On a recent Sunday at the East Lansing Public Library, a seemingly endless stream of patrons poured through the doors to say goodbye to retiring librarian Lezlee Worthington who, in her 25 years at the library, was best known to many as beloved storyteller “Miss Lezlee.”
Many of the patrons who came that afternoon had first come to the library as toddlers or babies and now return with their own children — and even grandchildren — in tow.
“I had no idea that many people would come,” Worthington said. “Most of the people there had come to my story times over the years.”
Worthington became a librarian in an era when libraries still had wooden card files containing information on all the books in the library.
“There were cash boxes" for paying late fees, she recalled. “There were no cash registers.”
Like the rest of the world, libraries were on the threshold of a revolution. The rapid spread of the Internet and personal computing drastically changed the role of librarians.
“Libraries took on that job, and it was a big learning curve,” Worthington said. “Before technology, a librarian’s job was very labor intensive, including shelving books. We started automating, and everywhere I worked I ushered in computers.”
Looking back, Worthington recalls some technological advancements that already seem archaic. She remembers the early days of VHS, when most patrons had to check out the VCR players themselves, because they were often too expensive to own.
“We moved on to DVD, then streaming,” she said. “A lot of people use the library to use computers.”
She also recalls how controversial it was in the library industry when libraries began renting movies.
“Today, libraries answer the question: ‘What are people wanting?’” she said. “We serve the public.”
East Lansing Public Library recently completed a major renovation, which included a new video game room, and an expanded technology room complete with 3D printers and a recording studio for podcasters and musicians.
Libraries, Worthington said, have also become community gathering places. Long gone are the days of whispering to avoid disturbing readers.
“People think a library is about books, but it’s not,” Worthington said. “Libraries are the one of the last places where people will talk with you. People go to libraries for advice, to talk and to share experiences. It’s really personal.”
When Worthington began at the East Library Public Library, she gradually became the go-to storyteller for Toddler Time, Baby Time and Read to the Dogs. She said she focused on stories with “lots of animals” and used puppets with names like Nutty and Rocky.
“I learned on the job and was inspired by professional storytellers to get better at it,” Worthington said.
One of her loves was folktales. “They are simple yet complex,” Worthington said. “There is usually a lesson, a caveat or resolution.”
But she would also augment the stories and adapt them for children.
“Folktales can be kind of scary and graphic, and I wasn’t going to bring out the knives,” she said.
Worthington considers the time she spent as storyteller a golden age for children’s books.
“Children’s books today are dramatically different from when I started,” she said. “They have changed dramatically in cleverness and complexity and are richer than ever. Cool artists emerged using dramatic shading and textures.”
She said children’s books have always been a social barometer, pointing to children’s books about two dads or books that show diverse races and ethnic groups.
“When things show up in children’s books, you know society has accepted them,” she said. “Children’s books don’t move culture; they keep tabs on it.”
In retirement, Worthington would like to try her hand at writing and illustrating children’s books. She is also adapting her storytelling into what she calls “story totems,” which are hand quilted and appliqued totem poles. One such totem might feature a bear at the base, a blueberry bush growing out of its head and a cardinal topping it off.
“Bears are a symbol of motherhood or the female spirit. Bears love blueberries, and cardinals love berries too,” Worthington said, and she was off into storytelling mode again.