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Our final Women’s History Month blog post is about the current director of the Kenosha Public Library, Barb Brattin, who has been Library Director of KPL since 2014. Barb sat down with Simmons Library team member, Phillip Kuszel, and graciously answered questions about her life, her career, and her favorite place in Kenosha (hint: It’s Lake Michigan).
Barb Brattin’s journey into librarianship wasn’t as straight of a shot as one would expect. Raised in Ohio, she would frequent her hometown public library as a child and lose herself in the stacks as she dove right into reading whatever caught her eye. However, she planned to become a physician with her sister and enjoyed learning science in college. Barb’s life changed after taking a required history course for her program where she “fell madly in love” with history and how “the stories made sense of the world and how things fit together”, but she still wasn’t quite sure what she could do with the degree as far as a career. Luckily, a capstone project which had her working with archival materials in a muggy basement reaffirmed her choice as she felt she was in heaven while working there. As a result of discovering her true passion, and coming from a family which expected her to further her education, Barb decided to pursue a Masters degree in Library and Information Science. She attended Kent State University, earned her degree within a year, and has “never looked back.”
What was your first library job?
Barb: Right out of library school I got a job just north of Cincinnati and it was a reference librarian position at the Lane Public Library. It was a county library and that was in the days before the Internet. So, I hit the ground running… the phone just rang off the hook. We were the county law library, as well as the county library, so we really needed to answer everything out of the book… That was the best possible training ground I can think of for any reference librarian. You just needed to know where to find the answer to everything.
Looking back, is there any advice you’d give yourself as a first-year librarian?
Barb: The Reference Interview, which we talk about a lot in the professional library world, is super important. How to “dance” with the customer, people that don’t know what they are really looking for. Get very good at that… have the skills to engage in conversation to figure out, “What do they really want to know?” Sometimes that can be very different than their first question… Now you can do keyword searches, but when I first started there was no such thing as a keyword. You had to listen and you had to educate yourself. I would read up on world events so I would know how to spell world leaders’ last names. You had to have the spelling correct or you wouldn’t find it in the index. In those days, the publisher would vet the information so if it was printed, the source was checked. The struggle now is, is the quick answer you found online authoritative?
Was there ever a time that your work made you feel hopeful?
Barb: Oh sure, there are many times. One I’ll never forget. In Illinois working in the Chicago suburbs, a young woman came in with her friend. The woman was obviously pretty shaken and she wasn’t going to ask any questions… but her friend spoke for her and said that she had heard on the world wide web that you could see a list of who was a sex offender. She [the friend] didn’t tell me much more than that but we went to the county website where there was a list of who had been convicted, where they lived, and their pictures. The young woman just broke down and cried. She had suspected that her boyfriend was molesting her children and there was proof right on the screen. I’ll never forget that, thinking that she would never have known whether that was true or not without that power of information and how that clearly changed her life. She wouldn’t be able to figure that out without our guidance. We don’t create the information, but we can get you to what you need to know and that’s so, so powerful.
Who’s the most influential person in your life?
Barb: I never have to think twice about this question. My parents were German immigrants and they came to the United States after World War II to live here, so I wasn’t exposed to my Grandparents until I was 8. That was the first time I met my Grandfather. We traveled to Germany and we spent the entire summer there and that was the most impactful period of my life. There was a language barrier, so to prepare he sat in the first grade classes and learned some English… I don’t know if you’ve ever met people like this in your life, I have, clearly, with foreign relatives, but it’s like there is no language barrier. You understand each other perfectly from the very beginning. It’s a feeling between you that you “get” each other. He was an extraordinarily strong man and obviously he survived two World Wars on his own land and had to reinvent himself after each one because everything was destroyed. So, whenever I face my great challenges, which you can’t compare to his great challenges, I just picture those steel blue eyes and I remember where I come from. He’s always been a great strength in my life.
What would you like your legacy to be as Director of Kenosha Public Library?
Barb: The legacy that I would want is that I left people confident. This library has always been full of potential, but there was a lack of confidence when I walked in seven years ago. I hope that my legacy is that I wasn’t afraid to dream of big things for Kenosha Public Library and that will stay long after I’m gone. Winning the Wisconsin Library of the Year Award is big and we are a Finalist for the National Medal for Museum and Library Service medal and that is something you work for all of your life. That is like winning the gold medal at the Olympics… I want to walk away when I retire and have people believe that they are that quality and that they always can be and that they are just fantastic at what they do.