Clara Bohrer is now in her 20th year as the director of the West Bloomfield Township Public Library and has guided the library through turbulent times and it’s brightest moment. Bohrer was instrumental in promoting the need for a renewal of the library’s millage, which resulted in township voters approving a 15-year millage renewal to fund library operations last November. Then last November, Bohrer traveled to the White House to receive the 2010 National Medal for Museum and Library Service from First Lady Michelle Obama. It was an incredible moment for the Dearborn native who worked at libraries in Dearborn, Brighton and Farmington and earned two degrees from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree from Wayne State University.
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SCN: What did it mean to you and your fellow library employees for the West Bloomfield Library to receive the 2010 National Medal for Museum and Library Service?
CB: I think that we were all, first of all, very surprised. But I think that it really meant a lot to us because we were being recognized for all the work that we do in the community, for the community, with the community and with the many partners that help us to fulfill the goals that we set for the library. So we were so pleased that we received such great recognition for what we do.
SCN: Tell us about your experience of traveling to Washington D.C. and getting to meet First Lady Michelle Obama. How much time did you spend with the First Lady? What did you talk about? What was your sense of her after your encounter?
CB: This was something that was quite unexpected because last year the medal winners were not received at the White House for reasons I don’t know, but this year when we got the call that we were to go to the White House, we were very surprised and very pleased.
Mrs. Obama was extremely gracious. She made us feel very, very special and often times you know you’re doing a good job and you’re making a impact, but when you’re there at the White House and the First Lady is telling you that you are making an important contribution and an impact in your community, but also in the nation, it really is more special than you can imagine.
I thought what was really nice about the event is that I was able to bring a community member, Cameron Shaw. This is a young man that grew up in the community and in the library. He moved to West Bloomfield when he was 10 years old and he was a child in a single-parent home and he spent every afternoon in the library and he sort of grew up with all of us. We watched him mature and we watched him become a success and move on to college.
So when we were asked to bring somebody that had some sort of an affinity or who we had an impact on, we immediately thought of Cameron and to see him there and to see the First Lady talking to him and encouraging him to do well and to continue to move forward in his career, that was very special to me. I wish his mother could have been next to me, so that was an important part of going as well. But also, the White House was decorated for the holidays, and that was beautiful to see as well. So I guess it will be one of those things in my life that I wish every single person here working in the library could have been there with me to experience the joy of it.
All the medal winners prior to the celebration got to meet and take photographs with her. What she did is she talked about the importance of libraries and the job we are doing and how we need to continue to do it because libraries impact the lives of people, that the arts and education are important. So it was sort of pep talk to us that we do make a difference and libraries and museums are very important assets to our country.
My sense is that she is a very strong woman and very articulate and passionate about our country, that she wants everyone in our country to live a good life, to have a good quality of life and I think she was very happy to be there honoring us and that it was something that she enjoys doing.
SCN: The West Bloomfield Library also received the 2011 Community Leader Recognition Award from the United We Walk event. How is the West Bloomfield Library involved in community service in the township?
CB: Well, I think that we do many things, for the library is a partner with many other organizations in the community and helps to make things happen that improve the quality of life. For example, the library is a partner with United We Walk and we work with them on their website to help their project and their program. But, more importantly we will partner with the schools and we will work together to improve children’s reading skills and to instill that love of reading in the community.
We work with some of our other partners like Oakland Community College and the Jewish Vocational Services. We work with them for that whole workforce development where we have services for people that are underemployed or unemployed to come in and to research job opportunities, to learn about the new social media in job searching and to hone their resumes. So we sort of have tentacles throughout the community in all aspects working with partners to provide service in the community.
SCN: Last fall, West Bloomfield Township voters overwhelmingly approved a 15-year millage renewal to fund library operations at the main library and Westacres Branch. How important was it for the millage to be renewed and what dividends has it paid so far?
CB: It was extremely important in terms of if the community wanted to see library service exist similar to how it is at this point in time. Had we not passed that millage, we would have lost significant funding that would have forced us to close the Westacres Branch and to severely reduce the hours at the main library. So the dividend that is being paid is that it’s sort of business as usual here at the library.
People come in, there’s a strong collection, the hours remain the same and they can use the library as they always have, so I think that when they looked at all that information in the millage and they saw the two scenarios, I believe that is why we were so successful at the polls. They were telling us, “Yes, we value library service and we would like it to continue in West Bloomfield.”
SCN: A year ago, we did a cover story on lakes area libraries and you said at the time that the library had been experiencing an increase in its collection and visits, but that hours were reduced and there was a wage freeze in place and benefit reductions implemented. What are your feelings on the current state of the library? What new programs, if any, are in the works for 2011 at the West Bloomfield Library?
CB: Well, I will say there is still a wage freeze. We continue to look at benefits and rebid them and to change deductibles. We have to maintain, we have to look at our costs and be very, very careful in our spending because even though the millage was passed, we’re still having to cut — not severely like closing a building, but we have to contain our costs and work to continue to bring them down because revenue is still declining.
Property values are still going down, so we are still involved in that and we will continue to do so. But the library board has said that the two things that they really, really feel that we are trying to maintain is the strong materials collection in all the formats, because that’s the heart of the library, as well as our hours and access to the library.
I don’t know if we actually anything new coming out. We’re looking at e-books now. They’re in huge demand. Publishers are very, very cautious about allowing libraries to purchase e-books, and so that is a concern to us. There’s a huge demand for e-books. We have some e-books, but not all the publishers will sell to libraries, so we’re working through our professional associations in other ways. We need to change that to come up with something that’s okay for both publishers and the library so that we will be able to do e-books because we’re getting requests every day, people asking us how to use their e-book, how to download the books that we do have.
And so that is something that we’re going to place some emphasis on in the coming year because there must have been a great number of e-books given out for the holidays as gifts this year because people really are coming droves with their e-book readers.
SCN: What’s your take on Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed funding cuts for Michigan libraries? How would his proposal impact the West Bloomfield library?
CB: We are very, very conservative in our budgeting, so we budgeted absolutely to come from state aid to us, so anything that we would receive would be very nice. But we feel that first and foremost we have property tax support and that’s what we’re trying to live with in that budget to provide library service.
What’s really concerning me about the governor’s budget as he reduces money that comes to public libraries, however, is the Michigan Electronic Library, which is known as MEL, and MELCAT, which is the interlibrary loan system. Our community uses those two services very much. MEL is not only used for students to do homework, but MEL is used for workforce development, people looking for jobs, people working on resumes.
They are fabulous resources in the Michigan Electronic Library and no library can afford in this day and age to buy every book. So as (we) work together and collaborate through interlibrary loan and MELCAT, that is a very important service, because if we don’t own the book, a person can come in, press a button on the computer, request it and within a couple days it will come here to West Bloomfield from another library that owns it.
So these are two very valuable services. In the governor’s budget, they did put a line item for the MEL and the MELCAT, so I was very glad to see that, but I’m concerned as he dwindles away state aid that MEL and MELCAT will not have enough money to operate and we need to show maintenance of effort to get the matching federal funds that help support MEL and MELCAT.
So, personally from the library, we have not budgeted for state aid, but from those two services, state aid would be important to maintain those two services.
SCN: How is it that you first became involved in library services and what drove you to pursue this passion? What is your ultimate personal goal?
CB: I started out every day going to the library and I was quite rambunctious and I was asked to leave from time to time. But I just thoroughly enjoyed going. Some of it was social, but some of it was to read, I loved to read throughout my young years. The librarians there were very kind to me and really became sort of role models. I saw how they helped me picked good books to read and helped me with my homework and I thought this would be something I would like to do with my career.
Also, my parents immigrated from Italy and they used the public library not only to get citizen status, but to help to get GEDs and some of their education. The public library was integral to their lives, so I saw how important they are and that public libraries really do make a difference in this country and help people and touch people’s lives and I felt that that was something I wanted to be a part of.
My ultimate personal goal is to reach my golden years and have a happy retirement when the time comes. I don’t know, I feel that every day, I set small little goals that I try to reach. I don’t know if I have a real single one. I’m looking to every day. There’s a challenge or opportunity and you step forward and you conquer and then the next day comes and it’s something new. So I kind of look at it one day at a time.
SCN: Do you think that libraries will continue to be a part of the American landscape over the next decade, or do you see books and other hard-copy materials being taken over by the digital world, namely Kindles, iPads and the like with access to the Internet?
CB: I think libraries will not only survive, but thrive. I believe that libraries are gathering places in communities and the Internet has been around for a long time. It’s been around since 1996 and library usage each year continues to soar in this country. People are not only coming in to check out items but to do research here, but young children come in for programming and there are cultural events.
And as I said with the e-books, we will have e-books and we will have the formats as they go forward that you can choose to pay for, or you can choose as a community to come together and have your public library and have those resources available for everyone.
I do think that libraries will thrive.