By Lori Lindner
North Liberty Leader
NORTH LIBERTY– Dee Crowner has cracked a lot of books in the last 26 years. She has worked through three major construction projects, mentored a staff that grew from one to 14 in number, supervised dozens of fundraisers, and helped forge a path of progress as the population of North Liberty exploded by 170 percent in just 12 years.
Now she is looking forward to authoring a whole new chapter in life.
Crowner was first hired in November 1986 as a part-time director. Within six months, the city changed the director’s position to full-time, and Crowner has been at the helm since.
At the time, Crowner and one other staff person– then 72-year-old Faye Clinton, who started as a volunteer with the Green Thumber’s program– managed the small library that consisted of 1,400 square feet in the building that formerly housed city hall, council chambers and currently, the North Liberty fire department offices.
In 1997, the library expanded into a 6,500 square feet of space in the new North Liberty Community Center, and the library staff expanded as well; from two to four. Within a few years, continued population growth, advances in technology and increased library usage demanded more staff, updated space and another expansion.
In September 2013, the North Liberty Community Library celebrated $3.4 million expansion of 11,000 square feet that brought additional meeting and study rooms, a youth story time room and adjacent reading space for young children, a teen lounge, a comfortable periodical reading area and several extra Internet and computer stations, all designed to accommodate patrons of all ages and interests.
In one of the final days of her tenure, in her barely-lived-in, purple-hued office, Crowner joked that her only regret was that her replacement would likely repaint the walls.
An aptly colorful comment from a decidedly colorful character.
Sporting 14 tattoos, which all “have personal meaning to me,” Crowner said, she recounts the six different shades of hair she has worn over the years.
“Red, blue, teal, pink, fuchsia and purple,” she said. The tattoos first came at the age of 57, when she decided if her staff members could get a tattoo, she could too. The hair coloring started as a Summer Reading Program challenge, and became so popular with the kids she kept it up.
In keeping with her dynamic appearance, Crowner has also lived near the cutting edge when it comes to delivering library services. The North Liberty Community Library automated early, doing away with patron library cards for years. It was one of the first in the state to switch from print reference to an online reference system. In 2011-2012, Crowner and assistant library director Jennie Garner spearheaded a year-long change in the way the library’s books were cataloged and shelved, transitioning away from the familiar Dewey Decimal system to a subject-based system, another first in the state.
“North Liberty Community Library was an early adopter of subject-based classification, meaning we no longer use the Dewey Decimal system to shelve materials,” said Garner. “Dee attended a workshop at a library in Colorado that had done it, and came back fired up to make it happen for us.She was always open to change and trying new things that made better sense to serve our patrons and the community.”
Through the years, Crowner has worked to increase the availability of the latest technology, first offering VHS tapes for checkout, moving to DVDs for videos and CDs for books and music, and eventually advancing to ebooks and mp3 versions for patrons’ use. Today, the library offers modern conveniences of wireless laptops and tablets for use in the facility, classes for patrons on how to use various tech devices, useful computer databases for reference materials and magazines that can be checked out online, and self-checkout of materials.
“It’s funny how we’ve come full circle,” Crowner said, as the new self-checkout system once again requires patrons to carry their own library cards.
The county, state and City of North Liberty have been financially supportive enough that keeping up with the Joneses has not been an issue, and keeping up with advances in technology has been a matter of course.
“Some libraries like to wait and see how the technology works out first,” said Crowner. “We tend to say, ‘let’s do it,’ and then if it doesn’t work, we won’t do it any more. Fortunately, we hired a technology services librarian, and she is on top of everything. Our technology use has grown considerably since then.”
Garner said Crowner has made it easy for staff to be innovative and have a vision for the library as well.
“We used to have a running joke at the library that if you had an idea, you should really think it through before proposing it to Dee because she would say ‘sure, go for it,’ and then it became your project to carry out,” Garner said.
Crowner said one of the biggest innovations the library has made was not an investment in equipment or tech devices, but in people.
“We start our volunteers when they are in fourth grade, and I don’t think there are too many other libraries in the state that start them that young,” she said. “Our volunteers do everything we do, and that has helped us keep the desk going, keep the back office going, and keep us open as many hours as possible. We offer almost everything patrons want. If it wasn’t for staff and volunteers, we wouldn’t be able to do that.”
And the biggest accomplishment she has seen in the last 26 years?
Combining the functions of recreation, aquatics, library and meeting space in one facility was great foresight on the city’s part, Crowner said, which has allowed the library to become an integral part of daily life in the community.
“As fast as the city has grown,” Crowner said, “we’ve managed to keep up with it. I used to get excited when we’d get more than 50 patrons a day. When we moved to the community center, the number of visitors tripled. Now, since we moved into the expanded space, we average about 600 people a day.”
After helping the library reach that and all other levels of achievement, Crowner announced her retirement early last month, just a couple of weeks before her final day of Dec. 31; no muss, no fuss, and no lengthy epilogues.
“After we got all this done, I looked around and thought it would be good to go out on a high note,” Crowner said. She admitted hating the winter commute from her home in Cedar Rapids, but more compelling was the desire to travel– Great Britain and Australia are on her bucket list– and spend more time with her great-nephew and great-niece, who became serial subjects of Crowner’s monthly library newsletter and the apples of her eye.
Crowner said she had no immediate plans, other than to see what the future brings.
“I’m sure I’ll be volunteering come spring, but I don’t know if I will volunteer in a library or someplace else,” said the 68-year-old Crowner. “Who knows? The whole world is open to me now.”
And with that, the tattooed, purple-haired, break-the-mold librarian turns another page.