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Retiring librarian has watched libraries evolve

“The present belief is that, for most people, the profit of reading is not easily separable from its pleasure.”

This statement by the Rev. W.C.A. Waller in a lecture arranged by the Little Falls Shakespearian Ethics Club in 1902 could have easily been lost. The local newspaper, however, provided a full report of the event, and long-time city librarian Cheryl Seelen snagged a copy for the library scrapbook she compiled in 1988.

Pleasure and profit were not easily separable, and for Cheryl, who retired this April from her 38 years, 11 months and 5 days of employment with the Little Falls Carnegie Library, that’s also true of her career with the library.

Cheryl has only secondhand knowledge of the first 84 years of the library, though she was a patron long before she became an employee in 1976. Many of the changes to the library system and the building that housed it did happen during her tenure. Her calm presence, love of people and easy laughter have been as much a fixture of the library as have the books and shelves. Her love of research and history have also filled in the gaps in her personal knowledge of one of the oldest buildings in Little Falls.

About the same time that the lumber industry was bringing prosperity to central Minnesota, the Franciscan Sisters were establishing a convent on the south edge of Little Falls, and land on the west side of town was being set aside for a park and zoo. A group of citizens was also concerned about community education and wanted a library. The owners of a downtown building responded to a request for space and offered two rooms. That first library, in 1892, was open for six hours a week, and the first librarian was paid a salary of $3 for those hours. It could be assumed that much of the time needed to organize the books and other materials were handled outside of the time during which patrons visited.

By 1902, a group of persistent library devotees, including the Rev. W.C.A. Waller and his influential speech, had succeeded in petitioning Andrew Carnegie, a wealthy industrialist, to grant $10,000 toward the building of a city library. Carnegie had already provided $214,000 for libraries in St. Cloud, Duluth, Albert Lea, Red Wing, Stillwater, Mankato, and Austin. Larger communities had been given as much as $25,000. Little Falls residents pooled funds and purchased a piece of property for $2,000. They frugally spent $8,110 to build the structure that served the community for 93 years.

The floor plan of the Little Falls Carnegie Library is the same as many other libraries across the country. Local materials were used on the exterior. Cheryl Seelen has a unique skill though she has most likely never been called upon to use her sense of smell to discern between the slate, field stone, and brick shell of the building. She laughs and shrugs when admitting she can smell the difference between basalt and granite, sandstone, shale and many other geologic specimens. Cheryl’s special gift may have taken her in the direction of becoming a petrologist or some other profession dealing with the earth’s foundations, but near the end of her first year of college, her parents’ deteriorating health called her back from Bemidji State. She worked a variety of jobs in Little Falls until a friend told her the library had an opening for a librarian. She was finally able to apply what her 3rd or 4th-grade school librarian, Harvey Hempeck, had taught her. “We had to learn the Dewey Decimal System in order to use the library. I loved it! It was so fun!”

A little less fun was the half-inch manual Mrs. Rebischke, the Carnegie city librarian, handed her on her first day of work. “She said to read it. It had everything I needed to know to work in the library.” She also didn’t know that librarians were expected to write in a particular style, legible to all patrons. That was 1976.

When Cheryl first sat behind the desk of the children’s area on the lower level it was already crowded with shelves, tables, and materials, as was the main floor. The uppermost floor was also used, but fire regulations dictated that only 10 people could be there at one time.

“It was creepy up there. It was really dark, and you had to go up the stairs and down the row of shelves to turn the light on or off,” Cheryl remembers.

Though the upstairs was eerie, the familiar area of the lower children’s level provided Cheryl’s most unsettling experience as a librarian. She dealt with a bleeding heroin addict, a flasher and flying bats, but the golden-haired little girl who appeared near her desk gave her chills.

It was in about 1977, near the end of the day. Cheryl was finishing up duties at her desk and patrons no longer wandered the aisles. “I turned and saw a little girl, just standing by my desk. She had blonde curls, kind of like Shirley Temple. She wore denim overalls, a red checked shirt and sneakers. She looked out of place because it was the ‘70s and she looked like she was from the ‘40s or ‘50s. I asked if I could help her, but she didn’t say anything. She just smiled. I turned away, and when I looked back, she was gone. No one else saw her, and the only way she could have left the building was by going upstairs, passing the main desk and out the front door.”

Whether the library was briefly haunted is difficult to prove, but the creepiness of certain areas dissolved in 1999. After 10 years of discussions, and much-enhanced offerings when the library joined the Great River Regional Library system in 1986, the library was remodeled with a wrap-around addition. The library retained its designation on the National Register of Historic Places while expanding with another floor of shelves, work rooms, meeting rooms and display space as well as much-needed handicap accessibility.

Cheryl and the other staff members had survived the move to temporary quarters and relished moving back to a bright new space. It’s interesting to note that the original land and building cost roughly $10,000 supported by a commitment by the city to provide $1,000 yearly in maintenance. The addition less than a century later was made possible by a $400,000 bequeath from the Dorothy Regan Pancratz estate and a $500,000 grant from the State of Minnesota. Staffing and materials have been provided by the Great River Regional Library system since it became a branch library.

From actual card catalogs in drawers, film strips, and microfiche to computers, DVDs and the Internet, Cheryl has seen it all and assisted patrons in learning to use it all. She doesn’t think that libraries will ever be obsolete. “People are still going to need help finding information and suggestions of titles to read. People like the smell and feel of books,” said Cheryl. She also advised that libraries and their websites recommend reliable online sources.

As Cheryl resumes her role of library patron, she said, “I can’t imagine a world without libraries. They may change, but they’ll always be here.”

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