March 29 2017 05:48 PM

Kathy Johnson looks back on nearly 40 years in libraries

Kathy Johnson, head librarian at CADL’s downtown Lansing branch, retires this week after nearly 40 years working in local libraries.
Bill Castanier/City Pulse
Kathy Johnson, head librarian at Capitol Area District Libraries’ downtown branch, is delaying her retirement one day so she can go out with a bang at the library’s Family Celebration Saturday.

The event recognizes the downtown branch’s recent $670,000 renovation, which has transformed the space into a more open, inviting environment. The festivities include face painting, balloon animals, craft projects, a performances by singer/songwriter Taylor Taylor and a visit from WKAR’s Sid the Science Kid.

It will be noisy, raucous and fun — and dramatically different from what a library was like nearly 40 years ago when Johnson, 70, started her career in the Ingham County Library System.

It was actually Johnson’s second career. She graduated from Albion College in 1969 and earned a master’s degree in social work from Western Michigan University in 1971. But Johnson, who originally hails from Buffalo, New York, said she soon discovered social work might not be the right fit for her.

“I worked in adoptions and with abused children. I couldn’t fix all the problems,” she said. “I wasn’t sleeping, and I didn’t want this much responsibility for people’s lives.”

So she asked herself a simple question: “What do you want to do?”

“I remembered how much I loved libraries and doing research,” Johnson said. “I loved finding things in books and periodicals. I liked the idea of working with people and helping them do research.”

She decided she would help other people find things and began working at the Ingham County Library System’s Mason branch in 1977. While working, she commuted to the University of Michigan for her library sciences degree.

Johnson also worked as a paraprofessional at Sexton High School’s career library and in the Ingham County Library System as a librarian specializing in books for the homebound. In 1998, the county system merged with downtown Lansing’s library, then part of the Lansing Public Library System, to form Capital Area District Libraries.

“It meant we had funding and resources, and we were able to increase services,” Johnson said.

Those services have changed dramatically in recent years as computers transformed the libraries.

“We became much more digital, and libraries became community gathering places,” Johnson said.

She has seen the use of free meeting rooms increase as the library has adapted to the needs of the community.

“There are three English as a second language classes held in the library,” she said. “Recently, the library was able to translate some documents, like the application for a library card, into Spanish, Arabic and Chinese.”

Johnson said the library system is also doing more community outreach. And when it comes to learning technology, patrons can get one-on-one time with a librarian rather than through group classes.

“You really book a librarian,” she said.

The changing library landscape even changed the type of librarians she hired.

“The love for books is almost irrelevant,” Johnson said. “We make it clear in the interview process you have to enjoy working with people. The job requires empathy and communication skills, and librarians have to be open to change.”

Johnson is not quite sure what she will do in retirement, but a few months ago she sat down and compiled a list of 20 organizations where she might do some volunteering. It’s no surprise that the organizations all had one thing in common — they were about helping people.

Michele Brussow, head librarian of CADL’s South Lansing branch, replaces Johnson starting Sunday. The next time Johnson returns to the downtown branch, she will have to remember to bring her library card.

Johnson said she found her job very enriching, but as she gets ready to pass the metaphorical rubber stamp to the next generation — maybe a barcode scanner would be a more apt metaphor in the modernized library — Johnson wants to dispel one lingering myth about libraries.

“You don’t have to whisper,” she said.

Family Celebration 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, April 1 FREE CADL Downtown Lansing Branch 401 S. Capitol Ave., Lansing (517) 367-6363,