Written By Patricia Rouzer
When you think of librarians, what words come to mind? Staid? Reserved, perhaps? More at ease among stacks of books than groups of people?
Meet K. Lynn Wheeler, Carroll County’s chief librarian, who heads a $7 million-plus information operation. And delete any visions of mousy, mirthless bookmeisters you may have ever known.
There is no bun on the back of this librarian’s head; no conservative (read dowdy) dress and shoes here. Dressed in a smartly tailored pants suit, her silver hair cropped short in a stylish do, she would fit perfectly in an executive suite or board room in any Fortune 500 company.
Funny, vivacious and quick of mind, Wheeler, who has headed the county system for about two and a half years, is a dynamo who is delighted to talk technology, library layouts, circulation statistics and the joy of reading with anyone who will listen.
She is a true information advocate and promoter of the public library system. Her love of all things library includes not just the books and the bricks and mortar that make up the county library system, but a great and obvious affection for the people, young and old, who use this robust system.
The day is President’s day, a legal holiday. But Wheeler had just come from one meeting and was headed to a charity auction. The next day, she would be in Annapolis, lobbying legislators for more support for the county’s system.
Clearly there is little rest for this civil servant who appears anything but weary. She is the serious custodian of a popular library system that, despite its roots in a conservative, once highly agrarian community, has always enjoyed broad pubic and governmental support. And Carroll’s library system, although small by statewide standards, has consistently been more innovative and forward thinking than the massive systems in more urban areas that surround it, she said.
Over a green luncheon salad at Harry’s on Westminster’s Main Street, Wheeler talked about how life led her from a long career in Baltimore County to head Carroll’s system. Although she was happy to recount the story of her career, it was clear that her mind is clearly focused on the future of the organization she heads, not on her professional past.
Growing up, the Timonium native “loved to read.” But a love of reading doesn’t necessarily a librarian make. In Wheeler’s case, it seems that life led her down that path and she happily followed.
As an undergraduate at the University of Great Falls in Montana, Wheeler got a job in the university’s library. “I put the newspapers out on sticks, I kept the card catalog in orderÉand when I’d done everything I was supposed to do, I read,” she recalled.
Returning home, she married and began to look for a library-related job, finding one with a consulting group. But she yearned to be back in a library. She learned that the Cockeysville branch of the Baltimore County Library had an opening. “I couldn’t believe my luck,” she said.
Happy working in the front lines of the public library system, Wheeler was thriving. She gave up her cherished position to move back to Montana with her then husband. Alas, neither the relocation nor the marriage lasted.
And when Wheeler returned to Maryland for good, the Baltimore County system had no openings in its branches. She went to work in the library system’s personnel office and returned to school, earning a degree in library science from the University of Maryland.
She worked her way up through the administrative ranks in the county’s system, eventually becoming Assistant Library Director, a position she held from 1986 to 2000. Through her work, she came to know the Carroll county system well.
“Carroll didn’t have the resources we had, but the system was always very innovative,” she said, adding that Carroll developed an agreement to buy its books through the Baltimore county system, taking advantage of their much larger buying power and administrative resources. “They would tell us what books and how many copies they wanted,” she explained. “Buying through us cut down on their administrative costs.”
In 2000 she left the library system to join another library consulting group, spending the next two years traveling across the country–from Fargo, North Dakota (“I loved it there,” she said.) to Riverside, California to Jersey City, New Jersey. These long-term assignments were engaging. But Wheeler had remarried and with each new assignment it became harder to leave home and husband.
So she joined the Baltimore County School system as a grants writer. It was a real homecoming for Wheeler, whose father, Josh Wheeler, had retired as the system’s superintendent years before. Wheeler still recalls her father’s joy when his daughter joined the school system.
After two years with the Board of Education, she went to work for the Library School at the University of Maryland. Two and a half years ago, when Carroll County sought a director for the county system, Wheeler applied and got the job. The 58-year-old Wheeler and her husband, Jerry, a retired insurance investigator, moved to Finksburg after she became director.
The Westminster library was established in 1863; in 1949 a private endowment established the Davis Library and in 1958 the County Commissioners established a county public library system.
In 1980 the main library abandoned its quarters in a tiny building, formerly a Methodist Church on Main Street in Westminster, for its current home just east of the intersection of Route 27 and Main Street. Taneytown, Mt. Airy, Eldersburg and North Carroll, which once had makeshift facilities, now have their own branches built for library use. A branch in the rapidly-growing Finksburg area is now in the works; plans call for groundbreaking this spring, with occupancy scheduled for the fall of 2008. And a new bookmobile is now being outfitted and will be on the road later this year.
Although Lynn Wheeler is not yesterday’s librarian, Carroll county’s library system has its feet firmly planted in the past. Like a patron past his prime, the facilities need a facelift and some relief from sagging bookshelves. “Most of our facilities are older — the Westminster building, for example, is more than 20 years old,” said Wheeler. “A lot has changed since many of our buildings were built.”
Much of what has changed is the technology. Today’s library has evolved into a computer-driven resource center where patrons not only come for books, magazines and papers, but free access to the internet.
Under Wheeler’s stewardship the system is on track to to meet the demands of the electronic information age. Last year, the state legislature approved a capital grants program that will support construction and improvement of local libraries. Wheeler has already applied for a grant to help modernize the Westminster branch.
So with all the stress on technology, is the book doomed to go the way of the dinosaur? “Definitely not,” said Wheeler. “When television came along, people predicted that was the end of radio. Today radio is bigger than ever.”
“I think that regardless of the growth and acceptance of technology, people will always want to hold books in their hands,” she said. “I believe that in our lifetimes, people will still want to read books.”