A few weeks into Illinois’ stay-at-home order, Children’s Librarian Lyndsey Carney decided to host an at-home craft program for families on how to make salt dough ornaments. While her children began to shape their ornaments, Carney launched into a description of the educational potential of salt dough. “You can make anything you dream up. Letters or numbers or—” “Unicorns?” Her young daughter cut in to ask. “Of course,” Carney replied, without hesitation, “I like to dream about unicorns, too.”
Library services look a little different these days, and the Normal Public Library is no exception. While we officially closed to the public on March 13, NPL staff have worked to quickly transition from on-site to virtual programming and outreach. This transition has led to new innovations and increasing accessibility, as everything from Lunchtime Yoga to Baby Rock to Tea and Paint have been made available on NPL’s Facebook and YouTube pages.
In the past, library programs have been restricted to those who could be physically present at a set time, and limited space often restricted participation to those who registered early. For some staff members, virtual programming provides an opportunity for NPL to serve patrons who have been unable to attend programs in the past. And while these changes have presented challenges, such as avoiding copyright infringement for books and songs used in programming, they have also enabled the library to showcase what it does best: create a sense of community.
“[The virtual craft programs] have been fun because my kids have been involved. My hope with involving them is that patrons will feel connected and know we are all in this together,” Carney said.
This age of social distancing has drawn national attention to another thing at the core of library service: accessibility. In the past two months, NPL services, including online learning resources and a live chat with NPL staff members, have increased community access to education, information, and even PPE!
3-D printed personal protective equipment is perhaps one of the most surprising new resources on offer, manufactured by NPL staff members and distributed with the help of the McLean County Emergency Management Agency.
“So far, we've donated dozens of face shields and hundreds of ear guards. There's still a great need however, so we've been working hard,” said Feras Becerra, one of several staff members involved in the project.
The Normal Public Library has no reopening date currently set. While the possibility of a phased reopening is being discussed, NPL staff are being careful to consult local and state medical authorities on proper safety procedures.
In the meantime, head over to our Facebook page to learn how to use flour, salt, and water to make a unicorn of your own.
Walking hand-in-hand, Helen Byerly has led two generations of children through the Normal Public Library.
Helen first started coming here more than twenty years ago, when her family moved from the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst to Bloomington. Towing along her three daughters, now all in their twenties, she made a pilgrimage to the library on a weekly basis.
“We would always come home with a big bag of books,” Helen said. “It was great for them to get an opportunity to check out all of the books by their favorite authors, from Rosemary Wells to Alexandra Day.”
As her children grew older, they became less interested in clamoring up to read in the library’s old loft or auditing pioneer life with Oregon Trail. And so, for a time, Helen’s relationship with NPL waned, and she returned but rarely for the occasional magazine or audiobook.
But that all changed on November 7, 2011, when Helen became a grandmother. Now five-years-old, little Makayla Byerly chatters constantly and bounces on her toes, as her grandmother leads her upstairs to NPL’s Children’s Department. Helen seems entirely at ease, grip firm but gentle around Makayla’s hand, as the full-time grandma continues forward placidly, the little girl whirling around her like a tiny tornado that never quite touches the ground.
But Helen was not always so nonchalant about her newfound responsibilities. When her daughter returned to work full-time shortly after Makayla was born, Helen suddenly found herself the full-time caregiver to a toddler—20 years after she last had one of her own. Desperate for productive ways to fill the long days of babysitting, Helen turned once again to the Normal Public Library.
“This place has been very important to her,” Helen said. “I would say this is the one place I consistently brought her every week.”
Aside from classes and events, NPL has allowed Makayla to explore a diverse set of interests, from dinosaurs to sea creatures to Native American culture.
“I like to read everything here, even if it’s something I don’t even know about,” Makayla said, practically vibrating with enthusiasm.
In the past, large portions of their time at the library were devoted to the Discovery Room, a children’s play area stocked with puppets and models and dominated by a large playhouse.
When asked about it, Makayla solemnly declared that she was “too busy finding books” to play there anymore. But not twenty minutes into their visit, Makayla scampers past the forest of iPads that make up the tech playground and makes a beeline for the Discovery Room, drawn by the sound of children’s laughter.
Helen heads to a bench on the far side of the play area, to settle in and watch as Makayla drags several puppets into the playhouse—returning only to offer a fluffy stuffed rabbit to an older girl stationed at the trainset. “May you be the bunny, because I’m going to be the camel?” Makayla asks, high voice serious.
The discovery room is a recent addition to NPL that didn’t exist when Helen’s own children visited, but she appreciates its resources and size. “I think Makayla will always love going to the library, because of all her great experiences here,” she said.
Makayla has trailed back to her grandma, clutching the camel hopefully behind her back. Helen tilts her head knowingly. “You want me to be the camel?”
(1989) Jennifer Williams as a child, participating in Big Stories by Little Authors at Normal Public Library
When a boy whom she’d casually dated in the past turned up at her house and asked her out for ice cream, Jennifer Williams, without a hint of irony, replied that she could not go because she planned to visit the library instead.
Williams, who was 16 at the time, looks back on this story with humor and fondness and maintains that she made the right decision. Her love affair with the Normal Public Library has continued unabated throughout the years, as Williams has transitioned from devoted patron to part-time staff member to Children’s Librarian. But she does occasionally play hard to get.
Williams grew up in central Illinois, and spent a great deal of her youth at Normal Public Library, doing everything from Summer Reading to Big Stories by Little Authors. But despite all of her warm library memories, Williams never envisioned returning to NPL as a librarian.
After high school, Williams started work at Normal Public Library as a work-study student at ISU. When she shared news of her part-time position with her family, they eagerly suggested the job might turn into a career. She balked at the prospect, as a distinct “Nope!” ran through her mind.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I didn’t think it was that,” Williams chuckles. “But then, four years later it turns out that was exactly what I wanted to do.”
Nowadays, Williams relishes knowing exactly where she wants to be. From meeting authors to leading story hours to fielding questions from patrons, Williams embraces the varied nature of her work. And although she’s dabbled in Adult Services, her love for the Children’s Department remains steadfast.
“My very favorite thing is helping people find books to read,” Williams said. “Whether they’re children or adults. And I think anyone can read children’s books—there’s a lot of really good ones out there.”
Story Hour with two-year-olds is her favorite time of the week, as the family-oriented program allows her to witness firsthand as children begin to make the connection between reading and playing.
It’s no surprise that Williams is enthused about seeing these connections forming at NPL, considering her own formative experience here. And for a librarian and self-confessed bibliophile, it’s a big one: her first time reading.
Williams distinctly remembers the first book she ever read on her own--a Frog and Toad story that she’d checked out from the library earlier that day. Although just five-years-old at the time, she recalls retreating to examine the book alone. As she studied it, she worked to understand it, and soon found herself in a world of her own.
“That’s when it all came together for me, and I know the library was involved in that,” Williams said.
For many people, thoughts of libraries are wrapped up in ribbons of nostalgia. They call to mind memories of childhood or of a time long past. For some, libraries stand as monuments to the past: great behemoths encapsulating all the world’s knowledge between four walls.
But for people like Jessica Byerly, those four walls reverberate with more than the words of great philosophers and poets; they echo with the memories of childhood.
Byerly, who moved to Bloomington with her family at the age of six, recalled how the library served as an anchor during that period of tumultuous transition.
“We’d come from a suburb that had a really nice library, and I spent pretty much all of my free time there, so I was very devastated when we moved. But I was consoled when Mom took us to the Normal Public Library for the first time,” Byerly said.
Byerly found many diversions at her new library, but she quickly developed a fixation on one particular computer game: Oregon Trail. The educational game, offered on all of the library’s computers, simulated pioneer life through a series of challenges from perilous travel to hunting to bartering for food and medicine. The iconic game also became infamous for its difficulty, a fact further compounded by players being unable to save on library computers.
“You could play for an hour, and then it was time to go. My people were always dying of cholera and I never actually got to make it to Oregon, but it was so exciting to get to use a computer,” Byerly exclaimed, recalling the time before her family had a computer of its own.
Although she grew up to be a veterinarian rather a pioneer, Byerly definitely feels that Normal Public Library had a significant impact on her life. Besides being the first place she encountered The Handmaid’s Tale and Alanis Morissette, Normal Public Library’s Big Stories by Little Authors taught her to have confidence in her own ability to write and create.
“I remember getting so excited to come here and meet an author and have them read to us. I felt so grown up, like a publication deal was in my future any day now. Alas, I was ten so probably unlikely,” she laughed.
There are people who believe libraries are merely vestiges of a bygone era—irrelevant now in a digital age of immediate gratification. And though Byerly’s stories of the library are replete with “I remembers,” she has no doubt that the library is an institution of the future.
“It’s cool how the library can be so many different things to so many different people. It’s been able to evolve with time, and that will only continue in the new building where they’ll have more space to provide more things for more people,” Byerly said.
Today, a trip down Uptown Normal’s North Street reveals a neat row of shops and cafés, unfolding before you in an array of vivid colors and small-town nostalgia. Local favorites vary from Sugar Mama’s Bakery for sweet confections to The Coffee Hound for a savory roast. But when Joan Steinburg first arrived in Normal in 1959, the current site of The Coffee Hound satisfied another local craving: a longing for literature.
It’s hard to imagine Normal Public Library’s sprawling structure was once confined to a small reading room on North Street, but Normal Public Library Foundation Board Member Joan Steinburg easily recalls how the library bounced from place to place for years, constantly seeking more space and resources to meet the growing demands of the community.
Drawn by a love of books and a desire to keep her children entertained, Steinburg became involved with NPL almost as soon as her family came to town. She remembers how, on one occasion, she assisted in transporting the library’s donated volumes from the North Street Reading Room to the new location at the site of a former grocery store.
“We all walked the books down the hill and into the Jewel’s. They had some cars too, but a lot of us did [walk] all that way,” Steinburg said.
While commitment cannot be measured entirely in sweat or numbers, Steinburg’s anecdotes and statistics are compelling. She has served on the Normal Public Library Foundation Board for 33 years, and 12 of those years were spent as president. She has witnessed the library shuffle from place to place, settle and expand. Along the way, it has continued bringing knowledge, delight, and innovation to the community.
Steinburg insists that Normal Public Library changes as life changes. “We are not just a warehouse for books. We are lots of things, including books.”
Those things include being both a social and learning environment for people of all ages. But the modern library that NPL is becoming requires a great deal more space than what is available at the current site on College Avenue. That’s why, in recent years, the Normal Public Library Foundation’s main goal has been the construction of a new library.
The new Normal Public Library will be very modern and expansive, replete with sustainable features, natural lighting, and plenty of space for outdoor programming and parking. It will serve as both an anchor and a mirror to the community. While the planning and designs for this new library building are now finished, the board now faces the onerous task of raising enough money to make these dreams a reality.
While the completion of the project is still a long way off, Steinburg is optimistic and excited at the prospect of building a new library that the town can be proud of.
For Steinburg, it would be the crowning moment of a life of community service. “But for me, I would just love to be able to see it open. It would be super,” Steinburg said.
The Normal Public Library has been a regular part of my family’s life: ranging from books for adults that my husband and I check out, to the summer reading program and gazillion books my children have read, to the many audiobooks that have accompanied us on road trips from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Yosemite National Park.
We have been visiting the Normal Public Library for 23 years now. I have many fond memories, but three in particular stand out. First, I recall many summers of reading programs, which always included “Floats & Funnies”—being able to sit with our kids on that cold floor watching old cartoons and eating ice cream, hearing them giggle at the ridiculous antics on the screen. Second, I recall maneuvering myself up the small ladder of the treehouse in order to read stacks and stacks of books. This happened with my daughter who was too young to participate in the program and then later with both my children after the program activities were done for the morning. Third, I recall sadly telling my daughter that instead of flying to Texas we were going to have to drive but that I would check out some books for us to listen to along the way. She responded with “Yes!”
My family had developed a culture of loving to be together and read (or listen) to a good book. Thank you Normal [Public Library] for providing the space and resources that helped to build our family.
I don't have any particular story; only fond memories of the times I spent there with my boys (ages now 26 & 30). The Normal Library helped foster their love of books.
They participated in the summer reading programs, used the computers and learning programs, enjoyed climbing in the secret little hideaway to read, and so much more.
I loved that I could rent some of the newest books at a time buying new books was not a budget priority.
Carney [far right] enjoying NPL’s Summer Reading Program as a child.
Watching Lyndsey Carney improvise Christmas carols on the Polar Express or captivate a group of rambunctious four-year-olds during Story Hour, you would never guess that the Children’s Librarian was once intensely shy.
Carney grew up in the Bloomington-Normal area and was a frequent NPL visitor. She was 16 when her mother brought home an application for a part-time job there. Carney filled it out, privately thinking she was far too shy. She hoped at the library she could be quiet and go unnoticed.
Carney received a phone call the next day telling her she could start on Monday, and fate was sealed. Well, maybe not fate, but the Normal Library would play a significant role in her life for the next 20 years. Her part-time job lasted throughout high school and college. She took a break from library work to teach, then earned her Master’s and secured a position at ISU’s Milner Library. For the last 10 years, Carney has been a Children’s Programming Librarian at NPL.
But any chance she had of passing “quiet and unnoticed” there disappeared when Carney proved she had a talent for designing innovative and wildly popular programs. Amongst friends and family, Carney is well known for her elaborate party-planning, and many of the library events she organizes come together like community-wide parties. She has been a driving force behind NPL’s Polar Express Experience and The Yule Ball among many others.
NPL has seen Carney grow in confidence, and now her favorite part of the job is helping children and adults to do the same thing. As the coordinator of the Partners in Reading program and frequent leader of Lapsit Story Hour, Carney relishes seeing families progress through the library as they grow as readers, as individuals, and as community members.
“I meet them as babies, and their parents are really babies, too. This is new for them; they don’t know what’s out there. They’re still finding their way as parents. So we get the experience of seeing them come to their first story hour and hearing them talk to other parents,” Carney said.
Carney often recommends a visit to the library for new parents hoping to connect with other young families. “One of my first classes, a lapsit group, they didn’t know each other before they came, but they just talked in class,” Carney said. “And they became a playgroup, and they would meet here once a month. And that’s continued, and those kids are now eight.”
During her time here, Carney has seen many changes at NPL, from new spaces and equipment to increased emphasis on community outreach and STEAM programming. But the most important aspects of her job remain the same.
“The best part of my job is getting to see families excited about the library and reading. It’s not just for kids when they’re little--it’s a lifelong relationship.” It certainly has been for Carney.
This story came to us as a voicemail, through our StoryLine. We have transcribed it below, with some minor edits for clarity.
I began my visits to the library when I was very young. And I enjoyed going to the library. Every Saturday I could go and pick out new books, and I could return the ones I had already read. Then, I went and visited my church the same day. Then, back home to start my new book.
Today, I use the Normal Library for a computer, [because] mine broke down at home. I'm pretty old, so I don't know if I'll be able to continue coming or not. But just for today, I just need another visit to the library. I encourage reading to my great-grandchildren by reading books to them [and to] my grandchildren by giving them bookcases for their birthdays when they were young. And their parents continued by taking them to the library. Reading is important no matter what you do. Well, I'll continue to use the library as long as I can. And thank you very much for listening. I appreciate you. Keep reading. Goodbye.
Mary Pat Behrens and her parents at a summer library program in 1996
For many young people, their first step into a library is also their first step towards independence. As you select your own books, you begin to develop your own tastes and interests. As you play in the tech playground and delight in the story hours, you meet new people and perhaps even make your first friends.
For Mary Pat Behrens, witnessing this process is one of the great joys of her work.
Behrens has been working part-time in the Children’s Department of Normal Public Library since she was 16. During that time, she’s grown a lot, but she’s also gotten to witness the blossoming and development of the children who tend to cycle through her section of the library. The summer of 2017 marked her 15th season here, but she considered herself part of the NPL family long before that.
The younger sister of Children’s Librarian Jennifer Williams, Mary Pat came of age amidst the stacks, coming to cherish the library’s programs and traditions as much as the librarians themselves. The staff of the Children’s Department knew her by name, and the area quickly became a second home to her. Today, she strives to create the same atmosphere of welcome for every child.
“I honestly don’t remember the main floor of the library as a kid. I can picture the Children’s Department and the Community Room, but you had to go through the main floor. I just don’t remember it, because I was always so focused on the children’s floor,” Behrens said with a laugh.
Mary Pat’s work in the Children’s Department allows her to get to know the children who frequent the library as individuals, and assisting with programming and events often means that she learns their names before she becomes acquainted with their parents. As her young patrons grow older, she also has the opportunity to watch them develop independence. This is particularly notable at the Ending Party for the Summer Reading Program, the first event that children typically attend without their parents.
“It’s fun watching them because some of them are super excited to be there by themselves. Others are super timid, and make a beeline for the first friend they see, which was totally me as a kid,” Behrens said.
Working surrounded by books for young people also encourages Mary Pat to stretch her own tastes and interests--often to the books which she works with and recommends on a daily basis. She delights in the vivid storytelling of picture books and is moved by the dramas of Young Adult novels.
When asked what she would do with a day to herself in the library, Behrens reflected that she would probably embrace the independence that she encourages in her young patrons.
“I’d probably browse, without feeling like I’m in another person’s way. And then I’d curl up somewhere with a giant stack of books, put some music on, and just read, read, read,” she said.
My family moved to Bloomington in 1997. We had a four-year-old girl and a two-year-old boy. One of the first things I did was find the nearest public library, which turned out to be NPL. I started taking my daughter, Taylor, to your story times.
At the Halloween Story Time, my daughter came out holding hands with another girl (whose mother I had been visiting with since we both had younger boys). Collette came up to us and said, "Mom, I just met my best friend!" How true that was. Our families have been close since then, and Taylor served as a bridesmaid in Collette's wedding.
I have been a patron of Normal Public Library since I was a commuting college student. I have always enjoyed the art section. Years later when I became a wife and mother, I began to actively take part in many programs offered at NPL. Now a teacher, I check out materials for my many art lessons and activities.
My family and I often spend hours at the library making our choices and leave with arm-aching bags of books! We really enjoy the reading programs, especially the summer reading program for children. Between earning prizes and keeping brains fresh all summer, children are also involved in fun, creative activities. Two years ago, my son won first place in the diorama project in his age group and made a beautiful summer memory. In the wintertime, while my son was in elementary school, I would bring my preschool-age daughter to the library and we'd snuggle in a chair and read for hours.
This year as my children turn 8 and 6, I look forward to having both of them participate in the Partners in Reading Program. This program helped my son advance his reading skills a great deal while in first and second grade. My family has grown up at Normal Public Library. I have watched my children develop a love of reading while having many more opportunities to bond with them.
From time to time, we here at NPL will receive a note from a patron thanking us for our work. These notes are always received with pleasure, and usually pinned up on the bulletin board for all staff to enjoy. We have transcribed one such note below, which was received on June 26, 2017.
To the very congenial, caring, and professional women at Normal Public Library:
Last Saturday, (for the first time in the 12 years I’ve resided here due to Katrina!) I came to the library in search of an answer/resource vital [and] essential to an event I’m planning—which is imminent. I arrived there at about 2:55 p.m. I promptly told a staff lady at the circulation desk my “quest” i.e. need and she immediately began to check the computer for resources on hand. Then, another staff person chimed in. We walked over to the area where the [potentially useful] books were, which had the exact information God knows I almost desperately needed!
When I left about an hour later, I truly had exactly what I was in need of. Thank you all for the good work galore you do daily!
A very appreciative Patron