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Lead Librarian Closes a Chapter at Marathon County Public Library

January 29, 2019

Sharyn Heili
Sharyn Heili at her library reference desk in the mid-1980s. Performer Tom Pease poses with Sharyn Heili after one of his hilarious family concerts at MCPL. MCPL’s bookmobile is pictured at an unknown location in 1976. Sharyn Heili’s first job with the library was driving this bus throughout Marathon County to deliver materials. Most, if not all, of the Marathon County Public Library staff in the early 1980s. Sharyn Heili is pictured under the arrow. Sharyn and library patrons having fun celebrating Charles Schulz’s Peanuts characters (like Snoopy). Brad Karger, Sharyn Heili, and Kham Tong Yang at a Hmong Heritage Month luncheon.

Even after more than 40 years of public service as a Marathon County Public Library (MCPL) employee, Sharyn Heili still feels as though she has more to give:

“I have to have a purpose and to feel like I’m making a difference. People, especially kids, need someone to believe in them, and I feel like that’s part of my purpose on this Earth.”

Heili recently retired after working for the library in Wausau for 44 years. In the 8 years prior to her retirement, she was the lead children’s librarian. She also worked in reference and started her career with the library driving its bookmobile throughout Marathon County.

Growing up in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, the library was always a place where Heili felt at home and comfortable — even if the librarians weren’t overly friendly. But even that was something that stuck with her when she later obtained her master’s degree in Library Science:

“I wanted to be a good librarian. I had some bad experiences with some, how do I put it, with some crabby librarians who seemed to put up barriers to people where they didn’t need to be.”

Heili joined the library about 6 months after the Wausau Public Library and Marathon County Library consolidated in January 1974. She and her husband were drawn to Wausau by places like Fern Island and thought maybe they’d stay a couple of years. But then came the purchase of a house and the birth of a few kids, and Heili jokes:

“Obviously I’ve stayed a little longer than a couple years.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) doesn’t keep track of how many times people change careers over the course of their working lives, but a 2016 BLS study found that less than one-third of workers age 55 years and older — just 28% — had been with their employer for 20 years or more. So, even among her generation, Heili’s 44-year tenure at the library truly stands out for its longevity! 

She was grateful to start working on the bookmobile with the woman she was replacing, Helen Dudek, who showed Heili the ropes with library work and provided Heili with an insider’s knowledge of the entire county.

Though it may sound hard to believe in this digital age of instant access to books and information, there was a time when the only way people in rural areas of Marathon County could get books was through a bookmobile delivery. A modified bus, not unlike a school bus, would make regular stops at rural schools and other community locations — including grocery stores and even taverns — to give people the opportunity to check out library materials. Kids would ride their bikes to meet the bookmobile; others would travel on horseback. The bookmobile was retired in 2005 after MCPL built its Hatley Branch. Heili reflected:

“I still look back on that and think how fortunate I was to have that background about the county.”

After a number of years behind the wheel of the bookmobile (Heili wasn’t sure exactly how many), she moved into reference work — during which time, until the invention and evolution of the internet, the emphasis was on work to find information for patrons.

No Google . . .
No Wikipedia . . .
No taps of a few keys to find the entire history of the universe.

There were just physical books — hundreds of books — all filled with information. Heili shared:

“If you had to explain how something worked or find something else for someone, we were looking in many different books, checking indexes, putting all of these bits and pieces together, and you had to check several sources to make sure it was correct.”

Heili spent the last 8 years of her career as a children’s librarian, but she knows that not a lot has changed in reference work other than the tools that library staff use to retrieve the information.

Something else that hasn’t changed about libraries across the country — at least when it comes to reference work — is that people place a lot of trust in library staff to find the correct information, Heili said.

“We’re also one of the few places left, it seems like, that you can call and talk to a real person if you need some information.”

And though kids have access to more technology these days, in general, “kids are kids,” she said. In her time as a children’s librarian, she’s noticed more of a change in parents who don’t let their children take as many risks in life, and thus the kids aren’t as free to explore and try new things.

What has changed about Marathon County as a whole, Heili said, is that the population has grown and that it’s become a more diverse community.

“It was really noticeable when I first came here. It was pretty much all white [people], not a lot of people of color and, frankly, not a lot of tolerance for people of color.”

The biggest change in diversity around Central Wisconsin since Heili joined the library was due to a large influx of Hmong refugees from Southeast Asia — something that Heili embraced from the beginning. She said she’s always had an interest in different cultures and different people and tried to pass that on to her three children:

“I’ve always told my kids, someone might be a different color or religion or whatever . . . I think especially with the Hmong population, our lives are enhanced by them being here; we’re more with them here than without.”

Heili’s efforts to collaborate with the Hmong community at the library — and events celebrating Hmong History Month in particular — garnered her an award or two in recognition. But she said she’s the one who’s benefited by working with the Hmong community:

“I’ve received much more than I’ve given. I’ve been welcomed into that world and into their culture, and I’m so lucky that I’ve had those experiences. And in general I’m just humbled by the kind and nice and wonderful people we have in this community.”

During an interview 1 week after her last day at Marathon County Public Library, Heili said that her retirement still felt like a vacation.

She plans to spend more time with her children, of course, but she doesn’t plan to sit back and coast through her retirement years . . . She plans to volunteer at a variety of places, perhaps as a post-MCPL story reader to kids in the community, so she can continue to fulfill her need to give of herself to others:

“I think we’re here to give back — that’s a big part of our lives — and there’s so much need in this community. So I can’t just sit still and do nothing.”

Sharyn plans to start her retirement by giving back to the community in which she worked for 44 years.

We thank Sharyn Heili for her decades of service to Marathon County, and we wish her all the best in her retirement!



Library Staff

image credit: Image by Marathon County Public Library staff.