This year's observance of National Library Week, April 9 — 15, celebrates the contributions of our nation's libraries and librarians to promote and support library use. The Indianapolis Public Library is proud to share the story of the longest-tenured librarian in the Library's illustrious 144-year history.
From her beginnings as a page in 1967 to her current role as overseer of eight Library branches, Sharon Bernhardt reflects upon her career at The Indianapolis Public Library as her life's one constant that, in turn, has afforded her great opportunities to grow and adapt over the decades.
This year, IndyPL celebrates Bernhardt's 50th year of continuous service, the most for any Library employee past or present. Her introduction to the Library as a page at the Eagle Branch, then located in a strip center on Tibbs Avenue, served as "a good first 'real' job" while attending Northwest High School. Continuing to work at the Library throughout her postsecondary schooling, Bernhardt graduated in 1973 from Marian College (now University) with the goal of becoming a social worker. "But at that time in my life I wasn't ready for that, so I stayed with the Library." After earning her Masters of Library Science in 1978, Bernhardt's stay has become her calling.
Tracking Bernhardt's travels throughout the Library system is as daunting as it is impressive. After two stints at the Eagle Branch as a clerk and library assistant, she moved to the Haughville Branch where she was a children's librarian for four years. Next it was on to the former Marwood Branch for four years as a children's librarian. Her first branch manager's position came at the former Prospect Branch where she also served as the children's librarian.
Then came positions at the former Wanamaker Branch as manager and adult librarian; a return to the Eagle Branch as manager ("at that time my lifelong career goal"); manager at the Nora Branch and Area Resource Manager for eight Library locations. "In addition to my ARM duties, I am the circulation ARM working with patron issues, process and policy changes."
In 2015, Bernhardt was named Interim Director of Public Services, a position highlighted by her focus on the merger of the Beech Grove Public Library with IndyPL in the summer of 2016. She has now returned to the ARM role where her attention is split among the Nora, Glendale, College Avenue, Fountain Square, Garfield Park, Southport and Beech Grove branches, as well as the InfoZone in The Children's Museum.
What differences does Bernhardt observe in library service today compared to the 60s and 70s? "That was a long time ago, but we had shorter hours and didn't open until noon three days a week. Only Central Library was open on Sunday. I guess you could say things were simpler, but I wouldn't say things were slower because we had less staff with the reduced hours. I think we knew our patrons better because everything required staff assistance… there was no self-service."
Bernhardt experienced first-hand the transformation of library services from the card catalog to computerized transactions, such as reserving materials via the online catalog. Whereas these changes have improved access, they elicit from Bernhardt a note of nostalgia. "Back in the day we used a photo-charging checkout system where we actually photographed a person's library card, as well as the card with the information about the book and a transaction card that was connected to the due date for the material. Oh, how things have changed!"
It's said in the library profession that "once a children's librarian, always a children's librarian." It's that role for which Bernhardt is most remembered by patrons even today. "Sharon was a young, personable, outgoing employee at that time," says Paula Guthrie, who took her children to the Eagle Branch in the late 60s and early 70s. "She always took time to greet us when we came in, which was pretty much weekly. Stephen, my then six-year-old always looked for her." Guthrie remembers Bernhardt being taken aback when she brought Stephen's son to the library some 30 years later. "I'll never forget the look on her face when she made the connection to the six-year-old all those years ago. Sharon is a special person and we are all very fortunate to have had her in our lives."
Patron Gloria Keating also remembers Bernhardt during those early years at the Eagle Branch. "It was our Wednesday tradition for myself and my four children to visit the Library. After all these years I can still remember how friendly and kind she was, especially when giving my children a quick peek at the new books, which they really enjoyed. I thank her for all the great memories."
One of Bernhardt's fondest memories is of a child care center she visited monthly to tell stories. "One day I got a strange feeling that the kids were getting closer and closer to me as the story went on. So the next time I went to turn a page, I didn't turn my head and, sure enough, they were scooting up every time I turned a page. By the time I finished the story, they were sitting on my feet!"
Having left her imprint on more than one-third of the Library's entire history, Bernhardt's iconic status is being celebrated during a week in which libraries and librarians throughout the country are lauded for the important role they play in the lives of individuals. "If you are called to do something, you'll put more into it than if you're just paid for it," said Jackie Nytes, IndyPL CEO. "I feel Sharon really believes in her work and that has kept her in the game and ready to serve! It is so very fitting that we celebrate her."
Sharon Bernhardt feels that her calling at IndyPL isn't done quite yet. "I have no immediate plans to retire. Maybe in a year or two."