Susan Brown came to the Derry Public Library and never left.
Brown, Head of Adult Services at the library, was recently named the 2014 recipient of the New Hampshire Library Association’s Ann Geisel Award of Merit. She’s a fixture at the reference desk, where, along with Sherry Bailey and Luke Thompson, she (to quote Garrison Keillor) “helps people find the answers to life’s persistent questions.”
Brown, who’s been with the Derry Public Library since August of 2001, didn’t start out as a librarian, although she was an avid reader and library page in Janesville, Wis. Her background is in Economics and International Relations, and she graduated with a double major from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
“I knew that was not my calling, but it was a ‘sensible major,'” she said as she took a break in the library’s New Hampshire Room.
She got a job as a research assistant at the Federal Reserve in Washington, D.C. Though she was good at the job she knew she had to have a PhD to go further with the Fed, and she knew that wasn’t where she wanted to place her graduate school time and money. She met her husband, an officer in the Coast Guard, while she was in D.C. and they embarked on the nomadic life of a military family, living in Stonington, Conn., Norfolk, Va., Alexandria, Va. and Portland, Maine. He also did a stint in California but the family stayed behind, settling in Londonderry.
When her husband retired after 26 years in the military and her youngest started high school, Brown, now a Londonderry resident, figured it was time to go back to school, and chose library science.
She went to graduate school at the University of Rhode Island and started working part time in reference at the Derry Public Library. “URI is a wonderful program, a lot of nuts-and-bolts, real-life, practical knowledge,” she said.
From part-time reference she moved on to a full-time job as department head, and she’s been there ever since.
“A couple of years ago Assistant Director was added to my title,” Brown said. It came in handy last year when the former director retired and Brown took on Acting Director in addition to her Adult Services job.
“I love the library and was happy to do it,” she said, adding that her co-workers helped her balance the two positions. But when Cara Barlow was hired, Brown happily returned to the reference desk. “I love my job,” she said.
Librarianship is an important profession and often under-valued, Brown observed. “The technology has changed, the principles remain the same,” she said.
That’s especially true in reference, where people of all levels of technical savvy are trying to navigate a sometimes too-brave new world. “All sorts of business and governmental services are online,” she observed. “They tell you, ‘It’s so easy!'” But it isn’t for people who have little computer access or training, she said.
Fifteen to 20 years ago, pundits warned about a “Digital Divide” between youth and older people. Brown has seen that come about, though it isn’t necessarily between junior and senior citizens, she said. Many seniors participate in the digital age, happily and competently.
It’s more of an economic divide, according to Brown, with lower-income people not always having access to computers. But they need to, with the government and businesses “pushing people online. That exacerbates their problems,” she said.
She and her staff are eager to help people get and stay online, she said, observing that the public libraries are really the only place in Derry where computers are free and public. Agencies have computers for their clients to use and many places offer WiFi, but “This is the only place you can get online for a chunk of time.” And public internet use is the fastest growing statistic for the library, she added.
Brown is still an avid reader, liking old-school mysteries such as Josephine Tey’s, newer mysteries set in older times such as Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, and cookbooks. She’s also fascinated by the immigrant experience, especially in her native area of the Midwest, noting, “In the Midwest, everyone’s grandparents came from somewhere else.”
And though she was asked to apply for the directorship and didn’t, she has no regrets. “This job,” she said, “is not a stepping-stone for me. I have zero interest in being a director. What I love is helping people find what they’re trying to find.”
The Ann Geisel Award of Merit is given to an individual, group or organization that has made significant contributions to the New Hampshire library community. It recognizes librarians, libraries and other individuals that have contributed to the New Hampshire Library Association (NHLA) or the New Hampshire library community, and is awarded annual in the fall meeting of the New Hampshire Library Association.