The Adult Quiet Reading Room has shelves of magazines and newspapers, and plenty of comfy chairs for the most pleasurable reading environment. Its large windows grant a spectacular view of the library’s outdoor Emery K. Smith Reading Garden. It’s beautiful and peaceful to sit there and watch the colorful fall leaves dance in the wind.
It’s also the people, the patrons that make it that cozy. Everyone seems to know just about everyone there. There is such a sense of community. The staff says South Lorain has a very tight-knit community, and it’s felt as well in the library.
Norma Preston, South Lorain Branch Librarian Supervisor, and Cheryl Grizzell, South Lorain Branch Library Associate II, liken the library environment with a popular 1980s and 1990s TV show. “We’re like ‘Cheers’ here, everybody knows your name,” Preston said. Grizzell laughed and added, “I told her that!”
After heading Lorain Public Library System’s (LPLS) South Lorain Branch for 22 years, Norma Preston is retiring Nov. 30
Since joining LPLS as the South Lorain Branch Supervisor back in 1991, she’s gotten to know the community her branch serves because that’s always been important to her. “Norma has taught me that the community is critical to the success of the library and that you should never undervalue personal connections,” Grizzell said. Grizzell has worked 10 years alongside Preston and will become the new South Lorain Branch Librarian Supervisor Dec. 2.
“Working with Norma has been a wonderful experience for me,” Grizzell said. “She has taught me a lot about being a librarian and being a manager, and she has made me appreciate my career choice even more than I already did,” she said.
Brunilda “Bruni” Vázquez, South Lorain Branch Library Assistant who’s been with LPLS for 27 years, has worked alongside Preston for her entire 22-year LPLS career. “Always watch what you say. Always cover your tracks by making copies of everything in case it gets lost in the shuffle. And last but not least, Big Brother is always watching,” Vázquez joked about what she learned from Preston.
Yes, Preston has a sense of humor, and so do her staff. They say working at South Lorain Branch is fun. The staff is not shy to dress up, whether it is for their popular “Night at the Library” event or for Halloween. “I have learned from Norma that a sense of humor is important, and to embrace change,” Grizzell said.
Preston says adapting to change is important when working in a library, and she’s got plenty of experience.
Before joining LPLS, Preston worked as a librarian in two correctional facility libraries, first in Orient near Columbus, and then in Grafton. Preston has a master’s in library science from Kent State University and a bachelor’s in history and political science from Bowling Green State University. She got her first job out of college working as a school librarian at Midview Junior High School in Grafton.
During her over two-decade-long LPLS career, Preston has witnessed great changes in the library world. The librarian role is no longer thought to be just for gentle women, and the library is no longer a completely quiet place.
She’s seen the shift toward non-print materials and the increase in computer and Internet usage at the library, and she’s weathered the library’s dwindling state funding. “I’ve lived through a couple library service or staff reductions due to state funding cuts,” Preston said. “When you’ve got to let good people go because you can’t afford to pay them…” She trailed off thinking of the unfortunate cuts.
Yet Preston said she’s grateful that the South Lorain community has been very supportive of their library and has helped pass its levies throughout the years.
Norma Preston and South Lorain Branch Library throughout the years
Preston is enthusiastic about illustrating her early library days – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Before South Lorain Branch Library got its new and current home on Homewood Drive in 2000, it had been housed in a leased storefront building on the corner of Route 57 and East 30th Street.
The then South Lorain Branch, housed on the first floor, weathered several small floods. It once got slammed with six inches of water, and in another incident suffered water damage after the second floor tenant’s bathroom flooded.
The storefront building also survived a garbage can fire – one Preston and Vázquez extinguished themselves using a snow shovel and buckets of water. No patron was in the library at the time, and thanks to their swift action, the building did not suffer much damage.
Preston said she and her staff are very grateful for the current South Lorain Branch building, especially because they remember the former building’s hardships. Obstacles and setbacks Preston now laughs off.
She said the construction of the new South Lorain Branch was one of her greatest library accomplishments.
In the spring of 2000, the new and current South Lorain Branch Library on Homewood Drive opened to the public. The new branch was three times larger than its former building, expanding from nearly 4,000 square feet to 13,000 square feet.
“I think back to those days and it makes me appreciate what we have now. This (South Lorain Branch) is a beautiful building. I truly believe the people in South Lorain really appreciate it. It gets pretty busy around here,” she said.
The new South Lorain Branch Library was able to offer more space for computers, books, DVDs and other library materials, meeting rooms for more programs, a better children’s area, a reading room and the International Room, housing a wide collection of bilingual and Spanish books.
It is an international and widely diverse community with people of all ages that visit and make the South Lorain Branch theirs.
Preston passionately developed a diverse materials collection and helped launch several successful ethnic events including: Hispanic Heritage Month, Cinco de Mayo, and Black History Month annual events. She’s proud of these events that are always well attended, she said.
Preston and I continued our conversation in the International Room that offers more great views of the fall foliage through its large windows.
In fact, the South Lorain Branch is fortunate to have great window views just about anywhere in the library.
Preston said she got the library she and the patrons envisioned.
“I wanted a library building that looked like it had always been here,” Preston said “And I wanted people to be able to look out large windows. The views here in the winter and all year round are so beautiful. In the spring, it’s always cooler out in the reading garden,” Preston said. She said some couples have taken their wedding pictures in the branch’s reading garden.
“It’s nice that they think of us on such a special occasion,” Preston said.
But that’s what South Lorain Branch Library has become to so many residents of Lorain – a beautiful jewel, an indispensible resource.
“We are in a beautiful building today thanks to Norma,” Vázquez said. “She was at the front of this major project with the staff and South Lorain community rallying to get it built,” Vázquez said.
Preston says libraries like the South Lorain Branch still matter in this ever-increasing digital age. Not everyone is computer or tech savvy, and not everyone has Internet access in their homes, she said. The library is an opportunity to actually see a face and make a connection, Preston said.
For those seeking a job but lacking the necessary computer or Internet skills, the branch offers free computer classes.
She added the South Lorain Branch is where elderly men frequent daily to read The Chronicle-Telegram, The Morning Journal, and other papers.
Preston said being exposed to new library books and other materials has made her job fulfilling. “It’s like having Christmas all the time,” she said.
But the library’s patrons have brought her greater career satisfaction. She said she has enjoyed watching kids that grew up using the library go on to universities. “There are a lot of good people here in South Lorain,” Preston said.” “I love hearing their stories. We truly are a community center for South Lorain,” Preston said.
She’s been a tireless advocate for improving library services in the South Lorain community. The patrons and staff who have gotten to know her by name wish her only the best in this new chapter.
“We’ve been through a lot together as you can see from the bad and good times,” Vázquez said. “She will be missed but she deserves to enjoy herself when she takes this new journey.”