time job,” Otis said. “I didn’t look at it nearly as professionally as I do now.”
Otis has been the Gays Mills Public Library Director since 1986.
“There are issues of safeguarding patron privacy,” Otis said, describing one of the concerns a librarian must manage as they serve their community. “There is learning to connect with patrons so that you build your collections based on their interests and not your own. There’s learning to handle everyone fairly, equitably, professionally.”
Add to that, organizational skills so patrons can find materials and aesthetic skills for creating displays that invite patrons to explore materials.
“You have to make it a very friendly space, in every way,” Wolf explained.
A librarian must also be willing to embrace technology and serve as a go-to resource as local residents learn to use new technology for the first time.
“People who aren’t ready to enroll in a class at the tech schools go to the library,” said Southwest Library Systems (SWLS) Director Krista Ross. Both the Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills libraries are part of the consortium of public libraries, known by the acronym SWLS, which serves Crawford, Grant and Richland counties with shared resources.
“Technology is such an inherent part of what a librarian does now,” Ross said. “You have to know how to use a computer, all the software on it, how to help others learn to use it. Out of the 100 hours of continuing education that library directors must complete every five years, 10 hours now has to be in the use of technologies.”
“Computers were on the horizon (when Wolf was hired),” said McGlynn, who remains an active member and President of the Soldiers Grove Public Library Board.
“They asked me if I would be willing to learn how to use one when they interviewed me,” Wolf said, remembering her hiring in 1992.
Wolf agreed and it was not long before the library joined SWLS.
“The libraries began connecting,” Wolf recalled. “As the system became more organized, and then we began to connect statewide. The automation of our job really took off.”
Cataloging before the technology jump was a time consuming task. Three separate cards had to be written out by hand or typed listing each book by title, author, subject and attaching a call number so patrons could find the books in the card catalogs. What took many hands is now largely consolidated amongst the members of SWLS, with two women handling the creation of electronic MARC (machine readable cataloging) records that all the member libraries can share. That shared electronic catalog gives member libraries and their patrons a new level of sophistication in accessing each other’s collections. The patrons can see what is available, at which libraries, and make requests that will likely be filled within a day or two of request. That is very unlike the early days, when a loan request could take weeks to fill.
In addition to improving the sharing of resources, automation has helped librarians track the use of their collections more accurately and tailor new acquisitions to what their patrons are really using.
“We started building a video collection in the 1980s,” Otis related. “There was some resistance to that, from the library board and even the village board, because ‘libraries were for books, not recreation.’ With a little education and understanding, that went away.
“Considering the size of the collection, the movies are circulating much more rapidly (than books),” Otis continued. “That is all some people are using. It’s a reflection of the digital divide, economic and geographic. Not everyone can afford access to streaming video. Not everyone has access available because of where they live.”
Funding is a major challenge for libraries everywhere, perhaps particularly for small rural libraries.
Janie Fortney is the first and only librarian ever hired in Readstown. She plans to retire at the end of this month at the age of 86. She credited the dedication of volunteers and the generosity of patrons for the creation and success of her small library.
“We have the smallest fund of any library in the state,” Fortney said. “We save as much as we can because we don’t have much to spend to begin with.”
What the Readstown Public Library does spend has a large impact. The service that the library provides crosses all economic lines, and serves anyone who needs its services.
“The library serves a lot of people,” Fortney said. “It’s the one thing that’s free.”
The village pays Fortney’s salary and covers utility and supply expenses. The greater share of funds for purchasing collection materials in Wisconsin’s public libraries comes as a result of Act 150, passed in 1997. That law, recognizing library use was not confined to residents of the municipality, instituted a payment to libraries by the counties for use of materials by non-resident patrons.
Additionally, each municipality has developed varying levels of support for their libraries. Those funds can change from year to year depending on the economy. In Soldiers Grove and Gays Mills, money is also contributed to the purchasing of materials. But with difficult economic times at hand, both libraries have seen their budgets stand still, though use of the libraries appears to be increasing.
“Every year it’s touch and go and so we try to keep a good relationship, a sensitive one,” Wolf explained. “All the municipalities are struggling. We’ve taken cuts the two years previous and stayed the same in this year’s budget after a number of years prior of growing. We are very grateful for the kind support we’ve had from the village. The last thing we want is to be are greedy gougers when times are tough.”
In all the villages, initial support was minimal and the push to create these libraries came from volunteers who saw a need.
“It’s surprising how hungry people were for books,” Fortney said in describing how the original collection was created from donated book-of-the-month club selections and paperbacks collected from the community.
The push to create a library in Readstown came from resident John Henry, a former Peace Corps volunteer who had seen the importance of a library in his African posting. After location changes, the Readstown Public Library finally got their own building when Richard and Mary Lowe, owners of Lowe Manufacturing, offered to sell the village their office for use by the library. The Lowes covered half the cost of the purchase themselves.
“We got the balance through a grant from the state,” Fortney recalled. “It was a year they weren’t making any other grants. We were told the only reason we got the money is because we only asked for what we needed to purchase the building. When they saw how little money our library received, they came through for us, if you know what I mean.”
Fortney recalled working 80 hours per week during that time. Her salary only paid her for part-time work.
“I was working in the flower beds before we had signed the papers,” Fortney said. Once the building was there, volunteers and Fortney’s family were called on to build shelves and move the library into its new home.
“I can’t say this has just been me,” Fortney said. “We’ve had a lot of volunteers. It’s been a community effort, let’s say.”
The libraries continue to rely on volunteer help, though as Otis pointed out, having them help staff the library is becoming more difficult as the technological demands grow.
“The Friends of the Gays Mills Public Library takes care of our window display and we have volunteers who help with shelving,” Otis said. “But, we don’t want patrons to have the experience of not being able to get help when they come in, so trained staff are essential.”
Librarians Fortney, Wolf, Otis, and Ross all noted that digital books (like Kindles) are the next technological jump that libraries are preparing to take. Each library will need to decide how they use them in their collections. And each librarian has to learn how to work with the various e-readers that will make their way into the office.
The Gays Mills Public Library recently moved into a large space in the village’s newly constructed Gays Mills Community Commerce Center. Adjacent to the new library, there are large meeting room spaces available for library-sponsored events.
The Soldiers Grove Public Library is in the midst of an expansion that will see their space more than double by spring.
In Readstown, the future of the public library may face many changes. As their board works with Fortney’s successor, they will be addressing the question of what their community needs and whether they will remain part of the Winding Rivers Regional Library System. Doing so would require an extensive investment into further integration with the systems of technology. If they opt out, they will become an independent library. Their board and the new library director will have to figure out the pros and cons and make that decision fairly soon, according to Fortney.
“I can’t really keep up with the physical demands of the job,” Fortney said in acknowledging her planned retirement. “It’s hard to go though. It’s my baby.”