Library leader stepping down after booking 30 years

By Jen Butson

Now in its centennial year, Dorothy Alling Library offers more gee-whiz technology and shelves more old-fashioned books than ever. Rickie Emerson has had a lot to do with the Williston library’s evolution.

Emerson, the library’s director, recently announced that she would step down this summer after 30 years on the job. During that time, the library has been restructured and renovated from A to Z.

She notes with satisfaction that the collection has grown from its original 225 books in 1905 to a circulation just shy of 102,000 today.

“It is time for a new generation to come into the library,” she says. “It’s always good to have new blood.”

Though books are what first comes to mind when libraries are mentioned, Emerson has also helped ensure the public’s information technology needs are served. In recent years, the library has become fully automated, with 22 computers nestled in sunny nooks sprinkled throughout the facility.

The computers can be used to access the 20 databases the library subscribes to. And for those who bring their own laptop, the area outside the library — including a patio garden — offers free wireless Internet access.

“It’s part of our mission to get people and information together freely,” Emerson says. “In a democracy, you need an informed citizenry.”

Emerson credits the town’s citizens for the library’s top-notch offerings. She said that 93 percent of the library’s $311,000 operating budget comes from Williston tax dollars — $34 from every man, woman and child in town.

“We have a highly informed and educated town; over 57 percent of Williston’s residents have a bachelor’s degree or better,” Emerson says. “Residents want the best for their children and fortunately, they put their money where their mouth is.”

The library building has taken on an entirely new look over the years — with two major expansions that more than doubled the library’s original one-room space.

In 1986, the first expansion brought more room for the steadily growing collection and 1988 brought on the children’s wing, with wall-to-wall rows, stacks of picture books and a circular mural of Five Tree Hill overhead. An average of 30 children each day make this their after-school hangout.

“Some kids come every single day and stay until 8 p.m.,” Emerson says. Many come for the intergenerational programs, while others come to surf the Internet or meet friends.

For example, Chelsea Perron, 12, has made the children’s wing a second home for the last year.

“After school, it’s nice to have somewhere to go,” she says. “Otherwise, I’d be bored at home.”

Perron also enjoys helping others at the library. Nearly every Thursday, she participates in a program that pairs older students with younger readers. “I like to read to the little kids,” she says.

The library facilitates 38 adult programs and 224 youth programs yearly. “We serve people from the cradle to the grave,” Emerson says. “We think of this place as a community living room.”

Connor Eyssen, 12, also stops by every day. He said he doesn’t come for the books, but rather, for everything else the library offers. “I come here to meet my friends, e-mail and play computer games,” he says.

Debbie Roderer, assistant director of the library, has worked alongside Emerson for 18 years. She says the staff of 12 has tackled two major increases — the booming population and the growing use of technology.

“As the town has grown, so has the use of the library,” Roderer says. “Fortunately, Rickie has had the vision and I have implemented the details, so we compliment each other.”

Roderer suggests that Williston’s ever-increasing use of the library may eventually require yet another building expansion. In 2004, the library saw an increase of more than 10 percent in traffic — 46,881 patrons coming through the doors, and nearly 8,000 of them using the Internet.

“We may someday need more space and will want to incorporate new technology as it becomes available and cost effective,” she says. “We will maintain the level of public service that we currently offer, that’s our primary objective.”

Emerson’s official retirement date is June 30, but she says she intends to help with the transition to a new director. She plans to work through the summer on a part-time basis until the library’s Board of Trustees hires a new director, which is scheduled to take place in September.

Emerson sums up her work experience with an emphasis on education and a plan.

“I spent my first 30 years, growing and learning, and in the second third of my life, I’ve been helping people grow,” she says. “Now I’m in my final third, and I am going to spend time for myself, learning again.”