A love for libraries: Bemidji Public Library manager brings enthusiasm to work every day
Before you ask: Yes, there are plenty of books in Paul Ericsson’s office.
As befits a branch manager at a public library, Ericsson’s modest office in the back of the Bemidji Public Library isn’t cluttered but is cozy with reference books and stray binders, papers and journals.
If only he had more time to spend in it. Not that Ericsson would have it any other way.
“Sometimes, we’re so busy here that what happens is we don’t get any time in our offices and our desks to do the planning and preparation work we want to do,” he said.
That’s not a complaint.
As branch manager, Ericsson spends most of his time out front directly interacting with library patrons and staff.
The librarian stereotype — a guy down in the basement stacks, quietly reading but occasionally looking up and giving children a steely glance for talking too loud — doesn’t apply here.
Instead, he’s usually stationed at a reference computer, quick to swoop in and help someone who doesn’t know quite what they’re looking for. Or perhaps someone who knows what they’re looking for but doesn’t know where to find it.
“We pride ourselves here on having a high standard of customer service and being responsive to the public,” Ericsson said. “One of the most rewarding parts of this job is providing people with informational content when they have a challenge in their life.
“That could be something as benign as building a deck to researching a personal medical challenge that they’re having.”
Such dedication to making sure patrons get the help they need is appreciated by Ericsson’s employees.
“He always comes into work smiling,” said library assistant Cyndi Fenske. “He’s always trying to make himself available to everybody, staff and patrons.
“And he’s always here. I can’t even imagine how he has time to do everything he does.”
Not all about the books
Ericsson, 58, has been the branch manager in Bemidji for six years.
He’s seen the technologies evolve exponentially since 1969, when he started shelving books as a high schooler in Samford, Conn.
“For all libraries, but especially here, one of the biggest challenges is keeping up with the rapidly changing technologies,” he said. “Often it’s hard to tell what technology is going to look like in a year or 18 months… we have to plan ahead and be prudent in how we spend our funding.”
Much of Ericsson’s job revolves around technologies — learning how to use them so he can teach others.
He uses the library’s growing collection of e-books as a prime example. Often he finds himself helping people use the new e-readers.
“People come in looking for support or help all the time,” he said. “My goal is getting people hooked up with reading, whether it’s an e-book or a book club. It doesn’t matter how, those are very secondary questions. The important thing is people are reading for the joy of reading.”
The technologies might not have been there in the late ’60s when Ericsson got his start, but the job was the same.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up,” he said. “But I worked for some people when I was a teenager who were some great mentors. … We went on to become librarians because they understood their role as helpers. They really helped us identify this as a career and something that was very rewarding to do.”
After high school, he attended West Virginia Weslyan University before getting his master’s degree in library science from Rutgers University in 1980.
From there he worked for more than 20 years in numerous libraries on the East Coast before coming to Bemidji in 2007.
His wife, Debra, is from Minnesota, which was part of the draw. But he also saw a unique opportunity in Bemidji. He gets the chance to be intimately involved in planning library events, including story time for young children, moderating book discussions and organizing school tours.
“In our area, literacy is very important,” he said. “Statistics and studies show that we’re challenged in literacy rates compared to the rest of that state. We provide a very concentrated and intentional focus on early literacy knowing that libraries are unique. There’s no other agency like us that has such wide open doors to families and people of all ages.”
The annual Bemidji Library Book Festival, he said, is the manifestation of that attempt to bring literacy to the community.
The festival often brings in authors to discuss their work. This year, one of Ericsson’s favorites, mystery author William Kent Krueger, will attend and speak about his work.
“I like his writing style,” Ericsson said. “To hear authors talk about what went into the writing of the book, what things are going on in their own lives that now come out in the book as themes and struggles of the characters has been very rewarding. That’s the best thing about organizing these events for me.”
Ericsson’s enthusiasm for the library is obvious, but especially when he gets a chance to show and tell.
“The other day, we had some school groups come in for a tour and you could just tell he loved showing them around and teaching them about the library,” Fenske said.
Mandie Krueger, another library assistant, said she enjoys how Ericsson’s enthusiasm rubs off on her fellow employees.
“He’s a fun guy to work for and he’s very laid-back,” she said. “He lets us work on our own projects and lets us go our own way with choosing books and things for the collection.”
Ericsson is quick to deflect praise to his small staff. He has four full-time employees, five part-timers and a slew of volunteers that give their time.
Sometimes, he said, it’s still not enough for them to do everything that want to do.
“People come to work because they love working at libraries,” Ericsson said. “They love their job, they love the work that libraries do for people. To be a manager of a group of people like this has been the most rewarding.”