Starting a new chapter

By Dedra Cordle
Staff Writer

Messenger photo by Dedra Cordle
Mark Shaw, the director of the Southwest Public Libraries, is set to retire at the end of January. He said some of the highlights of his unexpected 35-year career within the system include the construction of a new, 48,000 square-foot Grove City Library, the recent expansion of the youth services department at the Westland Area Library and getting to work alongside a “terrific group of dedicated individuals.”

It was the mid 1980s and Mark Shaw was looking for a job.

With multiple degrees in the financial field, he envisioned working somewhere high-powered and fast-paced, somewhere he could put his analytical skills to good use.

“I had my mind set on personal finance, corporate accounting, or even the stock market,” Shaw said.

That specific job sector, however, did not have him in mind – or any other new hires wanting to break into the field.

“I was trying to find a job in a bad economy and it was quite difficult,” he said.

By chance, he saw that a small but growing library system that served the southwest and westside of Franklin County was seeking a treasurer and applied for the position. When he was notified that he had been chosen among the group of candidates, he said he was grateful to be given the opportunity but did not see himself in that role or even within the library system long-term.

“I did not intend to stay,” he said with a laugh. “I wanted to get a few years of valuable experience and move on.”

And move on he did – and in a variety of ways.

After serving as treasurer for three years, Shaw became the operations manager of the newly renamed Southwest Public Libraries in 1989. After serving in that role for 13 years, he was selected to succeed Frances Black as its director. And now, after serving in that capacity for 18 years, he is finally ready to say goodbye.

“It is almost hard to believe that I will be retiring after 35 years here,” Shaw said. “It was not what I had initially envisioned for my career, but I would not change my time here for anything.”

Upon reflecting on his impending retirement, Shaw said that he does not know why it was so surprising to him that this is where his path led.

“I have always been a library nerd,” he stated proudly.

Growing up in Fayette County, Shaw said he was encouraged by his family not only to read, but to go visit the library whenever the urge struck.

“I think they may have just wanted me to leave the house,” he joked.

He said when he was younger, the library of then did not look anything like the library of today.

“It was more of a book warehouse than a place for the community,” he said. “There were no computers – you had to use the card catalogue to find items – and there was no programming for children, young adults, or adults.”

Despite the fact that it was not the most happening place, Shaw said he still loved visiting his little sanctuary, especially its vast reference section.

“That was my favorite place in the entire library,” he admitted. “I was very much into history and would spend hours in that section pulling this book off the shelf and pulling that book off another shelf to cross reference.

“The library continued to be my favorite place throughout my adolescence and well into my college years.”

And then it became his favorite place as a working adult too.

“I just started to love what I was doing and then I developed great friendships with the staff and with the people in this community and I decided to make a career out of it,” he said.

That does not mean, however, that he has enjoyed every single moment of said career.

“There have been a lot of highlights in my career such as the partnership with the city of Grove City to develop a new Grove City Library, the renovations to the Westland Area Library, joining the Central Library Consortium to increase access to materials, and the community approving and renewing a levy for our operations,” he said. “But there have been a lot of low moments too that I cannot and will not forget.

“Throughout my time serving as director, we have faced four major financial crises, we saw steep cuts in state funding and I have had to eliminate staff due to that lack of funding. That was the hardest thing I have had to do in my professional career.”

Shaw added that currently the library has had to reduce staffing hours and its hours of operation due to the pandemic, but he does believe they will be able to weather the storm.

He said what gives him hope that it can be accomplished is the fact that the SPL has a creative and dedicated staff that can keep the community engaged through virtual programming, a core group of volunteers with Friends of the Library who keep fundraising on their behalf, and a community that has come to understand the profound impact a library can have on one’s life.

“None of the good things that have taken place during my time as director would have happened without these people,” he said.

He said they are what he will miss the most.

“I have been so fortunate to have worked alongside a terrific group of dedicated individuals,” he said.

Shaw’s last day as director of the SPL is Jan. 29. He said he looks forward to becoming a regular patron and researching the locations of artifacts for his historical war collection.

Succeeding Shaw will be Meredith E. Wickham. She currently serves as director of first regional library in Mississippi, which is one of the largest public library systems in the state.

She was named as an emerging leader by the American Library Association and was presented with the Peggy May Award by the Mississippi Library Association.

Shaw said he has met with Wickham over Zoom and believes the SPL board of trustees selected the right candidate.

“I think the Southwest Public Library will continue to be in good hands.”

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