John, to launch National Library Week, we thought we’d interview a librarian who is also a writer. Let’s start with the library side of things. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to be a librarian?
My library career came about completely by accident. I started working at the old Augusta Mental Health
Institute (AMHI) right after graduating from Arizona State University. Over a period of years, I rose (as the Peter Principle goes) to my level of incompetence. I went from basic psychiatric aide to assistant team leader to team leader and then revamped the patient education program. In the late 1980’s we experienced the same sea change the rest of the world did where most people went from being responsible to wanting to be ‘victims’ and have things handed to them. In a very short time, I went from running a vibrant education program to feeling like the Maytag Repair Man.
When my friend Joe Craig, the AMHI librarian decided to retire, I went to the assistant superintendent and made a wild-ass offer. “Let me become the librarian,” I said, “and I’ll revamp both the patient and medical libraries.” I had no clue how I was going to do that, but I was desperate. He agreed to give me a shot. I reached out to members of HSLIC-the Health Sciences Libraries Information Consortium, a group of Maine libraries, primarily in hospital and community college settings, that were involved in both providing health information to the public and to staff at their institutions.
Debbie Warner and Barbara Harness at St. Mary’s Hospital and Central Maine Medical Center became my mentors and opened up a whole new world for me. Since the AMHI medical library had an incredible collection of mental health journals, getting it out of the dark ages and into the real world was very important to HSLIC as well as to members of a nationwide interlibrary loan system run by the National Library of Medicine called DOCLINE. Over the next several years, I completely revamped both the patient and medical libraries and got involved at the national and international level with both the Medical Library Association and the Association of Mental Health Librarians.
When the internet became a viable tool for librarians, I was part of a number of listservs and discovered two-BackMed and BackServ, that were created to allow libraries to swap surplus books and journals. I used them to build a strong mental health collection, even once driving to McLean Hospital in Belmont, MA. and returning with a pick-up load of boxed journals. My email signatures and sense of humor created a lot of friendships and led to my first writing opportunities, but more about those later.
In 1994, two wonderful librarians in Maine, Tom Abbott and the late Walter Taranko, negotiated with the University of South Carolina to bring their Masters in Library Science program to Maine via satellite TV and on-site all day classes. I joined 137 other Maine residents in the first cohort, graduating three years later with my MLIS.
You’ve worked for the state library system and also as a town librarian. Can you give us a brief tour of your career?
I answered part of that in #1, but to continue, after I received my degree, things at AMHI deteriorated very quickly. I took early retirement with no job in sight, a complete act of faith. I was hoping for an academic library job, but interviewed for the head library job in Boothbay Harbor and was hired. It was a great five year run that taught me a lot about the importance of marketing and interacting directly with patrons to get a sense of what to buy and how to ‘sell’ new books to patrons. I inherited a weekly library column at the Boothbay Register that was initially intimidating, but became a terrific PR tool as well as good training for writing on deadline and with a word limit.
When my wife took a faculty position at the University of Maine in Orono, we were spread pretty far apart (we were living in Chelsea at the time), so I took a job as Library Systems Specialist at the Maine State Library where two of us were responsible for adding and maintaining nearly 100 libraries to a couple online circulation systems. That job lasted 4 years and allowed me to visit more Maine libraries than almost anyone else. When the workload got to be at burnout level and I was out of spiritual gas following my mother’s death, I traded my 100 mile daily commute and 60 hour week for a two block jaunt and 34 hours per week. I’m now the staff of the Hartland Public Library.
It’s been said that librarians fall into two categories—the old-fashion card catalog types and the modern tech savvy types. That’s an over-simplification, of course, but what category do you put yourself in? Or do you defy categorization?
I’m definitely a geek. Back when I was the adult education director at AMHI, I got a Commodore 64 computer on a grant. I was playing the game Wasteland and figured out how to hack the game so I could get more nukes. I realized that getting under the hood of computing was fun. When I was faced with fixing our old DOS-based circulation system in Boothbay Harbor after a lightning strike, I brought the server home and figured out how to rebuild it. Most of my job at the state library involved working under the hood of a very complex and powerful software program.
Here in Hartland, we’re part of the first open source library consortium in Maine, the Maine Balsam Libraries group, running a program called Evergreen that’s sweeping through the library world like wildfire. I’ve built my own computers since the early 1990’s. I do, however, have an 88 drawer card catalog. It sits in my storage building and holds all my tools, screws and nails. Wicked handy once everything got sorted.
Something that was true when you were a librarian in Boothbay Harbor, and continues to be true in Hartland, is the way you buy, sell, and trade books, audio materials, and videos to enhance your collection and acquire funds to purchase new materials. Can you share some of your strategies?
I got the idea of finding useful ways to reuse stuff from the late Walt Taranko. He hated to see a book go to waste and passed on a ton of reference and textbooks to me for the education program at AMHI. When I got to Boothbay Harbor, I started collecting Pepsi caps and using the codes to get free movies on VHS. Part of the success came from selling the idea to the community and lots of people dropped off caps. We got 26 free movies.
When I took over in Hartland, we had a pretty old and limited collection. I discovered three online sites where I could trade books, videos, audio books and music CDs (bookmooch, paperbackswap.com and swap,com). Once more, I got the community behind the idea through a weekly library column and over the last 5 years, we have added close to 9,000 items through swapping. Instead of book sales, I sell weeded and donated stuff on Amazon.com. Last year, we replaced three computers, paid for our software, paper and printing costs as well as most movies and our summer kids’ programs. We went from having no movies on DVD and a half dozen music CDs to a collection of close to 5,000 DVDs and 2000 music CDs. Even the guys at the town transfer station are plugged in and save books and Coke codes for the library.
Rumor has it that in the center of the Hartland Library, there is an enormous stuffed Kudu. Is the true, and if so, how on earth did you acquire it?
That was true for several years, but the big guy who came to us by way of the Smithsonian Institute, got a hankering for the bright lights of the big city and moseyed off to the Discovery Museum in Bangor.
Your library makes special efforts to encourage young readers. We know about your interest in Y/A because of your monthly book reviews for us. What do you do in your own library for young readers?
The absolute best way to get teens interested in reading is to create a respectful dialogue. Both my wife and I read and review a lot of juvenile and young adult books, so I can often have a conversation with a teen patron and by listening to what they have read and liked, suggest more authors they might like. I also encourage them to take advantage of free interlibrary loan, something a lot of libraries don’t do with this age group. Adding 400 graphic novels certainly didn’t hurt, nor did creating a teen room.
In fiction and movies, one trope is that of the dull, quiet librarian who lives a sheltered life outside the mainstream. We know from our own local librarians how far that is from the truth, but can you share some of your adventures in the library with our readers?
Well, I was the official bat catcher at AMHI. I rescued at least 20 during my career, usually with a soft towel so I could release them outside. In Hartland, it has morphed to hummingbird rescue. The Hartland library used to be a funeral parlor and our mystery collection sits under the same spotlights that used to illuminate the dead during wakes.
I also pull off an April Fool every year. The best in Hartland was in 2010 when I wrote about buying a rattlesnake egg while we were on vacation in California. I told about sneaking it past the TSA folks and incubating it with a heating pad. “And darned if it didn’t hatch,” I wrote, “and you can see my baby rattler if you stop by the library this week.” What folks saw when they pulled the blanket away from the top of the box was a baby rattle one of my volunteers loaned me. The day after the column appeared, a Maine game warden and a deputy sheriff came in to confiscate the illegal wildlife. A young dad was reading to his son in the kid’s area and when I pointed out that I never said I had a rattlesnake, but a baby rattler, he nearly fell out of the chair he was laughing so hard. The two law enforcement officials were feeling pretty foolish by the time they left.
Along with your work as a librarian, you are a writer. You write in many mediums—newspaper columns, professional journals, crime stories, and Y/A fantasy. So, a series of questions:
How did you get started?
I mentioned my email signatures and online sense of humor. Shortly before I completed the MLIS degree program, I was invited to contribute a chapter on revamping and marketing the library to a proposed book that would be published by Scarecrow Press called Library Services in Mental Health Settings. I remember the first draft being completely inadequate. I had to revise it while helping take care of my dad as he was dying and I was taking statistics at the same time. After that experience, writing anything got much easier. The book was published in 1997. Mary Johnson, the editor, assumed the role of editor of a peer reviewed journal called Behavioral and Social Sciences Librarian shortly after the book came out. She convinced me to write an internet library column for it. Over the next ten years, I churned out two columns a year. I also was writing a weekly library column about the Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library and branched out to write columns about computer gaming and entering sweepstakes for a couple other newspapers.
A series of email tag lines attributed to a book called the Berek Chronicles had other Maine librarians scouring the published world looking for a copy. When several confronted me, I had to admit the book didn’t exist, but I was thinking about writing it. “Stop thinking and start writing.” was their collective response. I began the book in November of 1999 and finished it the following April. It was rough and full of flaws, but It WAS a book. I revised it and added a manuscript copy to the library holdings in Boothbay Harbor. About 20 patrons read it and provided very valuable feedback. Like most fantasy novels, there wasn’t room enough in it to complete the story, so I wrote a sequel the following fall, a third in the series the year after that and eventually wrote two more to complete the full story.
In the process, I created several very interesting worlds in other parts of the universe as well as some memorable characters. Two agents expressed interest in the first book, but nothing came of it.
When Level Best Books started their New England crime anthologies, I was encouraged by my sister to consider writing something and entering it. Over the years, I have had five stories published in their collections by New England Crime Writers.
What have you published and were could we read it?
I had many essays published in Wolf Moon Journal while it was alive. Unfortunately the web version is no longer. I just had my regular weekly newspaper columns killed off abruptly when the published decided to stop print editions, but neglected to let his writers know. The first book in the series of five I have written about Berek Metcalf, the Wizard of Simonton Pond is available in ebok format from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and most other ebook vendors. My other current writing venue is my blog on livejournal. You can read it at http://sennebec.livejournal.com/
Here’s what The Wizard of Simonton Pond is about: “When Berek Metcalf gathers the courage to ask Julia Tilman to the Mayflower Dance, the last thing he expects is a beating from her ex-boyfriend. Little does he know that his plan to run and hide at his uncle’s camp in the Maine wilderness will set in motion the adventure of a lifetime. That adventure takes place, not in the Maine woods, but halfway across the universe and includes dealing with some pretty scary creatures; dragons, orcs, a magic-using thief and a band of fanatics bent on destroying a reclusive race known as the Snowlords and anyone willing to help them. The rewards are great too, including meeting a young woman who quickly makes Berek forget all about his humiliation on the grounds of Simonton High.”
I’m currently working on a book of short stories about Maine Teens with a slight supernatural theme that I hope will be published this fall. I’m calling it Hardscrabble Kids.
Bio. I was born in New Jersey, but have lived in Maine since 1949. Graduated from Arizona State University with a B.A. in English in 1970, spent way too long working in mental health and now enjoy a happy, but delayed childhood as a librarian. Spare time goes to gardening, writing, entering and winning sweepstakes and reading/reviewing books. One wife who is a professor of nursing at Husson University. Two daughters who both inherited a love of reading and a good sense of humor. We swap books and book suggestions constantly.
Thanks for being our guest.