Archived Story

Dowagiac ‘warm’ to library director from Alaska

Published 8:08pm Wednesday, March 27, 2013


Jacob Munford succeeds Katherine Johnson, who retired.
Jacob Munford succeeds Katherine Johnson, who retired.


Dowagiac District Library Director Jacob Munford arrived “serendipitously” almost two months ago by way of Alaska.

Munford, 26, of Holland, grew up in Muskegon, graduating from Reeths-Puffer High School in 2004.

After obtaining his library master’s degree in 2009 from the University of Wisconsin, the onset of the Great Recession was not a fortuitous time for job-hunting.

“Fulltime library jobs are few and far between if you’re not willing to move,” he said. “I was working in Anchorage, Alaska, as a youth services librarian and a branch manager” since November 2010 after six part-time years in Hart.

“I was coming home to visit my parents and friends, so I shot them an email that I would be in Michigan the week they interviewed if they were interested.”

He married his high school sweetheart from the student newspaper. He and Sofie have been together nine years. She also has a library degree, but is studying computer science at Grand Valley State University to transition to the technological side.

He has a brother in Grand Rapids and friends around Muskegon-Grand Rapids, making Holland “a good midpoint.”

“I’d always been interested in government,” said Munford, who did volunteer work in Morocco. “I did an internship with a state representative. Democracy can a laborious process. Occasionally things happen, but more often you wait for things to happen. What I really wanted to do was ground-level stuff and get my hands dirty, serving the public in a way that was easy for me to understand. Libraries are this weird focal point, part community center, part university.”

In smaller towns, everybody knows everybody, which adds a social component.

Munford said Wednesday, “Libraries are rarely the first career choice for a lot of people. There are lots of part-time positions, but the administrative pool is not large” since there is no bachelor’s degree path.

“It’s folks who were promoted into it or have been around so long they become de facto administrators,” Munford said. “Or, they come from other professions, a real grab-bag of folks. I studied business, literature and politics and got my library degree with a heavy focus on tech, children’s services and administration. I think they hired me because there’s real potential for working with children there hasn’t been a huge focus on.”

Munford intends to make the library more visible in places where children are, particularly schools, from being a presence at events to linking the library to curriculum.

“I’m going to a science fair at the end of April, bringing a laptop and signing up anyone who wants a library card and promoting summer reading. Visibility is a big thing for libraries,” Munford said. “A lot of people think our competition is bookstores, but it’s not. It’s soccer games and home-cooked meals. You have to make time to come to a library, so we want after-school programs with big, bright, colorful displays to make it fun. If we have something kids want and put it in their hands, their response is, ‘Wow!’ We want to motivate them to want to come to the library.”

The library is open late two nights, Tuesday and Thursday. Munford works then to gauge if those hours make it accessible to patrons, whether they work during the daytime or attend school. He removed nine shelves of seldom-used reference material to create a wall-to-wall teen section with relevant graphic novels exhibited.

“Teenagers come in after school, jump on their phones or laptops to use our Wi-Fi. They do homework or hang out in a place where no one bugs them,” he said. “It’s already being provided, but it’s more attractive by being more visible. Sixty percent of any library’s business is children. They identify with libraries in a way adults don’t because they have less to do. I wish I could read more. I play a lot of board games because they’re social, but they compete with going to the library. There’s a lot of online activity, but it hasn’t splintered the audience, it adds to it. People use digital services, but come in, too, for the social aspect. If people just checked out books, we wouldn’t need tables.

”Libraries have to be flexible about what services they offer because needs change with technology and the economy. Dowagiac identifies so strongly with place, everything you do has to keep that in mind. There’s a ‘Dowagiac way’ of doing things and what is valued. Libraries reflect their communities. There’s a warmth here I notice more than thawing out from Alaska. It’s really nice to be here. It’s like home two hours south of home.”





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