After 34 years and lots of changes, library director retires

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When Cloquet Library Director Mary Lukkarila was hired in 1984, the current library building didn't exist. In addition to books, residents could check out laser video discs and LaserDisc players, an option so rare that CBS News did a story on it.

"It was a shock coming here from smaller libraries," said Lukkarila, admitting that she had a lot to learn when she got here. Cloquet and Duluth were also the first automated libraries north of the Twin Cities, and had their books listed on an online catalog that was accessible to libraries regionally and nationally in a time before the internet existed.

Books are still the most used resource the library offers, Lukkarila said. However, today the library also offers patrons computer and access to wireless internet, a myriad of online databases, adult programs, children's programs, a place for distance learners to do online testing and even wireless internet hotspots that can be checked out and taken home for residents who don't have internet access. Members can research old newspapers on microfilm and microfiche, check out or download audiobooks and e-books, rent movies or foreign films and, yes, check out books.

Lukkarila isn't concerned that libraries could become obsolete if books, magazines and newspapers cease to be produced anywhere but online — a future that some people say will become reality someday.

"The central purpose (of a library) is information," she said. "We're a place where you can express ideas and learn new things.

"For the lumbermen, the town library was very important," Lukkarila said. "They were self-made men, and a lot of the knowledge they received was what they read at the library. George Shaw, who paid for the previous library building on Cloquet Avenue that now houses the Carlton County Historical Society, was a lumberman. It was important that they have a library in the town for that reason.

"And we still have people who are trying to start businesses that come to the library to learn how to do that," she said. "Distance learners do online tests for school. We are in the education business, but not like a school or university. We do it in a less structured way. We assist people instead of telling them what their need is and having a curriculum."

Lukkarila fell in love with books as a child growing up on the Iron Range. An avid reader in the small town of Chisholm, she tells how she read everything in the children's department, but as a child, wasn't allowed "to go upstairs" to the adult section.

"We had very nice school librarians, though," she said. "They let me help them with inventory and then I could check out from them. And actually, one of them encouraged me to go to library school."

In addition, a neighbor woman — who she only recently found out was a librarian — used to drive all the neighborhood kids to the bigger library in Hibbing once a week in the summer.

Lukkarila said her passion has been children's services, which she regards as "the most important department" in the library.

She said she'll miss the staff at the library, but is looking forward to learning new things in retirement and having time to pursue her interests, including genealogy and history, as well as photography.

"It's the next phase of my life," she said with a smile. "I've experienced a lot of change and I'm happy. We've had good boards that embraced change and were willing to move forward. I feel good that we've been leaders in the state for some things."

She leaves feeling good about her replacement, Beth Sorenson, who the city hired after a public search process. Sorenson is the first new library director in 34 years.

"I think they hired someone who will lead them in the next direction," Lukkarila said.

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IF YOU GO

Everyone is invited to attend an open house to honor retiring Library Director Mary Lukkarila from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Oct. 28 at the Cloquet Public Library. Cake and coffee will be served. Lukkarila's last day at the library is Friday.

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