With her cardigan and bookshelf print dress, Muriel Wheatley's title as new library manager at Vernetta Smith Timberland Chehalis Library is no surprise. Her vision for the library’s future, however, is outside the box.
Unlike the stereotype of the shushing librarian, Wheatley wants to welcome kids — even the loud ones — to the library for fun, socialization, exciting stories and adventure.
“Part of the beauty of this building is that it really looks like an old style Carnegie building with the big soaring ceiling and the plaster tiles and all of that. But, it does have the consequence of making it feel very serious. And I want to bring a little bit more fun back into the library,” Wheatley said.
The building was transformed into a modern classic during a 2008 renovation following a $1 million donation from the late Chehalian Orin Smith, a former CEO at Starbucks. Thus, the name “Vernetta Smith,” after Orin’s mother. It’s a gorgeous place to read, work and meditate. But Wheatley has noticed because of the building’s echo, parents tend to shush their children and discourage any rowdiness.
With the right soundproofing design and a dedicated children’s space, Wheatley believes the library could hold both quiet meditation and developmentally appropriate play.
Wheatley, 37, is originally from Olympia. After earning her undergraduate degree in English, she worked in a violin repair shop for 13 years before going back to University of Washington for a master’s in library science.
She was then hired at the Centralia Timberland Library as the operations supervisor, where she worked for about five years. Her biggest accomplishment in Centralia, she said, was piloting a program called “Picture Book City,” where picture books were divided into categories, allowing young readers to navigate the shelves without the help of a parent or librarian. The program was so successful that Timberland adopted it across the district.
“I was lucky enough to land a job at Centralia and it was really hard to leave. I mean, I wouldn’t have left it for many jobs, but I felt like this was a really good opportunity,” she said, adding later: “I've had this dream since I've been working in Centralia to bring the libraries closer together and foster more collaboration between the branches. Because we're only four miles away. I see it mirrored in our communities as well. We’re so close, and we could be supporting each other more.”
After one month in the Chehalis position, she said the most exciting part of her job was doing a little bit of everything. In her day-to-day, that includes working with staff and library guests to taking stock of shelves. On the grander scale, Wheatley is in charge of long-term program planning.
In her first year, she wants to focus inward and get the library processing and staff running more smoothly. That won’t look too dramatic from the outside besides a few collection shifts, she said.
Over time, she hopes to bring back youth storytime programs in a big way.
Alongside that, she intends to increase opportunities for teens including more in-person outlets for socialization at the library.
“When you're young, you create that ownership of the library,” she said. “You remember it well into your adulthood. And that's what I want kids to grow up with.”
In Centralia, many of the library clientele were people experiencing homelessness or substance abuse disorders, who came to the library for a place to find comfort and belonging, Wheatley said. That was the biggest challenge of working there, but was also an opportunity to live out Timberland’s mission of cultivating an inclusive spot for all people, she said.
“That is my focus. I want to create a space where people see themselves reflected in it, and I want to create a space where people know it's for them. And that doesn't matter, really, who it is,” she said.
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