For a young girl growing up in a farming community in Avoyelles Parish during the ‘60s, entertainment could be hard to find.
But one thing that Beth Vandersteen could look forward to was a visit from the Avoyelles Parish Library’s bookmobile program. Library workers Mrs. Tanner and Mr. Dacody would drive to Vandersteen’s town, Evergreen (population 310 currently) and deliver books to people who could not access the library in Marksville.
For Vandersteen, the the two librarians offered her an escape.
“It absolutely changed my life. I could go anywhere I wanted to go.” she said. “When you’re 8 years old and barefoot they seem like rockstars.”
Each visit, the two librarians would recommend different stories for Vandersteen. Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys and a mysterious title “The Boys Who Vanished” were among the books Vandersteen remembered reading as a child.
That experience is also what helped launch her 50-year career as a librarian. After 10 years as the head of the West Baton Rouge Parish Library, she has finished the final chapter of her professional career.
While her childhood affection for the Avoyelles Parish Library played a significant role in her life, she never made plans to become a librarian.
“I fell into it,” she said.
While still in high school, Vandersteen was working with another girl at the school’s library during study hall, she said. One day, the school librarian told them about an opening shelving books at the public library. The other girl, who’s father worked at the bank, went home to get dressed for an interview at the library. Vandersteen went straight to the library after school.
By the time her co-worker arrived, Vandersteen was already shelving books.
Her next job would be at the Jackson Parish Library in Jonesboro, where she worked for six years, six days a week for $0.75 an hour.
After she received her master’s degree in library sciences at LSU, Vandersteen went on to become assistant director of the Rapides Parish Library, where she worked for 25 years.
Like her career, her job in Port Allen was a little unexpected. She and her husband were closing on a condo in Baton Rouge and she stopped at the library to make some photocopies for the sale. The previous director told her she was about to leave. Not long after that, Vandersteen was the new director.
“I just feel very lucky to have the career I had and to end it here,” Vandersteen said. “I’ve enjoyed it very much. We’re small enough where we can greet people who walk in the front door; you get to know their kids and what they like to read.”
Vandersteen marked youth outreach among her biggest achievements as director.
The library previously did not have a budget for teenagers and its young adult selection was extremely limited, she said.
With a little Feng Shui and decoration, the library was able to revamp its youth section.
“Education is part of our mission,” she said. “You can’t educate anyone if you can’t attract them to walk through the door.”
The library’s technological growth is another major achievement, she said.
“If you can’t get here or you’re stuck in traffic, you have a whole library available in your living room,” she said.
Many of the library’s resources are offered straight from its website.
People still come in for books, but they also visit to scan documents, upload resumes and learn how to navigate computers in order to keep up with the pace of the 21st-century.
“Libraries evolve. The mission stays the same – information, education, recreation – but the way we deliver that mission changes constantly,” she said. “I hope I’ve contributed in that we’ve been able to grow our technological offerings as new technology becomes available.”
Vandersteen credited her predecessors for inheriting an “excellent” library, as well as the library staff.
“A building full of books and computers is a warehouse, not a library,” she said. “It takes trained staff to serve the public and connect them to the library resources they need”
Vandersteen said she looks forward to spending time with her grandchildren, writing about her family’s history and traveling with her husband in the coming months.
She will be succeeded by Ruth Bond, former director of public services at Kitsap County Regional Library in Washington state.