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Life is an open book for Cloquet librarian

Mark King has become a familiar face around the Cloquet Public Library, where he serves as the adult services librarian. Wendy Johnson/ 1 / 7
One of Mark King’s roles at the Cloquet Public Library is reference librarian, helping folks locate the information they are seeking. Wendy Johnson/ 2 / 7
Mark King (right) enjoys Thanksgiving with his mother Ann (left) and his brother-in-law and sister, Mike and Sandy Schwartz of St. Louis. King’s family has been pivotal in his life and career development. Contributed Photo 3 / 7
A young 15-year-old Mark King visits Universal Studios in California with his family. King, who loved California, went back there to attend Stanford University as an adult. 4 / 7
Mark King attends the "History of the Book" workshop at Texas A&M.5 / 7
Adult Services Librarian Mark King relaxes at his family home recently.6 / 7
Mark King is the primary reference librarian at Cloquet Public Library. Photo by Amy Louhela7 / 7

When Mark King was a student at Churchill Elementary in Cloquet, he remembers reading many books from the school library. But there was one in particular that left a lasting impression on him.

“One book that always stuck in my mind was called, ‘The Diamond in the Window’ by Jane Langton,” he recalled. “The book had a slightly mystical bent to it, but it was my introduction to the Emersonian philosophy of transcendentalism. I thought it was amazing that I learned about that so early, and it was from that book.”

For years, King said, he tried to track the book down as an adult.

“When I was living in Minneapolis, I remember searching the Minneapolis Downtown and Walker libraries trying to find that book that I always remembered. I didn’t recall who the author was, but I could remember the cover. Nobody seemed to know what the book was.”

Five or six years ago, when King was working at Better World Books in Indiana where he appraised and catalogued rare and collectible books, he was sorting through some used books that had come in from public and university libraries one day when he spotted the cover of “Diamond in the Window.”

“It was so amazing to me!” he said. “I was able to buy both that and the sequel, which was also there. I reread both of them, and they were just as good as I remembered they were! It was literally like finding a gem I had been searching for for a long time.”

King’s enthusiasm for books and learning is infectious, which makes his position as adult services librarian at the Cloquet Public Library all that much more effective. King is the first to admit, however, that far more than that has gone into shaping the person he is.

King was born and grew up in Cloquet. His dad, Joseph W. King, started out in chemical engineering, working in quality control at Cloquet’s Wood Conversion plant (USG) and later working his way up in management, becoming plant manager and then vice president of the Conwed Corporation headquartered in St. Paul.

His mother, Ann (Korkela), grew up in Floodwood where her parents operated a dairy farm.

King’s family home was in Sunnyside, within walking distance of Churchill Elementary.

“Something I especially remember is running home after school to watch ‘Dark Shadows’!” King related. “It was on from 3 to 3:30 p.m. and we got out of school at 3:10, so I’d manage to catch the last few minutes of it.”

Other than his frequent trips to the library as a young boy, Mark thrived on learning.

“A teacher who stands out in my memory from that time was my third grade teacher, Mrs. Kaner,” he recalled. “I remember her story times, and she was a very encouraging person.”

A mentor he recalled from junior high was language teacher Marla Ahlgren.

“She taught us how to outline in preparation for writing a paper,” he said. “I think that was one of the most valuable things I have learned, being able to organize your thoughts before writing something.”

When King got to Cloquet High School, it was American literature teacher Bill Obst who left a lasting impression.

“I remember Bill Obst teaching Emerson and Thoreau and the importance of the Transcendentalist movement in American thought,” said King. “His approach was a very in-depth one and that was what I wanted to do more of. He taught a rather simple method of approaching a work you might not understand. I sometimes still fall back on that approach as a beginning step to analyzing a piece of literature.”

By the time King graduated from high school, his dream was to become a writer. But he also wanted to continue his study of literature at a more advanced level. He decided to go to Carleton College in Northfield, graduating with distinction in 1982 in the field of English Literature.

It was during King’s time at Carleton that he first encountered Argentine writer Jorge Luis Vorhes, who was also director of the national library of Argentina. King said he was introduced to Vorhes’ work in his Spanish Literature classes, calling him “probably the most influential writer in Spanish in the 20th century.”

“He came to Carleton College and spoke at the same time I was studying there,” he said. “That was in the back of my mind when I later decided on a career as a librarian — that in a very small way I was following in the footsteps of this writer I idolized.”

When King graduated, the job market for writers wasn’t very promising so he got into a master’s program in English and American literature at Stanford University.

“That year they only admitted three people,” he said, adding he was very fortunate to be among them.

The paper he submitted as part of his program was one he later developed into his master’s thesis, examining the relationship between the teller and the tale of one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

“That didn’t really prepare me for what was outside in the real world,” King admitted. “I didn’t realize how difficult the transition would be to find a job and  make a living. I had writing skills, but they were very scholarly type of writing skills, not the type of journalistic writing that I really wanted to get into.”

He returned to Minnesota and landed a job as a proofreader through Cloquet native Deborah Hoff, who was the editor of the Twin Cities Reader. He eventually was hired as editor of a trade publication owned by the same company, called Minnesota Home and Design.

“Unfortunately, that magazine folded during the economic recession under George W. Bush,” explained King. “It was a journal for the home building industry, which was the first to collapse during the recession.”

King continued to work as a freelance editor and writer in the Twin Cities area for a few years and did other types of jobs as well, including a two-year temporary job in records management for Northern States Power.

“It was kind of my introduction to the library and records type of field,” he said. “That was when I first started considering a career move, so I looked into library school. It was right at the time when libraries were really changing and everything was becoming computerized.

He decided to enroll at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and earned his Master of Library Science degree in 2005.

Since King’s father was ill at the time, King moved back to Cloquet, working part time as a library aid at the Cloquet Public Library and as an administrative assistant at the Cloquet Presbyterian Church.

After his father passed away, he got the job at Better World Books, until another recession hit and the company cut a third of its staff, including King.

He ended up coming back to Cloquet and heard about a newly created position as adult services librarian at the public library. King decided to apply.

“It sounded like a challenge, though it wasn’t something I necessarily had the background and preparation for,” he admitted. “It has been a learning curve. There are a lot of things that library school doesn’t prepare you for at a real-world public library.”

As it turned out, King has adapted very well, and he has succeeded in molding the job into a pivotal and  essential position, thanks in part to the strong lead of Library Director Mary Lukkarila.

As adult services librarian, one of his main areas is serving as the primary reference librarian.

“There really is a range of types of questions that I get to deal with,” he said.  “Some of them are very simple and it ranges all the way to the extreme. Once I got a letter from someone in England who wanted to see if I could find any information about someone locally who had built an airplane in the early part of the 20th century, someone by the name of Tomhave. There can be some rather interesting areas of research, and often I learn things myself.”

He’s also in charge of adult programs, computer technical support, staffing and scheduling and collection development in DVDs.

Since starting at the library, King has begun a monthly film series, with the upcoming showing of the 1938 version of “A Christmas Carol” as the December offering.

The Cloquet Library Book Club he started three years ago is one of his favorite activities.

“It’s one of the best discussion groups I’ve ever been a part of,” he said.

The group has about 12 participants at any given time, and more than half have been with the group since its start, when they read “Life of Pi.” Since that time they’ve read and studied such books as “The Great Gatsby,” “Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell and one of King’s personal favorites, “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury.

“My goal for the book club is for all of us to grow as readers,” said King.

“We’re doing something very exciting for the month of December with members of the book club,” he added. “We’re taking turns reading aloud from Truman Capote’s ‘A Christmas Memory.’ This could be the start of a tradition for us in December.”

In January, King will be leading a discussion on a novel he read recently called “The Shadow of the Wind,” a Spanish novel by Carlos Luis Zafon, set in Barcelona during the decades following the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

“I can’t think of the last time I was so immersed in the world of a book,” said King. “It was almost like having a doorway to another reality.”

King is matter-of-fact about how his hometown public library has had a profound affect on his own life.

“One of the interesting things about working in a smaller library is that there is so much variety,” he said. “You wear a lot of different hats. One of the things I really do enjoy is the contact with the public. If I had been in the academic field, all I might be doing is cataloging books eight hours a day in some back room. But with this I am out in the public, and I’ve met so many interesting people and found out so much about the talented people who are living in this area.”

One of King’s interests is genealogy, and he has done some very intensive research on his family for many years, discovering that his father’s French lineage included many ancestors who were mayors, magistrates and managers. His mother’s Finnish ancestry, however, included musicians, poets and supporters of the arts.

“I feel that having an awareness of one’s family history is important,” reflected King. “My own nature tends to be more toward literature and the arts, but I do value the management and the logical thinking that I got through my father. I have never thought of myself as a leader and it was nothing I really pursued, but in my current position, that is part of the job, so I’m coming late to a role in leadership.”

King also serves on the board of the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council and on the advisory council for Community Education.

In looking back on his life thus far, King was thoughtful and introspective, drawing inspiration from Melville Dewey, who created the Dewey Decimal System that is still used in libraries today.

“I think he must have been a fascinating person, to be able to have developed a classification system for all areas of knowledge,” said King. “In a smaller library like ours, it sometimes doesn’t seem to make sense, seeing a book on one subject next to another that doesn’t seem to be at all related. But if you had the resources to really view the outline of the classification system, you would be able see how each part works. It’s very logical and hierarchical. If you step back and take in the big picture, you can see how the organization structure works.

“For me personally,” he concluded, “I see that as having a wider application, telling us not get too hung up on smaller things that, in the larger scheme of things, may not be all that important. I think of it as a good way of looking at life — to step back and see the big picture.”