News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

December 16, 2013

‘Somebody’s Librarian’

She’s always been top shelf in personal service at VCPL

TERRE HAUTE — Being “somebody’s librarian” has been important to Suzanne Van Reed for the past 51 years.

She served as south branch manager of the Vigo County Public Library for many of those five decades, and she has had various other assignments – shelving books, display clerk, circulation, bookmobile librarian and development.

But as her 51st year of helping patrons find the right materials draws to a close, Van Reed has decided to end her VCPL career at the end of 2013 – and in a twist appreciated by many librarians, to spend more time reading for pleasure.

On Monday afternoon, library patrons and staff congratulated Van Reed on her many years of service. They shared memories, and wished her well for the future during a reception in the library’s meeting rooms.

“She has been an inspiration and a great role model,” said her daughter-in-law, Lisa Van Reed. “It’s rare to meet someone who works somewhere for more than 50 years, and someone who loves her job.”

Fellow librarian Angela Levesque said that when she started her own library career in 2006, her supervisor was Van Reed at the south branch, and the experienced librarian was a good role model for the staff.

“Just watching her interact with all the people who came in, you could tell she loved her job,” Levesque said.

Van Reed’s people skills followed her in 2009 when the library’s south branch at Southland Shopping Center closed and she transferred to the main library.

“Anyone I know who had contact with Suzanne at the south branch would refer to her as ‘the nice lady with the dark hair,’” said librarian Lynette Seels, “and I’d know they meant Suzanne.”

Van Reed’s personal approach in dealing with the public is a skill she cultivated from her early days at the library. Even though she was still a teenager, she said, she was trusted by the adult staff to open and operate the south branch on days when the other librarians were attending their staff meetings.

It started in ’62

It was December 1962 when Van Reed officially began working for the Vigo County Public Library, after getting a work permit from school. She was 15 years old and had already been working “for” a friend who was officially employed at the library. When her friend took time off for things such as a Girl Scout camping trip, the friend asked Van Reed to fill in for her. The teenage librarian would record her hours on her friend’s time slip, then when her friend got paid, her friend would hand over Van Reed’s share of the check. When the library leadership found out about that, however, they put a halt to it and had the hard-working teen get a work permit so she could be on the payroll.

“I still remember standing at Seventh and Washington and waiting for the bus to come to take me to Seventh and Margaret,” she said Monday, recalling those early days of employment.

At the time, the library branch was in a portion of a little brown retail building at the southeast corner of the intersection. That building was torn down in recent years with the widening of Margaret Avenue. But in the late 1960s, the library branch was moved to the nearby Southland Shopping Center.

She continued her library work as a student at Indiana State University, even though she did not get a master’s degree in library sciences. She worked at the main library when it was on North Seventh Street on the ISU campus, and by the time she had eight years of service with the library, she was appointed as assistant branch manager in charge of children’s programs at the south branch.

“I used to do two storytimes on Tuesdays and two on Wednesdays, and then programs for Maehling Terrace and other child cares, and summer programs,” Van Reed said. “One of our more popular programs was bicycle safety. I had a mother ask that I do one in a neighborhood on request, and several children showed up. That was fun.”

‘General store effect’

Van Reed was appointed south branch manager in August 1977, and she worked there until the branch was closed in March 2009. Since then, she has been development librarian at the main branch. She has worked a lot with volunteers and done some fundraising, but she has missed working closely with the patrons, she said.

“When you’ve worked at a branch, you’ve done everything,” she said of a librarian’s duties. “That made it easy for me to go from place to place within the library and know what to do. But for me, the big part of working in the branch was the people. I think the people were the most important thing.”

She calls the dynamic of a branch library “the general store effect” of knowing all about the patrons and their lives.

“I think they found us equally important,” she said of the patrons’ feelings toward the staff.

She recalled that one patron came to the library after getting a diagnosis from her doctor – the woman had cancer, and she wanted Van Reed to know it.

“Maybe that’s not library service, but it’s customer service,” she said of the connection to the patrons.

Because she was in charge of ordering the books for the branch, she said she often kept in mind which patrons would like which new books as they came in.

“You know your people by name when they come in the doors,” she said. “Maybe I didn’t know each one of them, but somebody in the library did. You need to be ‘somebody’s librarian’. I felt like that kinship was important.”

There were times when the south branch was more than a library to people, she said. For instance, in the days before most people carried cell phones to stay connected, there were people who would call the library to leave a message for a friend or relative who would be stopping by the branch soon.

There was one young girl who wanted to give away some free kittens, Van Reed said, but the library policy wouldn’t allow a sign offering the free pets. However, the library did set up a pet care book display, and along with the information there was an offer of kittens available to suitable homes.

“We got rid of all the kittens,” Van Reed said, chuckling.

Having worked under several head librarians through the years, Van Reed said she has been impressed with the library leadership and the encouragement that employees have received to be active in the community.

She said she was in the second class of the Leadership Terre Haute program, and she was part of the founding board for Arts Illiana, and still works with the United Way, which led her to work for the Council on Domestic Abuse, and the FSSA counseling center board.

“All that happened because the library encouraged participation in our community,” Van Reed said.

Quotes to live by

During her ISU student days, she met her husband, and they decided to raise their family here. In addition to their work lives and community involvement, the couple has taken many trips overseas. Van Reed has graciously shared the photos and souvenirs of her worldwide travel to places such as London, Paris, Italty, India and Asia. She said she intends to keep traveling, but she also intends to remain active in her local community.

 A couple of quotes that Van Reed has kept posted at her desk through the years have helped her keep life in perspective.

From “Up Country” by Nelson DeMille: “The journey home is never a direct route; it is in fact always circuitous. And somewhere along the way we discover that the journey is more significant than the destination and the people we meet along the way will be the traveling companions of our memories forever.”

From hockey great Wayne Gretzky: “You miss a hundred percent of the shots you never take.”

Van Reed said she believes in taking those “shots” and in being prepared to help people ask the questions they need to ask.

“I felt that talking to my patrons made me a better librarian,” she said.

While library services have changed as modern society has transitioned, Van Reed said she feels that libraries are essential in the current age and will remain important in the future.

“I think computers have revolutionized our world, particularly libraries,” she said. “But I still think people need librarians because we are accurate in what we do. We also need a place for those people who don’t have access to computers or materials.”

More time to read

Van Reed said that one of the things she looks forward to doing in retirement is having time to read. She also has a young grandchild to nurture, and a list of projects she wants to do.

“I started a reading list that when I find something interesting, I add it to the list,” she said. “And now, when I’m reading a book at night, I will be able to stay up until 2 a.m. reading because I can sleep in.”

Van Reed said she thought when she was 60 about retiring at age 62, but she wasn’t ready. When she moved to the main library with the closing of the south branch, she still wasn’t quite ready, though she was less active with patrons. When the new library director was chosen this past year, Van Reed said, she saw that the new leadership was going to maintain the library as a strong asset for the community, and she felt confident it was time for her to retire, leaving the patrons and her fellow staff in good hands.

“I just knew it was time to go,” Van Reed said. “And I’m looking forward to being a patron.”

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