Listening to Elizabeth Steans, the reference services manager at L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library (LEPMPL) in Eau Claire, there is a palpable sense of passion in her voice. Authentic excitement, electricity. She loves where she works, she loves her co-workers, and she loves the mission of the library. She hasn’t committed her life to the library to get rich; no librarian is in it for the money. “I feel fortunate every day, every minute, to work here,” she says. “I feel very blessed.”
“This library has a staff that is dedicated to the work they do,” she adds. “Everyone I work with, everyone in the library has the customer in mind ... the betterment of the community. To contribute to our mission. There is a human life experience that is valued by the staff and the mission of the library.” She pauses to gather her thoughts. “It’s like a commitment to society.”
Elizabeth is an Eau Claire native and when she talks about her childhood, the LEPMPL is something of a touchstone. It is no mistake then, no coincidence, that she works in a library as an adult. She describes an early visit to the library where she recalls the building not as some silent sepulcher for old books, but rather as a “playground.”
“It was like everything was covered with gold,” she continues. “We used to go antique-shopping with my Mom, and we couldn’t touch anything, unless you had the money. But we were kids, and we didn’t have any money. But the first time we went to the library, we could touch everything. Pull things off shelves. Lay down on the floor and read things.
“You didn’t need any money. You just needed a library card. And you didn’t have to pay for it — it was free. You just walked in. A child being able to go to the library and transcend their imagination — that’s the vision I’m supporting as a librarian.”
Steans has been working in the library field for over 21 years and for the LEPMPL for over 11 years. She’s seen the role of a library change during that time.
“In the time I’ve worked for public libraries,” she explains, “I’ve experienced an increasing amount of customers reaching out in crisis seeking help on topics like housing, neglect, sexual assault, employment, health insurance, and the list goes on. Years ago, delivering requested resources was where a librarian’s efforts typically ended, but today, partnership with a social worker has amplified our efforts to enhance our customer’s quality of life.”
The LEPMPL is asking the community for support right now as they plan for a major upgrade, renovation and expansion. Simply put: Many of the library’s mechanical systems need replacement, and this need happens to coincide with a dramatic growth in circulation, programming and attendance. This community is most definitely using its library. There is no doubt why: In this moment of American history, with such divisive politics, with such a dire need to understand and consume facts, with a decline in social services, the library stands as something of a citadel for the community at large. A safe, quiet place amidst the rancor and noise.
Steans is excited about the future of the library and the much needed renovations. “Personally, I grew up in this library. I’ve been here since I was 7. It’s exciting to me to open up the space and the sightlines will be right through the building. You’ll be able to see the river from one side of the building to the other. More seating, more natural light.”
The “new” library won’t just be more efficient, more functional, but it will be a beautiful public space adjacent to the Eau Claire River, one of the most beautiful spots in town. The perfect place to discover a new book, album or movie. The perfect place to introduce children to a lifelong love for reading. The perfect place to seek help for employment or housing.
When asked why she wanted to become a librarian, Steans is almost overcome. The question is akin to “Why do you believe in God?” or “Why do you love your children?” It is, both an easy question, and impossible to distill down quickly for a stranger. But Steans tries to. “I want to support an institution that is equal to everyone. That provides services to everyone, no matter what.”
It is all too easy to misconstrue something like a library as just a building. This would be a terrible mistake. Anyone who uses the library knows that a library is about the people who enter its doors, hungry for knowledge or a story. A building without books or librarians is just another building.
On Nov. 19th from noon to 1 p.m., the LEPMPL is hosting a virtual event entitled, “How To Talk To Your Grandchildren Or Special In Your Life About Great Books.” It is an example of the kind of programming the library does so well. Unifying generations and people from all walks of life around the notion of literacy and storytelling. The event is also an opportunity for community members to learn more about how they can reinvest in the library through the Story Builder Campaign, supporting the library’s bright and shining mission. Go to the library’s website if you need more information, or, go ask a librarian.