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Published April 02 2012

Moorhead’s new generation breaking librarian stereotype

MOORHEAD - Sitting amid the long, narrow book stacks of the public library, Nicole Thistlewood, with her hair recently dyed a bright shade of pink, looks a little out of place.

Thistlewood has been a library assistant in Moorhead for three years now, although her newly-acquired hair color might not suggest the calm environment of a community library, or the stereotypical appearance of a librarian.

But she’s one of a handful of 20-somethings working at the library who are anything but the typical gray-haired, bespectacled, patron-shushing librarians – although, admittedly, several of them have the type of dark-framed glasses that might suggest such a future of shushing.

Thistlewood recognizes that she, too, probably had that same misconception of the position before she applied for her job, recalling the older librarians that she’d interact with as a younger library patron.

Even if it was once true, that assumption is changing.

At libraries across the nation a new generation of hip, young, college-educated young adults like Thistlewood are replacing the ranks of older librarians nearing retirement, bringing with them a fresh understanding of technology into an industry that’s adapting to our digital age.

This young generation is making an impression, even if some of them might not have had had any intention of going into a career that’s sometimes perceived as dull or boring.

Take Kaia Sievert, from New Ulm, Minn., who has been working at Moorhead’s library for nearly a year. Wearing her own dark-framed glasses, Sievert majored in global studies and Spanish at Concordia, perhaps not what you’d expect of a librarian.

But after graduating college, Sievert says she wanted non-profit experience, and nabbed an internship with the Friends of the Hennepin County Library. After that, she was hooked on libraries.

For Alicia Adams, a Glyndon native and 2011 Concordia graduate, the attraction to libraries was more clear.

“In college, I realized I loved research, I loved learning new things,” says Adams, one of the few non-bespectacled members of the group. “Finding out new information was something I enjoyed, so I thought, library, duh, this makes sense.”

That draw, says Janelle Brandon, the library’s marketing director, isn’t actually all that uncommon.

“I just feel like there is a trend toward preservation of information, that it’s almost sort of cool and trendy to do that,” Brandon says. “I think that is the ultimate draw for the younger generation of librarians.”

More than that, though, Brandon believes that the changing way that libraries interact with technology is going to be a huge factor of drawing in more young librarians with desirable technical skills.

“With the eBook revolution, we’re going to see more of that,” she says.

Indeed, that trend seems to be common to the rest of the nation, where bigger libraries in larger cities might start to see a more significant shift in staff demographics, says John Berry III, a former editor-in-chief of Library Journal magazine.

Libraries, Berry says, are in a transformational phase right now thanks to that shift in technology use.

“What we have is an incredible need for people who are digital natives,” Berry says. “Libraries are very happy to welcome the new blood into their ranks.”

That’s certainly the case in Moorhead, where Sievert and Adams agree that technology, especially eBooks and eReaders, has become a large part of their job.

To be technical, though, the three women and others in the group aren’t officially librarians. Yet.

To achieve that title, they’ll have to earn a master’s degree in library and information science, which they’re currently looking into or applying for.

But until then, these young people are bringing a youthful enthusiasm connecting visitors to the library with books or information.

For example, in helping to answer patrons’ questions on a daily basis, Thistelwood says, “you learn the most ridiculous things.”

Last week, when a student came in wanting to learn about hippopotamuses, a little searching uncovered that President Calvin Coolidge actually once owned one of the animals.

And after they pick up such random information during the course of their work, these library workers, who have bonded beyond the library, put it to use Monday nights during trivia contests at Rhombus Guys in Fargo.

With a team of six, the group of aspiring librarians often places in the top three spots of these trivia challenges, proving that today’s breed of librarians knows a little bit more than just the Dewey Decimal System or classic literature.

But, in the end, it comes back to the books. Every once in a while, some of the group might be found sitting in a Rhombus Guys booth before trivia starts, reading an eBook on their own eReader.

Because, in the end, what’s a librarian if not someone who loves their literature?

That’s certainly how it is for Thistlewood, who jokes that she has 40-some books checked out from the library right now.

And though they might not all have the same tastes in literature, the group has certainly come to know what kind of books they do or do not enjoy.

“We tend to recommend books for each other and request them for each other,” Adams says. “We’ve become a close-knit group.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sam Benshoof at (701) 241-5535