I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends

John Clark here:

I’ve had several comments from blog readers saying they like learning about the Maine library community and some of the people who make it function so well. I don’t know if you have seen any of the recent articles, particularly in The Bangor Daily News about the extremely difficult times some small Maine libraries are facing. My friend and fellow librarian, Cara Sawyer, at the Cherryfield Library is really worried about the increasing cost of operations at a time when endowment money and municipal support are getting shakier every year. In Millinocket, there was talk this spring about closing the library completely because of the huge hit the tax base is taking because of the last paper machine being sold. That has been forestalled for the moment, but everyone associated with that library is concerned.

There are many other small libraries in rural areas run by dedicated people, many of them self taught, who never had an opportunity to attend library school. A lot of them make minimum wage, have a work week of less than 30 hours (but probably work 5-10 more hours every week than they’re paid) and get little or no benefits. There are even small libraries that have no bathroom. In sum, you really need to love what you do to run a small Maine library.

The front of the Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library

I’ve run two in my time, The Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library and the Harrtland Public Library. In Boothbay Harbor, there were three of us, me, Mary Pinkham and Linda Barter. For six or seven months every year, we handled our regulars as well as an influx of summer residents and vacationers that often swelled the population by a factor of three or four. The thing that kept us sane was the cadre of wonderful volunteers who helped in two or three hour slots all week. We had shelf readers, circulation folks, book menders, people who staffed the Friends bookstore next door and our fabulous Friday morning Thank-you ladies who wrote notes for every donation we received and then headed off for lunch together. I was required to stop at the table where they worked and tell one joke every week. It was something I really looked forward to.

Hartland Public Library

Five years after leaving Boothbay Harbor to work at the Maine State Library, I returned to the role of running a small public library here in Hartland. While the mechanics of running any public library aren’t dissimilar, the locale, the social/political geography and the patron base all combine to create a unique work environment. Hartland was markedly different from Boothbay Harbor. It was poorer, smaller, inland and in a far more conservative part of Maine. However, people who use libraries are generally outgoing and I’m firmly convinced there’s no better way to fit into and understand a community than being the town librarian. When I started in Hartland, the library wasn’t particularly busy. That began to change and with it, the need for help with all aspects of the operation. Like Boothbay Harbor, this library couldn’t function without volunteers. Unlike Boothbay Harbor, my volunteers are generally younger and work for the entire day.

There are still libraries in Maine where there’s an invisible line between what staff and volunteers can do. A long time ago, I worked for a man I disliked intensely, but he taught me one extremely valuable lesson. We’re all penciled in. He was right and I try to keep that in mind when I add a new volunteer. The more they know how to do, the easier my job becomes and the better the library operates, so I teach them everything they’re willing to learn.

Right now, I’m blessed with having three very capable young women volunteering with me at the library. They have different backgrounds and personalities, but share some extremely important character traits. They’re all quick learners, they have good customer service skills and they enjoy working at the library.

Deana working on finding DVDs that need to be moved to storage

Deana working on finding DVDs that need to be moved to storage

Deana Morgan has been with me for at least four years. She and her mother, Savilla were active volunteers when I came here eight years ago, helping to decorate and put on our summer reading program. When Deana expressed an interest in volunteering, we set Friday as her day. If I were to describe her in two words, they would be quiet competence. Deana doesn’t say much, but is incredibly efficient. Whenever I ask her to tackle a project, I do so knowing that she will get it done quickly, get it done correctly and do it while handling the circulation desk and the interlibrary loans. She’s one of the sharpest people I know and she and her mother are amazing bargain hunters. They’re an integral part of the annual Fireman’s Auxiliary Christmas program and have been able to find endless bargains to help the cash donated to this great effort go far year after year. Deana is also incredibly computer literate and frequently helps patrons find things online when they’re lost. She also covers the library when I am on vacation or at a conference. Even better, she and Savilla took on the task of snow removal last winter and did a stellar job. She also has a sideline selling worms and nightcrawlers to local fishermen.

Brianna working on one of her assignments for library school.

Brianna working on one of her assignments for library school.

Brianna Wilshusen volunteers on Thursday. She and I have known each other since she was in junior high and I’ve watched her make lemonade numerous times when life handed her lemons. She dropped out of high school and struggled with family issues without getting the sort of support teens need to be successful. After a few tough years, she found herself a single mother of two, Alex and Pheobe, living in a rural rental and not having a drivers license or a car. Plenty of people in that situation have thrown in the towel. Brianna did not. Instead, she’s worked with the ASPIRE program and is now enrolled in the library science program at the University of Maine, Augusta. She’s holding a B- average while being a terrific mother to her kids, reading to them every night. She would be the first to tell you that one of the biggest disadvantages of being a 21 year old single mom of two is the difficulty in finding or reconnecting with friends. Those her age who are single are into a completely different and less mature lifestyle. However, she’s really enjoying the satisfaction that comes with achieving a goal like getting into college when it seemed like it was slipping away not so long ago.

Brianna is outgoing and funny, characteristics that make her popular with patrons. She’s discovered one of the secret downfalls of working in a library that has extensive science fiction and young adult collections. Every week, she finds another half dozen books she really wants to read. She’s also become one of our reviewers of new childrens and young adult books we get as part of the Central Maine Library District’s “Five For Five” Program.

My most recent volunteer addition, Sarah Nadeau, has been with me for the past three months. She works four days a week, overlapping on Thursdays with Brianna. Sarah fell at work last December, tearing a ligament in her left wrist and came to the library as part of her rehabilitation under the worker’s compensation program. She’s also funny and outgoing, although a tad quieter than Brianna, and has very good telephone and customer service skills. However, there are times on Thursdays when the three of us feed off each other and patrons must wonder if they’re in a library or a lunatic asylum. It’s great stress therapy for me.

Sarah working the circulation desk.

Sarah working the circulation desk.

Sarah picked up things quickly and has the daily routine down quite nicely. Like Brianna, she’s discovered just how many books have a fatal attraction and insist upon going home with her at night. One area where she has helped the library is in getting people her age who had never come to the library come and see what we have. We’ve picked up half a dozen patrons thanks to her telling them what we have to offer.

I’ve gotten quite an education into what a train wreck the Maine worker’s compensation system is thanks to Sarah. She’s very determined to get better and get a full time job, but has to deal with someone in another state who doesn’t bother to return phone calls and refused to approve payment for a prescription for an anti-inflammatory medication prescribed by the physician treating her injury. After watching this debacle unfold, I understand why young people want to go somewhere outside Maine to work and live.

Thanks to these three ladies, the library is able to function smoothly and handle seven times the daily circulation it had when I first assumed my position. One of the negatives of having such an increase is the feeling that you’re falling behind a little more every day. With their capable help, I’m going in the opposite direction and it’s really nice to leave work knowing things are more organized and another project got completed.

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4 Responses to I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends

  1. Gram says:

    The first thing I did when I moved here was go to the library and get a card. I love the library and it’s friendly and competent staff. Small town – @5,000 people. The library is the meeting place for the community. Programs for young and old go on all the time. I will not mention the name because the last time I wrote about it the head librarian picked up my praise on the web and I heard about it from everyone the next time I went there.

  2. MCWriTers says:

    How you treat people makes a huge difference, John…as you learned. I can never understand why people won’t work toward collaboration when there’s a shared mission, but too often, those opportunities are missed.

    Anyone who hasn’t seen the Hartland Library ought to visit. You have an amazing collection and it wasn’t built by simply writing checks. Looking like you’ve built an amazing collection of volunteers as well.


  3. Nancy Brewka-Clark says:

    What a great story about Brianna and the power of libraries to transform lives.

  4. The first thing I do when I find myself in a new town is look for the library. My parents retired to a farm community with a library open three afternoons a week. I loved going there and poking around in the shelves. The US library system, free and open to all, is unique in the world. I’ve learned that from citizens of other countries who are amazed at our library system.

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