By Julie Titone
Betsy Lewis is quick to name the highlight of her 18 years as manager of Monroe Library. It was the opening of the new library building in 2002. She still marvels at the evening light that pours in, the deer browsing outside the massive back windows, the artwork by a famous Monroe native.
“It was such a thrill to open the doors,” said Lewis, who is about to retire after 22 years with Sno-Isle Libraries. An open house will be held in her honor from 2 to 4 p.m. June 30 at the Monroe Library, 1070 Village Way.
At 20,000 square feet, the library is four times the size of the city library it replaced. But Lewis would be the first to say that a library is more than a building. It’s about community.
Shannon Dye, children’s services librarian, said Lewis has built relationships with countless community members.
“She seems to know everyone around town one way or another,” said Dye. “Betsy is very thoughtful in her approach to building and maintaining relationships in the community. It’s evident that she will miss Monroe and Monroe will miss her back.”
As career librarians go, Lewis was a late bloomer. She got her master of library science degree from the University of Washington when she was in her 40s. Before that, she had volunteered in her children’s school library and worked in a book shop—where, she said, she learned customer service skills early on.
She became Monroe’s managing librarian in 1996. She recalls being charmed by the small city, where kids on bikes stopped at the bakery on their way to school. Where there were trees down the middle of Main Street, which was flanked by “cool old houses” and was occupied at least once by a herd of runaway cattle.
One of her first reasons for connecting with townsfolk was to provide them with information about a proposed formation of a Library Capital Facility Area. That meant talking to clubs, civic organizations, churches.
“I really like people. I am curious about them, interested in them,” she said. “I think I got that from my mother.”
Voters approved the facility area and, later, a bond to build the new library. That’s when life got crazy-busy for Lewis. She was part of the Sno-Isle Libraries team that found property to build and worked closely with architects. All the while she kept the community informed about progress and managed the existing downtown library.
“During construction was the only time in my career I sometimes didn’t want to come to work,” she said. “We were hit with something every day.”
One “something” that made her happy was the acquisition of an original work by New York artist Chuck Close. The towering self-portrait, a screen print, dominates the library entry way.
“Chuck had a big show at the Seattle Art Museum during the library’s planning stage,” said Lewis, who majored in art as an undergraduate. “We found out he’d been born in Monroe. So an officer from Friends of the Monroe Library undertook the effort to get him to donate something. We thought he might give the library a poster. We never dreamed he’d donate an original.”
Lewis has worked hand-in-glove with Friends of the Monroe Library. She successfully nominated the organization for the Monroe Chamber of Commerce 2014 Community Caring Award. At the awards ceremony, its members returned the compliment by honoring her contributions. They gave her a framed accolade that included one of her favorite quotes, from author Neil Gamain: ‘’Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one.”
While the Internet has changed much about reading habits and library services, one thing that hasn’t changed, Lewis believes, is the value a library brings to a community. One example: In Monroe, where the number of Spanish speakers is growing, the library looks for bilingual staff, provides many Spanish-language materials, and offers online language-learning programs.
Lewis was deeply moved when, on the Saturday after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, a group of residents from various Spanish-speaking countries were gathered for English-language Talk Time at the library.
“Here was a group of people new to our country, all trying to express in English what the United States meant to them,” she said. “I heard them and thought, ‘This is why I work in a public library, because of the role we play in democracy.’ ”