Books, family, home
by Rachel Coleman
Sometimes, visitors to the Seward County Community College/Area Technical School library are not interested in study or research. They want something outside the realm of academia — a movie, maybe. Or a magazine. Or recreational reading.
That’s when librarian Matt Pannkuk sends them down the street to his mother’s place: Liberal Memorial Library.
It might be unusual to find a mother-and-son pair of librarians at work in the same community. But the shared love of literature is nothing new for Jill and Matt Pannkuk.
Their family “always spent a lot of time in the library,” Jill said. Before she tucked her children into bed, she read to them — Richard Scarry’s whimsical, colorful stories about Lowly Worm and Huckle Cat, the Golden Book stories that have been loved by so many generations of children, and new titles from the public library.
When the family traveled out of town, Matt said, “the first place we always went was the bookstore.” Though the Pannkuks bought a lot of books for their own bookshelves, Matt has fond memories of the small-town library he frequented in Harlan, Iowa, pop. 5,500.
“The community had a very small library. There was a big grandfather clock there that chimed every quarter hour,” he recalled. “It was a place that felt intimate.”
The homey atmosphere was underscored when, the same year he graduated from high school, his mother completed her degree in library science. In time, Jill became the librarian in Harlan, a position she held for 13 years before she applied for the job in Liberal, in 2007.
“I was looking to get into a bigger library,” she said. “I have always lived in small towns,” so Liberal’s agricultural and rural flavor seemed like a good fit. Once she arrived, she discovered more contrasts than she had first registered.
“There’s a lot more Hispanic culture here, so that was different. I didn’t realize it would be this arid, but winters are nicer,” she said, earning a hearty agreement from Matt, who does not miss the northern winters.
Southwest Kansas culture “is a little bit more conservative than Iowa,” but the friendliness of the people quickly won her heart. Though her husband could not leave the trucking business he owned, the nature of his work allowed him to divide his time between states. This winter, for example, he was heading up U.S. Census Bureau work in Liberal.
The family’s shift west continued when Matt Pannkuk was hired as library director at SCCC/ATS in 2009.
An English major, he’d switched to library science after freelance writing jobs proved to be a sporadic means of livelihood.
“I was saying, ‘Where do I go from here?’” he recalled. His mother thought library science would be a good fit. She knew what she was talking about: Matt’s sister also followed their mother’s example, and works as a medical librarian in Indiana.
Despite their current job descriptions, Jill said there was little overlap in what the pair learned at library school. By the time Matt opted to pursue the vocation, “It had changed completely,” she said. “When I became a librarian, we were just getting started with the Internet. The Harlan library had dial-up service, and everyone was just beginning to talk about digital cataloguing.”
Matt, by contrast, learned about meta-data schemes as the Google approach to information access transformed libraries and readers worldwide. In popular culture, ideas had changed as well. Rupert Giles, the heroic character who worked undercover as a high school librarian in the popular television series, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” was a far cry from the longstanding stereotype of a librarian: glasses, frumpy clothes, hair tightly coiled in a bun, mouth pursed.
“Actually, some of the people I knew at library school were upset about the Buffy connection,” he said wryly. “They thought it was undignified.”
Another misconception about librarians: “People say, ‘I wish I could get paid to sit and read books all day,’” Matt said. “I think it was reading a lot that brought me to this job, but my pleasure reading definitely went down when I became a librarian.”
There are simply too many other things that need to be done, from curating the traveling exhibits that often adorn the SCCC/ATS library to overseeing staff, updating the collection and, he noted with a grin, explaining to students why the library doesn’t subscribe to various popular magazines.
“It’s true, a lot of people want to use the library to get DVDs or magazines or computer access,” he said, “but the book collection is important to keep updated. People need to have that resource.”
Further south on Kansas Avenue, Jill, too, finds little time to read at the city-operated Memorial Library.
“I don’t get to much more than reading reviews for the purpose of buying books for the library,” she said. “It’s like being in a candy store and not being able to eat anything.”
Amid the administrative tasks, paperwork and even manual labor — like the week the library staff set up new bookshelves and reshelved the entire nonfiction section — Jill has not lost sight of what she enjoys most.
“The reason I love working in a public library is that I get to see children coming into the library,” Jill said. “You see the families that come in regularly, and the older people and everyone in between. You get that range.”
Jill noted that Liberal’s patrons includes a diverse spectrum of transplants from Mexico, Guatemala, Vietnam, Laos and even Somalia.
“When people come to Liberal, we often provide their first photo ID through the library card,” she said, a feature that is somewhat unusual in library circles. And Memorial Library issues an average of 19 new cards a week. Observing the pleasure new card holders get from their access to the library is one of Jill’s favorite aspects of the job.
“You know, especially for the Hispanic population, it is a new idea to have a library available without cost. They are not used to this, and it’s up to us to help them learn about it,” she said. “Some people, immigrants, can hardly believe they are welcome to use the library.”
At the college, the patrons comprise a narrower group, Matt said, “primarily students, faculty and staff. But since we are state-funded, other members of the community can come and use it.”
Both Pannkuks are passionate about the philosophical underpinnings of library science: free access to information for everyone, with educational aims being the top priority.
“Intellectual freedom is important, which the Library Bill of Rights addresses,” Matt said. “As long as it’s not illegal, we will do everything possible to give people access to what they want.”
The public library has filtered Internet access, Jill said, but beyond that, few limits have been imposed on the collection.
“I didn’t know what to expect [when she arrived] because Kansas is more conservative than Iowa, and I know from my years there that having a banned-book situation is not a fun thing to deal with,” she said. In Liberal, Pannkuk has only had one book challenged. In that case, library board members read the book and decide whether or not it is appropriate for a public library collection.
“It’s not just me that decides,” she said, adding, “I’ve been really pleased with the community and the board.”
Liberal has become a place that feels like home, both said. With books and family near at hand, how could it not?