Decades of Experience: Retired Staff Reflect on Years of Service at the Library

Post Author
Alison Gowans
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A woman in a red shirt smiles under a library tent on a sunny day.
A man in a blue shirt stands between book shelves.

When Karla McMurrin retired from the Cedar Rapids Public Library, she took a lifetime of memories with her, as one of the few staff members who has worked at all three iterations of the Downtown Library – the Carnegie building, the 1985 building, and the current library built in 2013.

McMurrin started at the Carnegie building in 1980, when she was hired to drive the Friendsmobile, a book mobile run by
the Friends of the Cedar Rapids Public Library. She then worked in the children’s department for more than 30 years before moving into a public service role. Some current library staff remember her reading books to them during story times when they were children.

“There are a number of patrons I’ve known for years, and second generations of families. It kind of blows me away,” McMurrin said.

As the library wraps up its 125th Anniversary year, longtime employees like her who have recently retired are receiving a new honor at the library – their names on the plates of chairs in the Downtown Library’s Whipple Auditorium. Library Director Dara Schmidt announced the recognition earlier this year, to be given to employees who have worked in the current library buildings when they retire from the library after at least 30 years of service.

McMurrin said in more than four decades at the library, a lot has changed, but not the overall mission.

“One thing that’s stayed the same is the staff’s interest in helping the patrons succeed. It’s a great place to work, because everybody has the same goals of serving the community,” she said. “We are so much more than the mental picture people have of libraries. We offer assistance in all aspects of life.”

A woman in a red shirt reads a book in the library.

Doug Munson, who retired in 2021 after 33 years, agreed.

“I just liked it. I like helping people find materials,” he said. “It’s the people I worked with and the patrons I met that kept me there so long. I liked everybody I worked with.”

He held a number of jobs at the library, starting as a shelver before working in public service.

He worked in the media department for a time, cleaning VCRs and repairing video tapes.

“I was taught how to splice video tapes, which does me no good now,” he said with a laugh.

Jolene Whiting remembers starting at the library in 1985, which offered a new technology, computers, when it opened in its new building. She took a course at Kirkwood Community College titled, “We See a Computer in Your Future,” to prepare for her job duties.

“It’s been quite a journey, that’s for sure ... There’s so much to learn while you’re on the job,” she said. “I think we’ve come a long way since I started. We’re more connected to the community, and I think we should be very proud of that ... We’re always finding ways of offering something that’s innovative that will help the community grow in their learning.”

For her and all staff who were in Cedar Rapids in 2008, the flood that surged through the 1985 building remains one of the most memorable, and horrible, periods in library history. It destroyed not only the library, but homes of many staff and their family members. Munson recalled leaving the library early the day of the flood to help his mother evacuate before her home was inundated.

Whiting remembers the staff scrambling to still put on a summer reading program, even as they struggled to recover from the flood.

“We still wanted to do all the things we’d planned to do. It was kind of rough. It wasn’t very easy, but we got through the summer okay,” she said. “We just felt we needed to have something for people to do to take their minds off what had happened ... Our focus was on the community to offer as many things as we could to help out.”

Carol Farris, who started at the library in the late 1980s and retired in 2021 after a career as a shelver, remembered her horror at seeing the flood’s aftermath.

“The flood was so devastating. It’s hard to look at the pictures. It was horrible to see all the materials floating in the water,” she said. “But when they built the new building, that was exciting, too.”

She said, in whichever building she worked in, she always felt at home.

“Seeing all the new books, you feel like you’re getting a heads up on all the new things,” she said. “And you see all the books you’ve enjoyed over the years.”