Seniors & Aging

Bellingham library director retires with vision of new central library unfulfilled

Pam Kiesner came to Whatcom County in 2004 as the new director of Bellingham Public Library. She is shown in the Children’s Library at the Bellingham Public Library in October 2016.
Pam Kiesner came to Whatcom County in 2004 as the new director of Bellingham Public Library. She is shown in the Children’s Library at the Bellingham Public Library in October 2016. rmittendorf@bhamherald.com

As a library administrator for 40 years, including the past 12 as director of Bellingham Public Library, Pam Kiesner has spent her professional life surrounded by information. Yet as she approached retirement, she found the thought of leaving her career a tempting yet somewhat foggy idea.

“I still have mixed feelings about what it’s going to be like,” she said in late September, three months and a handful of days before her last day of work on Jan. 3. “I’m still closing that mental bridge.”

Kiesner had been thinking about retirement for awhile, and realized that retiring at age 64 after an even four decades of library leadership had a nice ring to it.

“If I waited until I was 65, it would be 41 years, and it didn’t sound right,” she said.

I would ride my bike to the library and fill up my basket.

Pam Kiesner, retired library director

Kiesner is certain about a few things about her retirement. She will have more time with her husband, who is already retired; she wants to get to know more people in their new neighborhood near Lake Padden; and she might get a dog. She also will have more time to hike, more time to read for pleasure and more time to be a grandmother, with her third grandchild expected early in 2017.

She also plans to remain active with Whatcom Family YMCA, where she has been a board member since she came to Bellingham.

Grew up a library lover

With a minister father and a mother who read aloud to the family after dinners, Kiesner grew up in Minneapolis an avid reader.

“I would ride my bike to the library and fill up my basket,” she said.

Her mother became a librarian after Kiesner left for college to earn a degree in English at Albion College in Michigan. Like her mother, Kiesner went into library work, earning a master’s degree in library science at the University of Michigan, with a specialty in children’s literature.

Kiesner started her career as head of the central children’s library at the county library in Green Bay, Wis., where she moved up the ladder to assistant director before she came to Whatcom County in 2004 as the new director of Bellingham Public Library.

Flush years, lean years

Kiesner’s years in Green Bay were flush times, with money available for new library branches and more staff. Kiesner said she was hired by Bellingham because of her experience in Green Bay raising money and overseeing the construction or remodel of several branches.

The city so deserves a new library.

Pam Kiesner

Kiesner describes Bellingham’s central library, built in 1951, as small, inefficient and poorly designed. During her tenure in Bellingham, a library analysis was conducted and more than 20 potential sites for a new library were studied. In 2007, the library board recommended that the central library at 201 Central Ave. be demolished and a new library be built in its place.

“It seemed like we were poised,” Kiesner said.

Instead, the nationwide recession hit, and government spending shrank for library staff, acquisitions and operations. There were local improvements, including creation of the Barkley Branch Library and a major upgrade to the Fairhaven Branch Library. However, library services still haven’t caught up to pre-recession levels, she said, and the central library remains basically unchanged.

Kiesner said the library board plans to seek an interim director to serve while a new study explores alternatives for library funding. Options include a library levy, or joining the Whatcom County Library System. She hopes new energy can be found to replace Bellingham’s 66-year-old library.

“I think it will happen eventually,” Kiesner said. “The city so deserves a new library.”

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