Sara Klemann | Eagle River, WI
I eventually went to graduate school to get a degree in cultural studies. And then ended up working for five years as an administrative assistant in a small private college in Pennsylvania working for their Women’s Center in the Office of Diversity Initiatives.
During that time I kind of had a mini mid-life crisis and decided I was not on the right career path. I was lucky enough to be able to leave that job and take some time to figure out what I wanted to do. I come from a family of teachers and librarians. The day I graduated from college my maternal grandfather said, ‘Well, what are you going to do with an anthropology degree? You should go to library school.’ I kind of pushed back against that and said, ‘No I’m going to do my own path.’ But I finally thought, ‘You know what? That actually makes a lot of sense.’
I was living in Pennsylvania at the time. My parents were in the process of moving to northern Wisconsin and I wanted to move closer to my folks. I went to library school at UW Madison and this is the first gig I landed out of library school. I am the Director of the library in Eagle River, we have a population of 1,400 people.
I think public libraries are one of the few spaces that are grounded in principles of access and equality. Libraries are an affordable way for all of us to get connected to the information and resources we need to live good lives. A foundational part of my worldview is that everyone deserves equal rights and opportunities, and libraries are in a good position to help with that. One way that libraries can engage in social justice is how we build our collections. I spend a lot of time networking to see the breadth and diversity of creators that are out there. What voices are we maybe not seeing and how do we elevate and create spaces for those voices?
Eagle River is in Vilas County, which has a long tribal heritage that predates European settlement by thousands of years. It is home to the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians. Libraries have a fraught history with Native communities, they are part of the same type of knowledge creation machine that produced boarding schools. So I know I have a lot of work to do in terms of building those relationships. I try to do some things that signal that the library is a place for everybody. We have a special collection that’s Ojibwe focused, and it’s embarrassingly old and outdated. I’ve been working to improve that. We had the First Nations Traveling Resource Center here every day from July 19 to August 13 as part of Connect to the Northwoods project that has a large collection of books about the Tribes of Wisconsin written by Native authors.
There are many ways a library can foster equality. I think a lot of people still have the idea that we are just a building that holds books. Yes, we do that. But much more of what we do is offer programs. This was especially true during the pandemic. I think we’ve seen how libraries are well-positioned by virtue of our relationships with our patrons and by virtue of our existing relationships with social services, to adapt quickly to the changing needs of our community and fill those gaps. For instance, during the time our doors were closed, we were doing curbside service, pivoting to meet the community’s needs. In the Northwoods, Internet access and broadband infrastructure just doesn’t exist, so we bought additional equipment. We changed some of our policies so people could check out laptops. We purchased Wi-FI internet hotspots so people who were sitting outside of the McDonald’s to get schoolwork done might be able to do that comfortably from home. Or to apply for unemployment, apply for jobs, do telehealth appointments.
I try to be a public presence at the library. I work behind the service desk and answer the phones. I solicit feedback on what kinds of books people would like to see on the shelves. We serve an audience of about 10,000 people, have about 6,000 card holders, a full time staff of two and a half people and a robust core of volunteers. We would not be able to do any of what we do without the labor of our volunteers. I think this kind of active participation makes people feel like they have some kind of stake in what goes on in the library and some authority to say, ‘Maybe we could do this!’
This kind of connection is why I wanted to be a librarian in a small community. When we had to close because of Covid last year, it was not a good time for any of our mental and emotional well-being. As we slowly started to re-open, it was such an antidote to be able to talk with our patrons and ask, ‘How are you doing? How’s your family?’ Remembering that we have this really robust community of people who use and love the library was energizing.
Sara’s story was produced by Carol Amour.