Meet a Library Professional Who Uses Her Passion, Creativity and a 32-Foot Truck to Accomplish Her Work (Along with Ukulele Jam Sessions for Her Patrons!)

by Caitlin Williams, Ph.D.  

Welcome back everyone!  I hope you’re enjoying our tour around the country to meet and learn more about library professionals doing fascinating work in interesting locations, and making a real difference to the people they serve.  This past month, I had the pleasure of interviewing Bretagne Byrd, Bookmobile Librarian for Lewis & Clark Library, headquartered in Helena, Montana.  

As you might imagine, running a bookmobile in Montana takes a lot of work and during our interview, it became quite clear that Bretagne keeps quite busy accomplishing her day-to-day tasks.  As we talked, I also picked up on another quality that Bretagne brings to her work – her contagious enthusiasm and strong belief in the power of libraries to make a difference.  Bretagne’s creativity and delight in her work was so obvious during our interview that I’m certain the people she serves truly value what she brings to them.  If you’re looking for a true advocate for libraries and the access that libraries strive to provide, Bretagne is the person to talk to!

As you read through the interview, notice the positive approach that Bretagne takes to accomplishing her work.

Caitlin:  You live and work in Montana. Are you from Montana?

Bretagne: I grew up in Virginia.  I went to grad school for library science in Indiana.  Then I got this job and now I’m out here!  I like Montana a lot…. people are so nice here!   It’s taken a few years to get used to the weather.  And things move a little slower here, which is good.

Caitlin:  You’re in Helena.  Where is that in Montana?

Bretagne: Northwest of Billings, between Missoula and Bozeman …   kind of west Montana.

Caitlin:   Talk about your own career path and how you happened to get this position.

Bretagne.   I went to college in Newport News, Virginia and I got a degree in English Literature, so I promptly did not get a job.  It was in that Recession time period.   I accidentally graduated early by a semester and I really had no idea what to do so I packed up and I hiked the Appalachian Trail.  I did a little bit over half way that first year and went back the next year and did the other half.

I realized that every town has a public library and they’re free, and they’re public space. It was my only way to keep in contact with my family and let them know where I was through the internet and pay phones.  And, it was sometimes a way to get out of the weather.

The public libraries were something that I felt really passionate about, something I could believe in, and something I wanted to work for.

So, after I finished the Appalachian Trail, I got into library school in Indiana (IU) and I worked on my degree there.  After I graduated I got a part-time job at Bloomfield Eastern Green County Public Library in Indiana doing outreach.  In my work there, I created and offered library services to the jail, developed a deposit library to a low-income housing unit, and helped with the existing home-bound program. It was a great transition job to this one.

I learned about my current position through a friend who sent me the job description.  I applied and got this job for the Bookmobile librarian position in Helena.  They were just starting a Bookmobile Department.  It didn’t even exist.  We did have a bookmobile service in Lewis & Clark County in the 1960’s for a few years and it went into several counties, but this department is county-wide and it didn’t exist before.  

I was kind of doing that in my part-time job previously (working in outreach) and so I had a little bit of background in that area, making connections in the community and things like that, and so it was just a great fit.  And, here I am!

Caitlin: Since you’re not doing your bookmobile work in a large urban area, what are the particular challenges of doing your work in a more rural area?  I assume the weather is one of those challenges, even though it’s within just the one county.  Do you drive long distances?

Bretagne:  Our county is very big.  Here, with the bookmobile, it’s just an amazing tool.  You can go anywhere and bring the library to people who can’t physically get to the building.   It does come with a lot of challenges… the weather is one.   

Caitlin: Tell me more about what your routine is like.  How many stops do you make and what distances do you travel in your 32 ft. Bookmobile?

Bretagne: We currently have 32 permanent stops that run from Tuesday to Friday on a bi-weekly schedule. The most we do is 5 to 6 stops in one day. The stops may also have different visit lengths depending on the amount of people we are visiting. Some days that have only 3 stops either take longer to get to or need more time.

Our longest day is 80 miles from the main library with 3 stops along the way and back. An average of the mileage for all of the stops comes to about 50 miles a day. I have arranged the schedules by areas to help with the distances. Some stops may not be far from each other but offer service to a different part of the community. Some of our town days are very close, for instance, if we are visiting Assisted Living Facilities or low-income parts of Helena.

Caitlin: How well is the bookmobile received?

Bretagne:  We have 3 other branches in our county.  The bookmobile is – if not right under the main branch, or it’s playing tag with 1 of the other branches, we’re high in use/stats.  The community reception has been amazing.  We have a waiting list for stops.  It’s very well received and much needed.

Caitlin: Who uses the bookmobile?  

Bretagne:  This bookmobile covers all ages.  I try to serve everyone, so we serve pre-schools, elementary schools, and we also have community stops, and assisted living lobby stops, as well.  The bookmobile has everything.  If you can find it in our library, you’ll probably find it on our bookmobile.  A lot of the people I see don’t have access to the library.  So, one of the things I really work toward is making sure they’re getting anything they might need that we can provide.

Caitlin: Do they request materials ahead of time?  Do they come in to browse?

Bretagne: You can place a hold and you can pick it up at your next bookmobile stop.  We help people place reservations on things they might want.

Our collection changes a lot, so we’re constantly bringing on 100 to 300 items almost every day of what we think people on the stops would want for that day.  It’s always changing.  There’s always going to be something new on there for you.  We don’t like to have a stagnant collection on there.

A lot of people do place holds for specific things they want.  But most of the time they’re also able to find something on there that snags their attention, too.

Caitlin:  So, how often do you visit each particular stop?

Bretagne: We are on a 2-week schedule, Tuesday through Friday with permanent stops.   We see them every 2 weeks at the same time.  Evenings and weekends and Mondays are used for a different type of outreach.  So, if someone is having a program or if we’re doing a school visit, we do one-time visits, during those times as well.

Caitlin:  So, given that there are evening and weekend events, are you involved in these, as well?

Bretagne: Yes, I am. My schedule is very full.

Caitlin:  Any off time for hiking?

Bretagne: The cool thing is that in my off time, the trails are right outside my door in Helena!

Caitlin:  You sound very passionate and enthusiastic about what you do!

Bretagne:  I think that’s a really important part of my job.  It’s a lot of work   You’re constantly problem solving and figuring out how to make things work when it doesn’t seem that they might and I think that passion helps with that.  I really believe in what I’m doing and I want to keep it around and it’s something I feel I can put my time into, and it’s something that benefits not only myself but everyone involved.

Caitlin: What are the most interesting and the most challenging parts of your job?

Bretagne:  Most interesting?  That’s tough.  I do really enjoy going into the rural areas. We go also to some Hutterite colonies, which is a religious organization.  I enjoy seeing different people and I like communicating what library services we have that they might need, and sometimes you can get creative with that.

I know the Hutterites don’t use the Internet or technology in certain ways so it’s nice to adapt what we have for the different needs of people.

Caitlin: What’s an example of how you get creative?

Bretagne:  We have a 3D printer here at the library and I think that technology is so very important.  So, I was trying to figure out how to bring that (3D printer technology) to my people who can’t get here.  And so, I found these 3D pens for kids.  I’ve taken them out.  I have them in a little kit.  They’re amazing.  They’re mobile     I pack them up and take them to my stops and kids love them.  The technology is called 3D drawing and it’s really neat.  We work together to make a 3D drawing, like some glasses, planters, a dinosaur, or the Eiffel Tower.

So that’s one way I took something they’re doing at the main library and I figured out a way to take it out in a mobile fashion to everybody.

It’s things like that – you take an idea and think: how can I get this out on the road?

Caitlin:  Are you doing anything in addition to your day to day, which is really busy enough?

Bretagne:  I figure out different sorts of programming.  I’ve got one foot in the permanent stops and another foot in trying to figure out what I’m going to do next.

I’m working on quite a few things right now.  I just got back from ABOS, ALA’s organization for Book mobiles and outreach services and I got a lot of really good ideas for services for seniors to amp up our program for seniors.  

I also run a ukulele club here at the library.  And I’m doing concerts for bookmobile stops with that public ukulele club.

Caitlin:  What part of your work gives you the greatest satisfaction?

Bretagne:  It goes to back to why I’m into libraries. Why I’m passionate about them.  I really believe that libraries are very important places.  The access is extremely important to me.

Caitlin:  Any advice for students and for those professionals who are new to their jobs?

Bretagne:  I like this question.  I often think about library school.  I got out in a really tough time.  Working on your degree, you definitely get out of it what you put in. For instance, there were certain areas I felt more drawn to and I spent more time in those areas – even if we didn’t spend time on them in class.  So, the advice I’d give:  If you want to learn about something, take what you learn and run with it.

When you first get into the field, it’s often pretty difficult.  Me, in particular – I have pretty creative ideas sometimes.  So, it’s not always easy to go into an organization and make some changes.  It can be difficult but it’s still very worth it.

Caitlin:  For those who are creatively-minded, what’s your advice for getting ideas accepted?

Bretagne: Patience – and work on communications – how you may be communicating.  If you have this crazy idea, it might not be the best way to propose something.  But if you whittle it down and make it into something practical, it might be more well received.  You learn that as you go in anything.

Caitlin: Other advice?

Bretagne: Learn as much technology as you can.  That’s really important.  

Anything that you learn, somebody else might not know. Especially in a public library like where I work –   I still use some of the technology I learned in school.

Caitlin: What do you see as the biggest challenges in the field?

Bretagne: Here, I deal a lot with access.  I don’t know if, nationwide, other people are dealing with it on the scale that I’m dealing with it on a day-to-day basis.

I do think that, nationwide, censorship in many forms is something we’re dealing with. Also, I do hope that people find good and correct sources for the things they’re looking for.  And I think that’s definitely something we’re dealing with nationwide.

Caitlin: What are the skills that you think are the most important in your field?

Bretagne: Technology – learn it all, learn it well, be able to teach it.  That is so very important!

Another one is good management skills.  That’s so hard to learn and develop. And it’s a lot of work.  In library school, I wished they’d had a really good management class – including things like being a good manager, working with other managers – things like that.  I think those skills are vital.

Caitlin: How do you use your management skills day-to-day?

Bretagne: I am a full-time librarian and I also have parttime bookmobile assistants I manage. So, I am their supervisor.  I also work with the other managers at the library to do programming and to make sure the bookmobile collection is doing OK.  We have a really strong management team here but it’s very important to learn how to do that.

Caitlin:  How did you learn your management skills?

Bretagne: Some I learned through experience – trial and error, and making mistakes.  I also try to read a lot of books.  We have a really good management course here in Montana, through the state.  I’ve taken the management course there, it’s just amazing.  

It’s something that I work on in my private life, too – I read a lot of books and research.

I was an ALA Emerging Leader a couple years ago.  That program was great.  I try to get into anything that will help me develop those leadership and management skills.  Emerging Leaders is a great program!

I get a lot out of ABOS.   The bookmobile and outreach conference that the Association for Bookmobile and Outreach Services puts on is so specific and so applicable.

Caitlin: Is there anything else you want to add?

Bretagne:  I have an extremely unique job.  It’s different every day and it’s nice to be able do something I really care about.  

Caitlin: How about in your off time?  How do you take care of yourself?

Bretagne: I love Montana!  I like being outdoors.  I love to ride bikes – I picked up mountain biking since I moved here, I picked up cross country and downhill skiing.  Mainly I’m outside – backpacking and camping.  Ideally, I like to get off the grid a bit especially since I’m so busy during the week.  

Caitlin: Last question – How long have you been in your position?

Bretagne: My 5-year anniversary was in July.  So, I’m going on 6 years in this position.

Caitlin: Congratulations!

As you read through this interview, did you notice Bretagne’s focus toward action?  One of the hallmarks of those who are engaged in their work – and who show a large measure of satisfaction in their work– is an action focus.  For instance, pushing yourself to come up with solutions to challenges (like Bretagne did when she took those 3D pens out on the road), and regularly considering how you can better meet the needs of those you serve, demonstrates initiative – and keeps your thinking relevant and fresh.

Also, having a learning mindset keeps you curious and open to new ideas – both are critical attributes in our ever-changing workplace!  And, as Bretagne demonstrated in her interest in management and leadership, learning can stretch your way of looking at and performing in your job.  It may also open up opportunities you haven’t considered before.  

One last point for you to consider – think about how well you take care of yourself, balance your life, and bring some fun into your life and work.    I don’t know about you, but picturing ukulele jam sessions held at bookmobile stops in rural Montana brings a smile to my face.  And even though Bretagne’s interest in all things outdoors may not be the same as yours –  it is important to ask yourself: how do you take care of yourself in your off-hours?  What and who brings joy to your life?  Making time for robust out-of-work pursuits has been shown over and over again to enhance our lives both inside and outside our workplace.