Marshfield, WI (OnFocus) Over four decades, Lori Belongia, Director of Everett Roehl Marshfield Public Library, has witnessed a dramatic transformation of a field that, originally, she never intended to get into.
Belongia first stepped into a library role in the 1970s at Brown County Library in Green Bay as a high school student working six days a week. In the days before computers, her job was to organize and sort boxes of Library of Congress cards used in copy cataloging.
“Because of the tedious nature of that work I thought, libraries aren’t for me,” she said. “It wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life.”
She was later tasked with returning fiction and newspapers to the shelves before being transferred to a different department due to a budgeting issue, where she learned to repair and shelve films. During this time Belongia attended UW-Green Bay for a bachelor’s degree in Human Growth and Development and to complete the social services professional program.
Upon graduation in 1978, employment prospects were dim.
“That was when social services agencies were being downsized all over the place,” Belongia said. “It wasn’t a good time to be in the field.”
She worked as an intern at Big Brothers, Big Sisters and became a job coach for the North Central Community Action Program in Juneau County for a year before moving to Wisconsin Rapids.
Belongia became part-time page at the McMillan Memorial Library and a few years later stepped into a full-time position as an associate librarian at the information desk, a role she loved.
“That was when I had a tough time,” she said. “I really loved reference work but felt an allegiance to social work.”
Belongia debated then whether to go on for a master’s degree in social work, the original field she’d intended to get into, or one in library and information science. Earning an advanced degree would also be a challenging task to undertake while raising a young family and working full-time.
After many drives back and forth to Madison, halfway through the program Belongia accepted a job as a circulation librarian supervisor at the Marshfield library in 1987. Two years later, she successfully completed her master’s program and became the adult services supervisor.
She became assistant director in the mid-90’s, and then acting director after the director left on medical leave. In 2002, she formally stepped into the director role.
“Having had the chance to do the job was a real blessing, because then I had a better picture of what the job was, and I found out I could find joy in doing it,” she said. “That part I wasn’t sure of, because it was a very different job than heading a department and doing reference work. It has much more community involvement. Actually in a lot of ways the social work training was a big help in the long run.”
As her positions evolved, so did the nature of the library and what it could offer the community. One of the biggest transformations was how information could be accessed, once computers and the internet opened up new ways to organize the library’s collection and conduct research.
“Being able to help people navigate that so they can find the good, solid information is really rewarding,” Belongia said.
With the internet the library also started providing electronic resources, like BadgerLink, a huge database of magazines and periodicals. Having this resource meant libraries no longer needed to store decades worth of back issues and that every library, regardless of size, could provide access to the same content.
Libraries also streamlined borrowing services. While it used to take several weeks to receive materials from another library after the request was put in the mail, with uncertain results, now librarians can easily search other catalogues to locate the item and have the item arrive that week, or even the next day.
“If you were around in the time where it took three weeks, that’s like magic,” said Belongia.
Besides changes in the field, the Marshfield library experienced its own transformation with the completion of a new library building, which opened in 2016 after close to a decade of planning. As director, Belongia attended countless meetings to determine the direction of the project and acted as a spokesperson for its value to the public.
The two-story, spacious facility was better equipped to meet the needs of the community. Programming and usage of the space has since increased, noticeably among the younger generation which has found reasons to stay longer.
Even so, the library is a place for all generations, bridging economic and educational boundaries. “If a library is functioning correctly in the community, it’s bringing together all parts of the community,” she said. “It’s a unifier.”
After Belongia retires April 24, this concept will be the task of the next library director to cultivate. Often that means laying the groundwork for future generations to come.
“As a library director your vision has to be much further out, and there’s things you’ll never bear fruit of,” she said.
A search is underway for a new candidate to step into the role, likely from outside the organization due to a lack of interest by existing staff. Once retired, Belongia looks forward to traveling with her husband Ken, volunteering, and spending more time with their grandchildren.