In 1972, Pat Johnston, a 14-year-old student from Mount Airy High School, needed to raise money for a school trip to Washington, DC. So she entered the Mount Airy Public Library and applied for a part-time job.
She got the job, which turned into more than just a way to raise some funds.
This weekend Pat – now Pat Gwyn – is stepping out of the library for the last time as a staff member. In between, there has been a career spanning over 49 years which Gwyn describes as her dream job.
“I enjoyed every minute of it. I never wanted to do anything else.
Today is his last official day as Chief Librarian at the Mount Airy Public Library – his official title is Branch Manager for the facility, which is part of the North West Regional Library System.
She has seen a lot of changes over the years, from a time when getting a book in the library meant having the librarian go through a huge card catalog to determine if the book was in the library’s collection to today. hui, where almost every book printed on the past century or two, is available in some form with just a click on a smart phone.
Through it all, Gwyn never lost her love for two things: books and people.
“I don’t know where you could put these two things together, books and people, like you would in a library,” she said recently, exhaling an excitement that shows Gwyn is one of those rare people who find their true calling early. in life and then spend that life pursuing the career she has chosen.
When she was 5 years old, Gwyn’s family moved to Pilot Mountain, where she recalls making one of her first visits to a public athenaeum.
“We walked across Pilot Mountain to the library,” she says of what seemed like a long and special trip for a 5-year-old. “We walked through the door… I looked across the room and saw Ruth Stone sitting there surrounded by books,” she said of the longtime librarian. “I was like, ‘This is the place to be.'”
And this is the place she often frequented during her childhood and adolescence, going on to call herself a “regular patron” of the library.
Along the way, her family moved to Mount Airy and she got to know the staff at the municipal library branch, which led to her first job.
“I went to (the librarian) Frances Tharrington and asked if she might need help. … She let me work there. I think she even paid me out of pocket for about a month, ”said Gwyn, still grateful after all these years for this kind gesture from a woman who would become a mentor.
She stayed on the staff after the summer job, working all the odd chores that needed to be done there, eventually finishing high school, then going to Surry Community College.
With the exception of a summer job that tried her hand at a mill, she never left the city library, moving from one position to another – as well as moving to the current location in 1982. – until she was appointed chief librarian in the late 1990s.
While many people in the library field end up earning degrees in library science or related disciplines, Gwyn said his education came through “on-the-job training.”
She attributes three people in particular to her development: Frances Tharrington, Mary Combs and Julia Sharp, her predecessors at the town library.
“They were all wonderful. I learned different things from each of them. I hope I continued what they started, what they taught me.
One of the things she remembers from her working days for each of these libraries is the family atmosphere they all brought to the staff, something that she worked hard to continue.
“We really work as a team,” she said. “We are truly a family. This family has changed over the years, ”but, she says, the group always seems to work well together, genuinely willing to help each other and their clients.
The importance of the library
Reflecting on her career, Gwyn does not speak easily of herself, but rather wishes to focus on her life calling – the library itself.
“I’ve always believed the library was for everyone,” she says.
Living up to this ideal presented challenges. First, the potential scope of library users is vast, including children not yet able to read, adolescents, adults busy with their work and family, and older people seeking fulfillment in their later years. .
Add to that the fact that the world has changed rapidly, as has what is available in the library. When she started, people would come in, asking the librarian for help finding a book, which often meant spending a few minutes perusing the voluminous catalog of cards, which in turn directed them to the shelf containing the book in question.
Now? A quick Google search and individuals can have the collected knowledge of the world on seemingly any subject.
And that, Gwyn says, leads to an important function of library services for some: access to the digital world.
“Not everyone has access to the Internet,” she says, which is especially true in rural communities like Surry County. Thus, the library provides computers for free Internet access for anyone with a library card.
A few years ago, she said, when textile companies started to shut down, leaving thousands of people unemployed, the library was ready to play a role in helping those people.
Many, she said, now had to go to school for retraining, a daunting task as much of the work would be done on computers. “A lot of them came to see us, told us they couldn’t use a computer.”
So the library began to organize basic computer classes – which it still does on occasion, or at least before the COVID-19 pandemic,
The library also emphasizes children’s programming, including story time for those who can’t read yet, youth activities, summer reading programs, and other activities.
For adults, she said, in addition to the large and ever-growing catalog of physical books, customers can borrow e-books and participate in a number of activities – book clubs, author conferences, computer lessons, etc. The library also offered printing services for some articles, help with resume writing, voter registration, tax preparation for low-income people, and a wide variety of other services.
The library, she said, serves as a way to “level the playing field” for local residents who may not have access to paid professionals providing these services or be unable to afford them.
With all of these services available in an ever-changing world, Gwyn always looks back on her early experiences at the library, describing what she hopes the library will remain.
“When I was young, no matter where we lived, we always went to the library. This is what we want people to realize now, the library can be an integral part of their life.
Now that she’s handing over the leadership to someone else, Gwyn has declared that she is ready for the next chapter in her life, whatever it may be.
“I’m a little excited to see what I’m going to do,” she said, with no concrete plans. Gwyn said she and her husband, John, didn’t particularly feel like traveling a lot, and although she loves a garden, her husband does most of the gardening.
“I have grandchildren, I can’t wait to spend more time with them, maybe helping with their school. … I have two sisters who are retired, with the pandemic we have not been able to meet. Hope we can spend more time together.
It’s also a good bet, whatever direction the retreat takes, she will walk through a familiar door quite often, once again becoming a “regular client” of the library.
Contact John at 415-4701.