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Tough Enough to Run a Library?

Tough Enough

Dion Mindykowski is director of the Tahquamenon Area Library in Newberry, Michigan, located on the rugged, rural Upper Peninsula. Here, even the local librarian must be made of sterner stuff than the average book nerd.

Foreword first met Dion at the Michigan Library Association’s annual conference, where he gave a talk called “Taking a Sledgehammer to the Librarian Stereotype.” We were intrigued by his presentation, but also just by him—muscular, bushy-bearded, filled with tales of endurance races with names like Winter Death Race and Xtreme Muck Ruck. This tough-guy persona feeds into his work as a successful librarian, where he brings kids and his community together through the force of books.

We talked to Dion to see how he merges both worlds. And, yes, we decided it was best not to argue with any of his answers.

You don’t look like the librarian stereotype, obviously. But how do you make your physical superpowers work for your local library?

Well, first off, I don’t have superpowers. While what I do might seem extreme, it is definitely the kind of thing the human body was made to excel at. But, yes, my appearance and some of the races I’ve done tend to get me noticed. I have used that recognition to promote my library within the community. After word of my races got around, I became more approachable. It gave current and future library patrons something to talk to me about.

The stereotype of the mean, judging, shushing librarian is intimidating to a lot of people and makes it harder to enter those front doors, to approach the desk and ask a question, to become library users. It’s much easier for people to say “what crazy event do you have coming up next?” Then the ice is broken and library-related questions become easier.

Teen engagement is difficult to achieve. How do you get kids into the library and what programs did you convince them to participate in?

Until this past year, teen program attendance was dismal. Most of our teen programs involved library staff planning, promoting, setting up, and then sitting alone when no teens showed up. Yet, we kept trying. Finally, the programming caught on. Perseverance and stubbornness was the key, along with Dungeons and Dragons. That was the program that really started the momentum. I used to play when I was in my teens and planned a program, expecting the typical lack of attendance. Despite all of the electronic alternatives, teens actually showed up and asked for more programming. Dungeons and Dragons led to ongoing Geek Night and Geek Cinema programs. In 2015, total annual teen program attendance jumped from the previous average of 26 to 418.

You don’t seem like somebody who would enjoy sitting still. How do you strike a balance between being a man of letters and a man of action?

You’d be surprised how much the director of a small, rural library has to move around. My role and small staff require that I am hands-on with a lot of the day-to-day operations. Not to mention the physical transformations our small library has to make in order to host certain programs. I’m often seen lifting tables overhead in order to move them to a different part of the library. We had one program last year where we expected about 100 people, and 300 people showed up. As the crowds began to filter in, I had about thirty minutes to shove fully loaded shelves out of the way and bring in enough chairs.

Plus, books and action are not necessarily in conflict. In order to succeed at what I do, knowledge is definitely required. I work a job that allows me to put knowledge in the hands of anyone who needs it, so that they too can use that knowledge for action.

What are the primary needs of library patrons in a vast rural area like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula?

The service area of the Tahquamenon Area School Public Library spans 1,281 square miles in the Eastern Upper Peninsula. This is slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island. The nearest college is fifty-seven miles away. The nearest book store is a 134-mile round trip. The closest multi-screen movie theater is in another county. By most standards, we are isolated and remote, which makes institutions, such as our library, even more important to the communities that they serve.

Our patrons need access to books, music, and movies that they will not be able to get anywhere else nearby. Internet access is also a primary need. Many residents, from all economic backgrounds, have limited bandwidth that cannot handle video streaming, or even downloading essential software updates. Access to the library is very important

When you tell kids to shush in the library, do they shush?

I think part of casting off the librarian stereotype is avoiding the typical “shush,” but yes, I do think my appearance and reputation help to enforce the rules, including noise levels. However, I’d rather this happen out of respect, rather than intimidation. I think taking on such difficult challenges, along with my successes at the library, have helped to earn that respect.

For example, during our teen programing, rather than being the intimidating authoritarian figure coming out of my office to quiet things down, I’ve worked with the teens on systems that they can use to monitor their own noise levels. I print out Internet memes on yellow, orange, and red paper. If library staff has to quiet things down, one of these warnings is posted. The red is the final warning and after that, the program will be shut down. Typically, no more than yellow ends up posted and after that, it isn’t the librarians saying “shush,” it is the teens. A program has never been shut down, nor have the teens ever received the red warning.

How do you handle challenged books from patrons or parents? What’s the most unusual challenge or complaint you’ve received?

I have yet to have a book challenged during my time as director. This is actually a bit surprising, as we are a school-public library, and our collection offers content that wouldn’t typically be found in regular school libraries.

My most unusual complaint was about the book Fifty Shades of Grey. Since the time the book was added to the collection, I had anticipated complaints. It didn’t quite go as I expected, however. A patron complained about the book not being on the shelf. She accused me of censoring material. My staff assured her that not only did we own the book, I was the one who purchased it, and the reason it wasn’t on the shelf was because it had been checked out nonstop since it arrived.

How do you incorporate lessons you learn from endurance races into your life as a librarian?

Endurance racing has taught me how to complete tasks in a high stress, uncomfortable environment. If things don’t go as planned at the library, I am able to come up with solutions calmly and quickly. I can always remind myself, no matter how hard the task is, it isn’t moving a boulder up a mountain, or sewing your own clothes from faux buckskin at 2 a.m. when you’ve never even threaded a needle before.

The experience with functioning on sleep deprivation has also helped. A lot of these events will go thirty-six hours or more. After experiencing that, it’s not that big of a deal to put in a long day or two at work. Most weeks I’ll work at least a couple of twelve- or thirteen-hour shifts. One time, I had a lot of deadlines to meet all at once and I went into work at noon on Wednesday and left at 8 p.m. on Thursday. I even managed two breaks in the middle to go to the gym.

Do your local community leaders understand the importance of libraries even in the age of Google?

Yes, they do. We have been very lucky. In 2010, the Tahquamenon Area Schools could no longer afford to support the library, so a group of area residents worked to get a millage on the ballot. The millage passed and was renewed again in 2014. As a result, we not only avoided shutting down, but we have also been able to provide more books, more programs, and more computers with internet access than ever before. This wouldn’t have been possible without the support of the community leaders and voters.

What books are currently on your nightstand (or in your e-reader?)

Definitely nightstand; I prefer the real, tangible page. 100 Deadly Skills: The SEAL Operative’s Guide to Eluding Pursuers, Evading Capture, and Surviving Any Dangerous Situation, by Clive Emerson, The 4-Hour Chef, by Tim Ferriss, and Mothers, Tell Your Daughters, by Bonnie Jo Campbell.

What’s more painful: running a local library or running an obstacle course laden with dumpsters full of ice water, twelve-foot walls, and electroshock?

At the 2013 Michigan Tough Mudder, there was an obstacle called the Electric Eel, which involved crawling on your stomach with live wires dangling above you. I was in the first heat of the weekend and the batteries were freshly charged. That was the only time I experienced true pain at any of the events that I have done. I would slide forward a few inches and be shocked so intensely that it was almost difficult to slide forward to the next place I’d be shocked. I ran the same course the next day, and crawling back into those wires definitely took willpower. When I did, the batteries were not nearly as potent and the shocks were much tamer. That mental challenge stands out more than the pain itself. I think working in a library is similar. Stresses are only temporary, and what really matters is how you overcome them. The next time you deal with those same stresses, they will be less painful.

Howard Lovy

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