As librarians, our skills are as embedded in our personal lives as in our work, and they do not desert us when we leave our positions. After retiring in 2009, I began volunteering at Hedgebrook, a writing residency program for women on Whidbey Island in northwest Washington State. Inspired by its founder, Nancy Skinner Nordhoff, the program is committed to nurturing the voices and work of emerging women writers. Every year about 40 women of various backgrounds are chosen from 500 to 800 applications for residency.
Librarians always hope to have enough time to establish networking relationships with places and programs such as these, developing liaison activities that match our own organizational interests and goals. Being a volunteer here has allowed me to do this and has felt natural. I began by helping to organize the library of alumnae’s published and filmed works—many of which are in anthologies or literary journals—to streamline access for writers in residence. Getting these individual pieces into an Excel database shows the writers that 46% of Hedgebrook alumnae have, in fact, been published. The plan is to add the database to Hedgebrook’s website so interested readers can see a list of their published works.
Here are some of the benefits for libraries from this type of volunteer relationship:
- A clearer understanding of the resources libraries offer emerging and published writers in this technological age. Some library users are still learning about all the information available in online databases. Many still depend on a printed page for research, unaware that more up-to-date information is available in full text in journals contained in these databases;
- Creation of a new generation of library supporters worldwide;
- Validation that library staff members with research and retrieval skills are still critical interpreters in the information-sharing business; and
- Connecting with local public libraries and academic libraries. For example:
- Erica Bauermeister, a Hedgebrook alumna, was chosen as the 2011 Whidbey Reads author. Whidbey Reads is an annual community-wide reading program, sponsored by local organizations and Sno-Isle Libraries in Marysville, Washington. The program brings people together to share and talk about books;
- Hedgebrook writers’ works are displayed each year at Sno-Isle’s Freeland and Langley branches.
Being part of Hedgebrook has been the major gift of my retirement. Circumstances prevent me from being a world traveler, so having the opportunity to learn about other cultures from the writers and their work has been a life-altering continuing-education experience.
Perhaps the most valuable portion of my volunteer time has been assisting writers with their research through the many in-house and online resources of Sno-Isle Libraries, as well as the online databases of the district’s Freeland and Langley branches.
One summer afternoon, I was working with a young author who was explaining the historical background of her current writing project. The writer had a slave ancestor who, along with her children, was freed before moving to the Midwest. I began looking through 1870 US census records and found a record of her elderly ancestor, who had lived with her son in a Midwestern state. Everyone in the Hedgebrook kitchen rushed to look over my shoulder at the laptop screen where this woman’s name was recorded in the Heritage Quest database.
Making this kind of contribution has always been at the core of my commitment to our profession. Working as a librarian embedded in this venue enables me to continue affecting change myself—for libraries and for people.