SIOUX CITY | Connecting people to the right sources of information has always given Betsy Thompson a satisfying feeling. 

"Someone once said, 'Librarians love to search; everyone else likes to find,'" Thompson said. "That's what's fun for me, and I've been able to do that through every style of connecting people -- from the old card catalogs to now." 

In her 35 years with the Sioux City Public Library -- 22 of them as director -- Thompson has had a front-row seat to the revolution in the way people look for information and entertainment.

As the library landscape has changed, Thompson, 64, has remained flexible in helping Sioux City's system stay relevant. When she steps down from the position she has held for more than two decades next month, city and library officials agree her steady hand will be missed.

"She's leaving the system in good shape," Rick Moon, president of the Library Board of Trustees, said of Thompson. "I have nothing but good things to say."

Janet Plathe, the board's longest-serving member at eight years, said Thompson has kept the library's core values at the center while weathering industry changes, budget cuts and any other issues that have arisen.

"She holds true to the values that are most important yet is willing to be forward-thinking enough that the library is still relevant and provides the services that the people in the community need," Plathe said. "I really appreciate that."

A native of Storm Lake, Iowa, Thompson settled on a career as a librarian during her undergraduate studies at Iowa State University in Ames, where she worked part-time in the university library. 

"I was just naturally curious," she said. "A librarian was the way to keep learning."

Thompson graduated with a bachelor's in sociology and went on to pursue her master's in library sciences at the University of Iowa. She spent four years in the Ames Public Library system as a reference librarian followed by two more with a regional library in Rochester, Minnesota. 

In 1981, when a job as head of the main branch -- which at the time was located at Sixth and Jackson streets -- opened up in Sioux City, she said it was like coming home. 

One of her first tasks, however, was a difficult one: consolidating the collections of four of Sioux City's neighborhood branch libraries into what is now the Perry Creek Branch library. While the move helped save expenses for the city, the issue was contentious at times as people lost their beloved nearby libraries. 

"If I was older and knew better, I probably wouldn't have taken that job," she said with a chuckle. "Just the political aspect of that -- it was like closing swimming pools lately." 

Thompson played a role in the automation of the library's card catalog in 1986 and the move from the Carnegie Branch into the new Wilbur Aalfs Library in 1990. 

Another major service change came with the advent of the internet in the mid-1990s, which transformed how people encounter information. 

Instead of calling a librarian to find a fact or a phone number like they did decades ago, people now have a wealth of information at their fingertips on their tablets and smartphones -- but they still need help identifying the most trustworthy sources and the facts they need.

"The information switch for libraries went from helping people find information to helping people evaluate and sift through a glut of information," she said. 

According to Sioux City Public Library statistics, over the past six fiscal years, the number of items checked out at the library -- books, DVDs, CDs -- has decreased 17 percent. But at the same time, the number of ebooks and downloads have increased significantly. Attendance at events has also risen. The numbers largely follow the nationwide trends. 

"We're continuing to find the balance between print and electronic," Thompson said. "I remember in 2013 saying, 'This is going to be the year where America figures out what's best electronically and what's best in print.' And that didn't happen."

Looking ahead, Thompson said she believes libraries have a bright future, although they will need to withstand changes. She pointed to the library's current mission statement, which encourages "lifelong learning," as a focal point that has remained at the forefront over its 140 years of existence.

"The fundamental role has been the same and will continue to be the same. Just how we do it will change," she said. "And libraries and librarians need to be open to changing ways of doing it."

In 35 years, Thompson said she has several interesting stories of occurrences at the library. Several involve how long-lost books came back from afar, including an incident last month when a person from Australia located a Sioux City Public Library book while flying to visit family in Kentucky.

"People will be cleaning out a house and they’ll find something that was due back in 1940 or 1960 -- probably once a year we’ll get something way old that someone found," she said.

(As a side note, Thompson said $5 is the maximum fine for an overdue book, so there's no reason not to bring them back.)

When she's not working, Thompson said, she enjoys reading -- a couple of her favorite genres are mystery and narrative nonfiction -- and biking along Sioux City's trails. She has served on the Siouxland Trails Foundation board for several years. 

Thompson said she and her husband, Bob, who retired five years ago after careers at Interbake Foods and Gateway computers, plan to move to Topeka, Kansas, soon after her retirement to be closer to their daughter, Sarah Mellen, family and their two grandchildren. 

"I told Bob, 'I think Des Moines is about as far south as you’ll get me,' but the grandkids are getting us a little bit further south," she said.

Thompson's last full-time day at the library will be Friday, although she will be working in a part-time capacity during the month of August. The library board plans to name Sara Leiss, the library's operations manager, as interim director at its Aug. 17 meeting. 

The Sioux City Library Board of Trustees is currently searching for a new director. The board conducted a series of pre-screening interviews last week but has yet to name finalists for the position. 


City hall reporter

Load comments