Librarian retiring after 38 years of service in Mason County

February 23, 2014
Bob Dickson in the Ludington branch library.

Bob Dickson in the Ludington branch library.

By Rob Alway. Editor-in-Chief. 

When I was a teen back in the 1980s, I developed an interest in local history. I would spend many afternoons at the Mason County Library in Scottville going through old newspaper clippings and books. Learning how to do research helped me develop a career as a journalist. Always there to help me was Bob Dickson, the county’s librarian. Because of that, I consider Bob Dickson as one of the people who inspired me to develop an interest in journalism and thus is indirectly a person responsible for the creation of Mason County Press.

Since those days, the Mason County Library merged with the Ludington Library and became the Mason County District Library, with branches in Scottville and Ludington. Bob became the director of the district, giving him a total of 38 years working in Mason County. He is set to retire the end of the month. 

I sat down with Bob last week and we chatted about his career. See here about Bob’s retirement party and welcoming his replacement. 

LUDINGTON — Bob Dickson has been an institution in Mason County. He was one of two people to be the librarian of the Mason County Library, hired in 1977 to replace founding librarian Ruth Vandermolen, who served the library since its beginning in 1947.

Born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Bob and his wife Carol had only planned on staying in Mason County for a few years, 38 years later they wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else.

“After college I moved to Chicago. I sent out 100s of resumes and I got hired in Scottville, Michigan. My only experience with Michigan was driving I-94 between Chicago and Detroit. It was ugly. But, the further north we drove we realized its beauty.”

In 1977 the Mason County Library consisted of its small building on East State Street in Scottville and a bookmobile, that would travel to area schools and rural neighborhoods. Books were checked out using a pen and paper card system. Besides some people coming in to read the newspaper or to do some historical research, that was pretty much the extent of the library’s use. Just a little background, the Mason County Library was started in the basement of the Ludington Library.

Bob, 67, says working under a county system had its challenges. The library was supported through the county’s general budget, which meant that its funding was at the mercy of the county board of commissioners. This became especially evident when the county was faced with the major expense of capping its landfills. Bob says money was diverted from the library fund.

In the early 1990s a group of citizens, led by County Commissioner Tom Posma and former Mason County Central Superintendent Richard Weaver, started to look into the possibility of merging the county library with Ludington’s library.

“It was a tough sell to Ludington, its library was in much better financial condition. If it wasn’t for Paul Peterson, who was chairman of the Ludington Library Board, I’m not sure it would have happened. Paul had the vision to see the big picture and realize that a district library would far better serve the county as a whole, beyond just Ludington.”

In 1994 voters of Mason County approved a millage of .5 mill to fund the Mason County District Library. The library district became autonomous from local governments, however its board is appointment by municipal boards.

Since its formation the library district has seen tremendous growth, not just in the size of its two buildings but also in usage.

“Until the 1990s libraries were pretty much almost identical to what they had been for at least 50 years prior,” Bob says. “They used the same processes, manually checking out books with pen and paper. The computer changed all that.”

Technology in general has changed libraries considerably, he says.

“Libraries always adopted new things, like back in the ‘70s and ‘80s we had a collection of 33 1/3 rpm records and they could be checked out along with record players. In the ‘80s we had VHS tapes which eventually became DVDs. Now, we offer downloadable movies and books.”

Bob says many people believed that technology would mean the end of the public library. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he says. “The libraries are used more today than they ever were before. But, our purpose has changed. It’s interesting because in the ‘60s people predicted the paperback would kill the library. Libraries were started because books were expensive and the paperback changed that.”

Under Bob’s leadership, the library district has been aggressive with technology. He recalls back in the late ‘80s the library started Lumanet, an online community bulletin board that was accessed with 10 phone lines. Users could share information with each other. The Internet, which became accessible in Mason County in the mid-90s, took Lumanet’s place.

The library became a place where people could access the Internet using stationary computers. Eventually, in the early part of the century, the library added WiFi services.

Bob says the library means access to all. It’s services — while technically not free because they are paid for through property taxes — do not require membership or entrance fees.

In addition to technology, today’s Ludington and Scottville branch libraries are also places for various community groups, especially children.

“In a community where there are few after school activities, we are the place to be,” Bob says. “We are also pretty much a daycare for the homeless. It’s not a role that we would have decided to solve, 30 years ago homeless weren’t hanging out at the library.”

The library also offers public access television programming through Charter. Programs include Ludington City Council meetings and historical programs. The programs are also available on the Internet channel Vimeo.

The libraries are also a place to get tax forms. Bob says they offer the largest collection of forms outside of accounting firms.

The demand for more services has meant expansion of the library’s buildings. In 2002 the Scottville library was expanded. In 2012 the expansion of the Ludington library was completed. Those expansions have meant more services for children and also community rooms, available to non-profit organizations and government boards.

While the services of the library district have increased, the budget has remained fairly consistent at around $900,000 a year. Most of the funds come from the .5 mil property tax collection. Penal fines from the Michigan State Police account for about $100,000 a year.

That budget funds the library district’s four full time employees and 28 part-time employees, along with book and technology purchases and services.

“Our budget is really stable since we’ve become a district library,” Bob says. “It’s never really enough money but on the other hand it suffices.”

Bob and his wife, Carol, plan to stay in Mason County. He says he isn’t quite sure what he will do next. He said he will still be involve with some operations at the library, such as running the public access channel, until the new director, Eric Smith, takes it over.

Two open houses will be held this week to honor Bob: Wednesday, Feb. 26 from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Scottville branch; Thursday, Feb. 27 from 4 to 6 p.m.

There will also be an open house on Monday, Feb. 24 from 4 to 6 p.m. to honor Eric Smith, the newly hired director.

Bob’s last official day is Feb. 28.


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