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Wheaton library director retires after 47-year career

WHEATON – When soon-to-be-former Wheaton Public Library Director Sarah Meisels started working for the library, she was a fresh-faced graduate student starting her first job in 1966. It was a different era. The Beatles were more popular than Jesus and “Star Trek,” “Batman” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” aired for the first time.

Although she sits on the same chair she sat in when she started in 1966 and although her desk holds a calculator and typewriter, Meisels has worked to keep the library adapting to the challenges of a digital age during her 35 years as director.

“Life is change, so you have to keep up with it and be aware of it,” she said.

When she came to the library, she said, the institution used a machine with metal plates to stamp library cards. Now, the library has e-books, computer banks, DVDs, live outdoor concerts and more, all operating out of a sleek new space, constructed in 2007 that Meisels helped pioneer. She called the nearly $20 million project the “culmination of my career.”

“When you have the opportunity to plan a building from the get-go and incorporate everything you want into it and put in enough space so you have room to grow and adapt to changing circumstances, to me, it’s a lot of fun,” she said.

Although more people today have their noses in their laptops and smartphones than in a novel, the role of the library hasn’t changed much since she fell in love with the places books could take her as a child in Elmhurst, Meisels said.

“Libraries are very dynamic,” she said. “They’ve always been there to provide information to people, and now we just have different ways of delivering that information. It’s pretty exciting.”

Books and libraries always have been central to her life, Meisels said. She married a fellow librarian “very unromantically” when they both served on the bylaws committee of the Illinois State Library Association. When they traveled to Europe together, she checked out books months in advance to plan museum visits and to learn about the history of the area.

Meisels has a chair full of books she plans to check out exploring topics from dog care to the Byzantine Empire and won’t hesitate to offer reading recommendations or discuss classic works of fiction.

“A lot of people just read fiction for the plot or mystery, but a really good classic fiction writer really opens up all the meaningful questions of life,” she said. “I love ones that really probe the meanings of those questions.”

Wheaton Mayor Mike Gresk said he remembered Meisels in the library when he was a student.

“She’s impacted the lives of countless Wheaton individual’s families, influenced three or four generations of people, and Wheaton is fortunate to have had her in that capacity,” he said.

Assistant Library Director Caroline DeAre said Meisels helped hire everyone currently working at the library and the library and collection she helped create with the board of directors will serve as a legacy for her work when she retires at the end of September.

“I think her passion has always been the library; she’s devoted her life to it,” DeAre said. “She took the time to make sure everything was done. And she is certainly well-known throughout the community.”

The library will host a retirement open house for Meisels from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday at 225 N. Cross St. in Wheaton.

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