Thousands of library patrons across Central Minnesota count themselves as acquaintances, and very often friends, of Sharon Quale and Linda Mueller. Sharon, who lives in Eagle Bend, worked in the Long Prairie and Eagle Bend libraries for 25 years. Linda, a resident of Little Falls, worked full time in the Royalton, Little Falls and Long Prairie libraries for 17 years. She continues to work part time as a substitute librarian in Upsala, Little Falls, Belgrade and other communities. All of the libraries are part of the 33 library Great River Regional Library network.
Both women count their years serving the public in small town libraries as an honor as well as an opportunity for self discovery.
“It was like we were friends,” Sharon said. “A lot of people came in two or three times a week so you’d see them regularly and learn something about their lives.”
To make her point, Sharon started naming library patrons she remembers warmly. It’s a long list. She said that as a librarian it was particularly enjoyable to watch very young library patrons grow into young adulthood. Linda agreed.
“It has been a privilege,” Linda said. “You got to be part of people’s lives and see families grow from one child to more. It has been fun, and they trusted me.”
The trust between a librarian and library patrons is an essential part of the library experience. Librarians must be discrete. They must not be gossips.
“What people check out is their business,” Linda said. “We have a policy that you can’t even tell a person’s spouse what they are reading. That’s their privilege. What you read is your personal business. That privacy is part of our freedom, and it’s central to what American libraries are.”
“In another vein, you have a privileged view of people’s lives,” Linda said. “People request items on certain subjects, such as divorce, bankruptcy, or domestic violence, and you can tell that they may be going through a hard time in their lives. You can’t say anything or do anything, but you’d think to yourself, ‘I wish life were better for them.’ ”
Sometimes library patrons take the contract of trust between themselves and their librarian for granted. At other times they don’t know it exists.
“There was an older woman who checked out a movie that wasn’t what she expected, and she came back and said, ‘What did you think of me when you saw I was watching a movie like that?’” Linda recalled. “But librarians don’t usually even see what people check out. I told her that. I told her that it was her business what she checks out. You are not judged in this place by what you check out or by what you read.”
The fundamental contract of trust between librarian and patron did not change at all while Linda and Sharon served the public as librarians. The way that library services are delivered and the actual services that libraries deliver has changed radically, however.
“When I started in 1992 I used the card catalogue system,” Sharon said. “Before books had bar codes they had a card in them with the title, author and Dewey decimal number on them. The card was in an envelope glued in the book that had the same information on it.”
“Every book that was checked out had a card in it. You had to stamp the cards and sort them by category and put them in a box. Then when the books were checked in you had to find the card and put it back into the book. That was very time consuming, but it worked for the volume we had then.”
But change was coming to that time-honored and comforting system of organizing cards in boxes. There was a brief moment when microfiche film and readers looked like the technology of the future. But earth-shattering change truly arrived in the form of strange little black and white stickers stuck to the back of all books and movies in the library network.
The network converted to these scannable bar codes pretty much overnight. Sharon recalled putting a sticker onto every book and movie in the Long Prairie Library and then boxing them all up and sending them to headquarters in St. Cloud. Staff in St. Cloud put all the bar codes and data onto computers and sent everything back to the branch librarians for reshelving.
“It was a massive undertaking,” Sharon said. “Tens of thousands of books across the system had bar codes put on them in a short time.”
Thus started the library’s bumpy road into the computer age.
“We had one patron who had a religious view that the bar code numbers were the work of the devil,” Sharon said. “She said, ‘I can’t use the library any more.’ She and her family were good patrons, and I missed her.”
Computers followed the bar codes. At first only the library catalogue was computerized. But when the World Wide Web began to enter our lives the library was one of the first places where you could ride the information superhighway.
“There were no public work stations in 2001 when I started,” Linda said. “Then, each library got just one. We had to instruct the public on how to use it because people didn’t even know how to use a mouse. It took a lot of time, and we had to decide how much time to spend with an individual patron versus serving the people lining up at our desk with books to check out.”
While the branch librarians were teaching the public computer skills, headquarters was training the branch librarians computer skills. Headquarters staff itself was only one step ahead of the branch librarians, according to Sharon. She said early public use of the Internet was particularly challenging.
“Initially, I remember hordes of teenage boys visiting sites that they weren’t supposed to,” she recalled. “We didn’t have a filter to begin with, so it was our job to monitor them. The stations had to be in view of our desk. They’d get in groups, and they’d giggle. Then, we got a filter for the children, but we had to unlock it for adults because they have a right to look at what they want.”
As librarians and library patron, adapted to the age of computers, library usage increased. In 1973, when Todd County voted to join the Great River Regional Library, a bookmobile served eight communities in the county, and there was a grand total of 749 registered patrons. That number grew through the years of Linda’s and Sharon’s services. Presently the Long Prairie Library alone has a total of 2,135 patrons who checked out over 56,000 items last year, used the computer work stations 4,800 times and attended a wide variety of programs for children and adults.
But librarians past and present do more than provide those important services.
“We get lots of phone calls for information assistance,” Sharon said. “We especially get lots of genealogy calls. Somebody might call from Kentucky and say, ‘My aunt lived in Eagle Bend, and we’re doing a family genealogy. Could you find any information on her?’ So, we would do that.”
“People might call and say, ‘I had this relative that lived near Royalton, and I’m wondering if you could tell me if she was buried in the cemetery there,’” Linda recalled. “I think that people thought that in a small town the librarian had that kind of knowledge. People would want a review of a book or movie or they might say, ‘I saw a movie 10 years ago, and this is who was in it, but I can’t think of the name. Can you get that movie for me?’ Sometimes you could. Now, with computers, it’s easier.”
Both Sharon and Linda said that the service ethic that they were trained for was to bend over backwards to help a library patron. That can require more than a knowledge of the Dewey decimal system or how to use a computer search engine.
“I have one very strong memory from my time in Long Prairie,” Linda said. “I was working a Saturday, and a Hispanic couple came in. They were frantic. You could see it in their eyes. They didn’t speak English so I asked another patron if he would interpret. It turned out that they were getting on an airplane in a few hours, and they needed a document notarized. It’s almost impossible to find a notary on Saturday, but I knew the lady in the city office next door was a notary. So I picked up the phone and called. By chance she was at home, and she came to the library and notarized this document. It was so they could travel with a minor child or something. The fellow reached into his wallet and offered to pay that woman. She refused. You could just see the burden lift off of this man’s shoulders. It was very touching, and I was proud to be a small part in what was probably an important part of their lives.”
Linda and Sharon said that as small town librarians they were a part of the community fabric. They did, in time, know where aunt so-and-so was buried and who was a notary public. They were happy to be of service and, very often, the community recognized their generosity by giving back.
“She got gifts,” Sharon said laughing. “I was jealous.”
Linda admitted she was given baked goods and even a cleaned pheasant.
“I lived in Little Falls, and the commute was hard sometimes,” Linda recalled. “When the weather was bad I had people tell me I could stay at their house overnight. We used to be in the same building as the police. One time an officer that I’d never seen before came in and said, ‘If you’re going to get home to Little Falls tonight, you better leave now.’ I liked that he was watching out for me.”