Soldotna librarian breathes fresh air into old myths

Reading something into it

Posted: Sunday, April 07, 2002


This is an admonition rarely heard at the Joyce K. Carver Soldotna Library. And only on the most extreme occasions from head librarian Dorothy Bishop. She is possibly one of the liveliest personalities working at the library, and has been for nearly 25 years.

This Friday, however, Dorothy will celebrate the close of a career that has spanned more than three decades. For almost a quarter of a century of that time, she has poured her efforts into making the Soldotna library a community learning center, making the work environment a family atmosphere and making library patrons feel at home.

"She's a real asset to the community," said Marjorie Torgerson, a five-year member of the the library board. "I'm going to miss her. She's always so cheerful. Her voice smiles."

Dorothy said smiles are what she tries to share with those who visit the library, and this is why she encourages a relaxed atmosphere there as opposed to conventional demands for silence. And she laughs at the idea of the stereotypical librarian typically pictured as requiring quiet and seriousness.

"I'm not one of those," she joked. "I don't have a bun in the back of my hair, and I don't ever 'shhhh' people. I'm noisy, and I laugh loud and talk a lot."

Terri Burdick, Dorothy's assistant librarian of 18 1/2 years, concurred with this assessment of the librarian.

"She's got a great sense of humor, and she's not afraid of laughing out loud and being heard," she said.

Torgerson said this attitude is reflected throughout the library.

"When I come in here for story hour, they actually don't make the kids be quiet," she said. "If you listen to the people who work here, you can tell how Dorothy is. They're always cheerful."

Dorothy said she has good cause for her philosophy, but said there are limits.

"If somebody is studying and people are really getting out of hand, then we'll ask them to keep it down some," she said. "But if you're talking quietly, we don't bother you. We want kids to come in and feel comfortable, like they can enjoy themselves."

An afternoon visit to the library confirmed this attitude as Dorothy's oldest daughter, Kathy Bishop, sat with her -- as she said she's done many afternoons for 25 years -- and further dispelled the standard associated with the profession.

"She hates that," said Kathy of her mother's regards toward noise-free libraries.

"People should always be able to come in there where their tax dollars are paying for it and be happy to be there. She wants to make a cheerful, comfortable atmosphere. It's the one free thing in a town, so it should always be a welcome place."

Kathy's younger sister, Christine Crouse, echoed this sentiment.

"She was never into strict 'librarianism,'" Christine said. "She was never one for quiet. She's always been able to pull kids into reading, and she's always been able to make it fun."

Dorothy said she enjoys reading and working around books but said she most enjoys visiting with the people who come to the library.

"People are the most important part of the library," she said.

She said she developed this belief from the library she grew up around in eastern Oregon.

"The lady who was the librarian there was a really sweet person," she said. "She made me feel at home, and I always hearken back to that."

That library was in Lakeview, Ore., where Dorothy was born on Oct. 10, 1931, as Dorothy Paxton. She said she developed her love of reading in that library and began her career early, spending time there and eventually volunteering. When she was a child, Dorothy said she would read everything she could get her hands on.

"I would read the labels on jars when I didn't have books," she laughed. "When I was a kid, we went to the library all the time."

But she said she never intended to have a career in the library.

She went to college at the fledgling Oregon Institute of Technology in Clam Falls, Ore., with the plans to begin work in business administration.

That's where she met her husband, Alan Bishop.

"I knew I loved her when I met her," Alan said. "But it took me a year to get her."

In the spring of 1951, Dorothy enjoyed two momentous occasions, being part of the first graduating class from OIT, then marrying Alan June 9. Following that, Alan took a short-lived job with a logging company in Reddington, Calif., where they had the first two of their four children -- Ward and Kathy -- before moving back to Oregon.

Dorothy began working at the library near their home in Central Point, Ore., some time after Christine, the youngest, was born.

"My mother stayed home until Chris was 9," Kathy said. "When she felt that Chris was old enough to tolerate her not being there, she started working."

Initially, Dorothy said she spent time at the Central Point library reading, and eventually began volunteering there. Her career, she said, began serendipitously.

"I was asked by the librarian's husband to watch the library one evening so he could take his wife out," she said.

Dorothy agreed. The next week she was hired as the assistant librarian and worked for 11 years.

"I guess they liked me," she said.

In April of 1976, Alan and Dorothy moved to Soldotna when Alan took a job driving wreckers on the Alaska pipeline.

After living in Soldotna for a year, Alan's brother told Dorothy about an opening at the library. She applied and got the position as librarian, not realizing she would become a mainstay in the community.

"It worked for a little while," she laughed.

But the task Dorothy inherited when she took on the library was no laughing matter. At that time, the library was housed in the basement of what is now the law offices of Robinson and Beiswenger on the Kenai Spur Highway. Her initial goal for the library, she said, was "just to clean it up."

She said materials there were in poor condition, and it was lacking a lot of the things she felt every library should have.

"The books were in terrible shape. We didn't have any kids using the library because we didn't have much in the way of reference materials."

And Dorothy was working alone.

"When I first came here, I was the only employee. I had to put in a lot of hours, but the library had to be upgraded. There was a lot of buying to do to catch up."

She said there was good deal of purchasing done and she had minimal help from volunteers. She said it took three years to get to a satisfactory level and she credited City Finance Officer Joel Wilkins, City Clerk Pat Burdick -- Terri's mother-in-law -- and former City Manager Barbara Erickson for helping her.

"If it weren't for them, I wouldn't have made it. They were a great support."

Pat Burdick said the task grew as Dorothy began to work through moving to a bigger space in the current library.

"She had a big job to make it what it is today," Pat Burdick said. "And she worked through the expansion."

Dorothy did have help, however. A good portion of her volunteer corps was her family, who had settled in Soldotna and nearby Sterling. When she began working at the Central Point library, she already had begun, unconsciously, to make the library and reading a family institution. Her children were used to life revolving around their mother's workplace, so helping out in one way or another was nothing new.

"We grew up in libraries," Christine said.

John Bishop, her youngest son, said although the boys' regimen was a bit different from their sisters, when they were younger, they still always found themselves at the library.

"I went into the library to visit my mom when I wanted something or when I was bored," he said. "My brother and I were always doing something else (instead of volunteering)."


Bishop tidies the paperback book collection. She has been at the Soldotna library for nearly 25 years.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

Kathy, a substitute teacher for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District at the time, was the first to start helping, continuing a ritual that stretched from when they lived in Central Point.

"I ended up at the library every day after school," she said.

Dorothy said her family began to pitch in as they migrated to the Soldotna area.

"My other daughter moved up and I drafted her," she said. "Then my two sons moved up and I drafted my two daughters-in-law."

Christine said her husband, Mark, also was enlisted.

"She was always having us help move furniture," Christine said. "My husband always bore the brunt of the handiwork. It was a family job.

"She's always been one that, if she wanted to do something, she'd figure out how to get it done."

That included filling the library's first staff position since she was hired.

Dorothy had been the only library employee for seven years when the library was moved to its current location. Fortune again stepped in, along with a little persuasion on her part. Terri Burdick, then one of her volunteers, became her first official staff member.

"I had to go to a conference in Sitka," Dorothy said, "and Terri said she'd sit in. When I returned, she'd done so well, I begged (city officials) to let her stay."

And Dorothy extended her maternal warmth to Terri and to subsequent library staffers Kitty Galley and Kathlyne McLeod.

"Just as mom kept with us, she tried to keep a cohesive, family atmosphere," Kathy said of Dorothy's adopting her staff.

"I look at them as my children," Dorothy said.

Little did she know, but she would need this extended family as tough times rolled around. In the fall of 1987, Alan had a stroke, and as a result, lost much of his ability to communicate.

For the former city council member and book lover, the irony was not lost on his family that he no longer had full use of his ability to read or talk.

"If you could have picked the worse thing to happen to my dad, that was it," Kathy said. "He was a phenomenal storyteller."

Dorothy's children began helping communicate for their father, reading for him and being his voice when he needed it.

"We try to pick up the slack when she gets busy doing stuff," John said. "Most of us kind of interpret for him. I think we may have taken pressure off of her."

"It was hard for him," Christine added. "He was an avid reader before the stroke. At some time or another, if you come in the door, dad's going to grab a book and you're going to have to read."

Christine said there was even a point where he wasn't expected to live, but he pulled through.

"It was fairly traumatic for the whole family," she said. "The specialist gave him two or three months to live. That was about 10 years ago."

Burdick said Dorothy was able to weather the storm with poise, however.

"It was really difficult," she said. "But her demeanor didn't change."

About this time, Dorothy had been petitioning for a additions to the library building to house a rapidly growing collection. Her ambition reached fruition, when the result of a bond ballot led to the opening of an expansion in June 1990.

"I did a lot of campaigning," she said. "I didn't think it had a prayer."

Since that time, there have been more changes. Internet work stations have been set up. In the past six weeks, a new electronic card catalog has been installed.

But Dorothy acknowledges some concern about technology taking over books.

"I like computers. I think they're handy in a lot of ways. But I think they are tools that should be used with books. Because if somebody pulls that plug, you better know how to read."

Her family said her love of reading and her desire to see children grasp this enthusiasm is a legacy she has given them and one she will leave to the library.

"Being around Mom, we learned to love reading by osmosis," Kathy said. "All of us loved to read. And our parents encouraged education. They feel you have a responsibility to the world to be intelligent -- to do right."

John said Dorothy gave him advice of a similar framing.

"She always told me I could do my best learning from sitting down reading a book."

Christine said her mother's lessons have translated to a new generation in her family.

"I have three children who all love to read. I have my mom to thank for our children's love of reading."

Burdick said the lesson and the idea of service in the library has gone beyond bloodlines, as her daughter, Sara Hondel, has grown up in the library and now frequently volunteers during the summer reading program.

"She was like 'grandma' to Sara," Terri said of Dorothy.

Kitty said one of Dorothy's assets is knowing so many library patrons, and she said it has helped her keep the cordial atmosphere.

"She's been here for so long," Galley said. "She's seen kids go from the reading program to adults. It takes a lot of time to build up that kind of rapport."

As the city seeks a replacement, there are a few qualifications it has. Because of the size of the service area, the new librarian must have a degree in library science.

But Dorothy said she has her own ideas about what her successor should bring to the table.

"I hope he or she is a people person," she said. "Obviously, (he or she) has to like books and has to know the people to know what books to order. He or she also will have to work with the staff and know that they're just as important as the director.

"But it starts with people, and I think it comes full circle," she said.

Dorothy's family said they know she will miss being at the library. But they said she's ready for and deserves the rest.

"She really gives 200 percent to that place," Kathy said.

John said Dorothy will focus on some much needed down time.

"When she's retired, she told me she's going to relax."

Christine said she expects her mother to spend time with family.

"I think she'll miss it to some degree," Christine said. "Maybe not for month or two. She's tired. After a few months she'll miss it. She's going to miss the people. She's going to miss the books."

And what about Dorothy? As she retires just six months short of her 25th anniversary, what are her feelings?

"If I weren't such a slacker, I'd finish out in September," she joked.

Then she turned serious.

"I'm pretty proud. I don't take credit for all of it. I thank my staff. I'm going to miss seeing kids come in for story hour and grow up."

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