In 1972, a 14-year-old Mount Airy High School student named Pat Johnston had to raise some money for a class trip to Washington DC. She went to the Mount Airy Public Library and asked for a part-time job.
She got the job, which was way more than an easy way to raise some funds.
This weekend, Pat – now Pat Gwyn – will be leaving the library for the last time as a clerk. In between was a career spanning more than 49 years, which Gwyn describes as her dream job.
“I enjoyed every minute. I never wanted to do anything else. “
Today is her final official day as principal librarian at the Mount Airy Public Library – her official title is Branch Manager for the facility that is part of the Northwest Regional Library System.
It has seen many changes over the years, from the time a book was bought in the library it meant asking the librarian to search an extensive catalog of cards to see if the book was in the library’s collection, to this day, when almost every book has been printed about the past or second century, is available in some form with a simple click of a smartphone.
With all of this, Gwyn has never lost her love of two things – books and people.
“I don’t know anywhere else to put these two things together, books and people, as you could in a library,” she said recently, exuding an enthusiasm that shows that Gwyn is one of those rare people who is her true one Calling continues early on in life and can then spend that life pursuing her chosen career.
When she was 5 years old, Gwyn’s family moved to Pilot Mountain, where she remembers one of her first visits to a public Atheneum.
“We walked all the way over Pilot Mountain to the library,” she says of a long and special trip to see a 5 year old. “We went in the door … I looked right across the room and saw Ruth Stone sitting there surrounded by books,” she said of the longtime librarian. “I thought, ‘This is the place to be.'”
And that was the place she often visited in her childhood and youth and then called herself the “patron saint” of the library.
On the way, her family moved to Mount Airy and she met the staff at the municipal library branch, which led to this first job.
“I went to (Librarian) Frances Tharrington and asked if she could use some help. … She made me work there. I think she even paid me out of pocket for about a month, ”said Gwyn, who after all these years was still grateful for this kind gesture from a woman who would become a mentor.
She stayed on the staff after the summer job, working on all the weird chores that had to be done there, eventually finishing high school and then going to Surry Community College.
Aside from a summer job trying her hand at a mill, she never left the city library and moved from one position to another – moving to the current location in 1982 – until she was appointed principal librarian in the late 1990s.
While many in the library field have degrees in library science or related disciplines, Gwyn said their education came through on the job training.
She specifically credits three people for her development – Frances Tharrington, Mary Combs, and Julia Sharp, her predecessors at the City Library.
“They were all wonderful. I learned different things from everyone. I hope I continued what they started, what they taught me. “
One of the things she remembers from her time working for each of these libraries is the family atmosphere they conveyed to all of the staff. She worked hard to continue.
“We really work as a team,” she said. “We are really a family. This family has changed over the years, ”she says, but the group always seems to work well together and really want to help each other and their patrons.
The importance of the library
When Gwyn thinks about her career, she doesn’t talk lightly about herself, but instead wants to focus on the calling of her life – the library itself.
“I’ve always believed that the library was for everyone,” she said.
Living up to this ideal has posed challenges. First, the potential field of library users is broad, including children who cannot yet read, teenagers, adults busy with work and family, and seniors who have been looking for fulfillment in recent years.
On top of that, the world has changed rapidly, as has what is available in the library. When she started, people would come in and ask the librarian for help finding a book, which often meant spending a few minutes browsing through the extensive card catalog, which in turn led them to the shelf where the book was.
Now? A quick google search and individuals can have the collective knowledge in the world on seemingly any subject.
And that, says Gwyn, leads to an important function of library services for some – access to the digital world.
“Not everyone has access to the Internet,” she says, which is especially true in rural communities like Surry County. This means that the library has computers with free Internet access available to anyone with a library card.
A few years ago, she said, when the textile companies began to close and thousands became unemployed, the library was ready to play a role in helping these people.
Many, she said, were now faced with retraining before going to school, an intimidating task as much of the work would be done on the computer. “A lot of them came to us and said they didn’t know how to use a computer.”
So the library started teaching basic computer classes – something it still does occasionally, or at least it did before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The library also places great emphasis on children’s programs, including stories for those who are new to reading, youth activities, summer reading programs, and other activities.
For adults, she said, in addition to the large and ever-growing catalog of physical books, customers can borrow e-books and participate in a range of activities – reading clubs, author talks, computer classes, and the like. The library also provided article printing services, resume writing assistance, voter registration, tax preparation for lower income individuals, and a variety of other services.
The library, she said, serves as a way to “pave the way” for residents who may not have access to or can afford paid professionals who provide these services.
With all of these services available in the ever-changing world, Gwyn still draws on her first experiences in the library by describing what she hopes the library will last.
“When I was young, we always went to the library no matter where we lived. We want people to see now that the library can be an integral part of their lives. “
Now that she is handing over the reins to someone else, Gwyn said she was ready for the next chapter of her life, whatever that might be.
“I’m kind of curious what I’ll do,” she said without any specific plans. Gwyn said that she and her husband John have no particular yearning to travel a lot, and while she enjoys a garden, it is her husband who does most of the actual gardening.
“I have grandchildren, I look forward to spending more time with them and maybe helping with their school. … I have two sisters who have retired. We couldn’t deal with the pandemic. I hope we can spend more time together. “
It’s also a good bet, whichever direction retirement goes, pretty often she will walk through a familiar door and become a “patron saint” of the library again.