I Love My Librarian winner Rosemary Cooper: A small town library with big ideas

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by Steve Zalusky

If you want to find out what’s happening in Warwick, New York, visit the Albert Wisner Public Library.

That wasn’t always the case. Cooper, one of the winners of the 2017 I Love My Librarian Award, transformed this small-town library that was underfunded and inadequate into a vibrant 21st-Century community center, said her nominator, Susan Supak.

The library’s value to the community was thrown into vivid relief during Hurricane Sandy. The hurricane rolled through the Warwick area, resulting in downed trees, power outages and flooded roads. In fact, for some, the power outages lasted for as long as 10 days, a hardship made especially difficult by a shortage of gasoline for cars and generators.

The library became a refuge to residents seeking heat, electricity and computers to reach out to loved ones.  Cooper responded to the challenge, extending regular operating hours to meet the demand.

Her engagement with the community has not been limited to extraordinary events or natural disasters.

She collaborated with the Warwick Valley Central School District, which serves more than 3,500 K-12 grade students, when lack of funding forced the district to cancel all field trips. With the cooperation of the district, she was able to get school buses to take children to the library to attend a series on the importance of writing and tolerance through an examination of the life of Anne Frank.

The library was the first venue in the United States to host the Reading and Writing with Anne Frank program, developed by the Anne Frank Center.

Supak said, “As a volunteer docent and photographer for this program, I saw and heard firsthand the tremendous influence the activities and presentations had on the school children. Many could relate personally to the value of writing as a means of expressing themselves and as a way of speaking out against bullying or other aspects of injustice in their own lives.”

Cooper has also worked with Family Central, a grassroots program that provides a support network for parents and caregivers of children from birth through adolescence. Its founder, Beverly Braxton, said Cooper is the reason why “the community sees the Library as a dynamic place of possibility. It is because of her belief in the Library as a place where ordinary people can bring their ideas, and a place that offers information about their concerns. Rosemary has her ‘ear to the ground’ in terms of what the community’s needs and concerns are and how the Library can help address them.”

Cooper helped advertise their events, included them in the library’s print and electronic programs bulletin, sent special announcements to local newspapers, created flyers and posters and set up online pre-registration on the website for all of their events.

She also started the Career Transition Program (CTAP), which offers job coaching, interview skills and personal resume review. The program, which has helped many people in Warwick who have lost their jobs, has served as a model to other libraries.

Cooper showcases her community with events like a monthly program in which she highlights individual artists. Each exhibit features a themed presentation in the library’s gallery space, where artists discuss their work.

Supak, a photographer, said Cooper, after seeing her work, approached her about presenting her photographs in the gallery space.

“She cleverly combined my display of regional bird photography with literature on our local section of the famous Appalachian Trail. Incorporating my work with material that fostered a deep appreciation of the natural world made me feel part of a larger community, encouraging my neighbors to explore the natural beauty of our area,” she said.

Cooper not only helped with moral support, but also helped hang and design the layout of the display, going so far as to climb ladders.  Later, she said, Cooper asked her to cooperate on a special collection of materials on mental illness and emotional well-being.

Supak said, “She intuited a need to gather information on this sensitive and much-needed topic in one semi-private area of the Library, creating a safe place for individuals and family members to get reliable and timely information about mental health issues from books and local mental health professionals and organizations.

“I felt particularly honored to be asked by her to develop a series of photographs that would complement the collection and lend an aura of calm and peace to the reading area.”

Cooper’s work has not gone unnoticed by local officials.  Mayor Michael Newhard said in a public address that the library has “blown open its walls to become a community center.”

Michael Sweeton, Warwick Town supervisor, calls it “the heart of our rural/suburban agricultural valley…the anchor of our vibrant town.”

Interviewed upon receiving the award, Cooper said, “It’s very humbling, but enormously gratifying. It means to me that somebody in my community actually took the time to champion and to celebrate what it is that we have been able to do in the community.”

She said, “It doesn’t mean that I’m such a wonderful, great person. It just means that our library has been able to accomplish a lot of things under my leadership but (also) through the work of so many other people.  Kind of I feel like I’m here to accept this almost on behalf of our whole community.”

Explaining her motivation to pursue librarianship, she said, “I just love libraries. Libraries have always been a special place for me. As a young child, I grew up in a large family, and they would go often to our local public library. It was the first place that I began to discover and feel comfortable in my own skin.

“Since then I have now taken and made that a whole career, of making them places where other people will feel welcome and comfortable and be able to explore whatever it is they need to on their own journeys.

Cooper said of her impact, “I just hope that I will have made the world a little bit of a better place. I will have helped people find a way to manage with whatever life throws them and to be able to discover what it is that they have and their gifts and talents, and libraries are an amazing place for that.

“I spend a lot of my days just walking around looking at people in the library and imagining what they are doing, what they are hoping to achieve, what they are striving for.”

Learn more about the winners of the 2017 I Love My Librarian Award.