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Our Neighbors.... Mary Lukkarila

Few folks can make a living doing something they truly love, but Mary Lukkarila is one of the lucky ones. When Lukkarila, now library director at Cloquet Public Library, was growing up in her home town of Chisholm, she was simply a young girl who...

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Cloquet Library Director Mary Lukkarila points out where the library's new automated checkout machine will go. [Wendy Johnson / Pine Journal]

Few folks can make a living doing something they truly love, but Mary Lukkarila is one of the lucky ones.

When Lukkarila, now library director at Cloquet Public Library, was growing up in her home town of Chisholm, she was simply a young girl who loved to read - everything she could get her hands on....

"I was a reader long before I ever went to the library," she related. "I was already reading the newspaper in first grade, and when my parents bought the Encyclopedia Britannica, I started reading that from A to Z!"

Her interest in libraries began with her own hometown library. Since both her parents worked, it was a neighbor who first brought her to the library around the time she was in second grade. After she was older, her parents gave her permission to walk to the library - and that's exactly what she did.

"I read any kind of fiction and nonfiction," she said, "and by the time I was in sixth grade, I had pretty much read everything in the public library. We weren't allowed to go into the adult area, so I was kind of stymied at that point, so I started buying Scholastic Books at school. I was a non-stop reader."

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When Lukkarila got into junior high school, the school librarian understood her voracity to read, and in the summer she allowed Lukkarila to help her do inventory - and take out books from the school library at the same time.

"I think she's the one who inspired me to become a librarian," reflected Lukkarila.

When she graduated and went on to the University of Minnesota, she found out they had a master's program in professional library work. She first had to complete a bachelor's degree to get into the program, so she earned her undergraduate in history in 1977.

She had to take a Miller's Analogy Test to get into the master's program, which involved word comparison - understanding which words were the same or different from others.

"If you are an avid reader, you should know what all those words mean," she explained. "I also like foreign languages, and many of the root words come from foreign languages so it helped me figure them out....Toward the end of the test, words were going through my head like crazy. I had dreams about words that night!"

Lukkarila passed with flying colors and was accepted into the program and then had to pick whether to direct her studies toward becoming either a school librarian or a public librarian. Since school librarians had to have a teaching degree, she opted for the public library sequence, earning her master's degree in 1979.

She continued to read a lot while she was going through school and loved the university library.

"When you're a graduate student in the library program," she explained, "you have access to the stacks that are not allowed to the rest of the students - the rare books and that sort of thing - so we had a few rare privileges and perks!"

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The next challenge was to find a job without having had any outside experience other than doing a research project for a professor.

She discovered there was an opening for a part-time director in Buhl, a neighboring village to her home town of Chisholm. Since the job would allow her to live at home, she accepted the job offer and remained there for the next two years, until an opening came up in Redwood Falls.

"I'd grown up with trees and lakes, and they didn't have much of that down there," she said. "It was a little different way of life."

She knew the director of the Cloquet Library, Mike Knievel, at the time, who suggested she apply for his job after announcing he was going to leavr. Anxious to get back up north, she applied and was hired for the post in 1983.

The library was already in the midst of converting to automation, thanks to Knievel's early efforts, and it shared an internal online system with Duluth that allowed patrons to check out books and look up things between the two libraries.

"At the time, I think it was quite revolutionary," said Lukkarila. "Mike was a forward thinker, and he also got the library started with video disks. We've always been a library that's kept up with the times - considering we're such a small community."

Knievel had already gotten the paperwork started to form a library foundation as well, and plans were being discussed regarding space issues.

Lukkarila admitted there was a lot on her plate to start out with, but it was exciting to be in on the ground level of going through a bond referendum and planning for the new library.

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The library board hired a consultant to study what it would cost to add on to the old library as opposed to starting out new, along with all the pros and cons of both. Parking, handicapped accessibility and lack of room to grow were all issues that were identified, and the board decided the library needed a new facility.

"At the point we wanted to build a new library in 1985-1986," said Lukkarila, "it was a tough economic time. Conwed had announced they were selling out and there were a lot of layoffs. We weren't certain how a bond referendum was going to go when people were uncertain about their own financial future, especially since they'd be voting to increase their taxes in order to support the new library."

However, the library board did lots of phone calling and sent out mailings, and Lukkarila spoke to public groups. And as it turned out, the referendum passed on a vote of two to one.

The library secured a lot on 14th Street from the Cloquet School District for a nominal fee, and the planning began in earnest.

"Accessibility was the biggest issue in the old library," she said. "The children were downstairs and the adults were upstairs, and many children would get scared if they were left down there alone. In the new library, we didn't build any walls or divisions between the children's area and the rest of the building, which also gives us flexibility if we want the children's area to grow bigger at some point."

The library moved to the new building in 1987, and over the years since, it has continued to grow and evolve with the times. In addition to books and periodicals, Lukkarila said the library now has electronic books that can be downloaded to people's computers through Minitex, an interlibrary loan and reference service funded by the state, as well as books on CD, books that can be downloaded to Ipods, movies, and "playaways," which are books already loaded onto something similar to an Ipod that can be checked out by patrons.

The current electronic card catalog enables people to look through it, access data and place holds on books from home.

"According to our statistics," said Lukkarila, "there are people doing that sort of thing at one or two in the morning, on Sundays, and at other times when the library is not open. Our data bases are available 24/7, too, so people can do homework anytime of the day or night."

Lukkarila said that despite the advent of electronic technology, however, books remain as popular as ever.

"We've been going through strategic planning and I've done surveys," she attested, "and books are still the number one thing that people use here."

Today, Lukkarila said the library faces the challenge of budget cutbacks due to the flagging economy - ironically, at the very time when libraries are needed most.

"With the threat of more cuts looming, the local library is already operating at a 'bare bones' budget," she said. "The efficiencies are already there, and libraries have been working in cooperative efforts since the 1960s when the Arrowhead Library System first formed."

Lukkarila said she can't help but harken back to the days of the Great Depression, when her father always talked about how important it was to have a place such as the library to turn to because they didn't have enough money to do anything else.

"I always remember how important libraries were to that generation," said Lukkarila, "and they didn't go away because the money went away....The public library has always been every man's library. You don't have to pay to get in, you can read what's there and learn and improve your life."

In addition to her work, Lukkarila's main hobby is genealogy, and she offers Finnish genealogy programs at the library as well as on Facebook, which has resulted in interaction with others around the world. As an offshoot of that, she has also become involved in the DNA Family Tree Studies, which she said has grown immensely, and is co-administrator for the affiliated Finland Project.

She's also a big dog lover - especially poodles! - and an active Kiwanian as well.

Still, reading remains near and dear to Lukkarila's heart, and she is currently reading "Population 485," a memoir by a man from Wisconsin about his life as an EMT and volunteer firefighter, as part of One Book One Community initiative in conjunction with the city of Duluth.

Lukkarila considers herself fortunate, indeed, to be making a living doing what she loves to do.

"It's been a very interesting process for someone like me," she said, " - who just started out liking to read!"

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