Libraries and National Parks

Posted on October 17, 2016

by Jennifer S

What’s a Library Doing in a National Park?

An interview with Glacier National Park Librarian, Anya Helsel.

On August 25, 2016, the National Park Service turned 100 years old. That’s a lot of birthday candles on the cake. Let’s consider for a moment what a significant achievement this is for ecological education, preservation of wild places, and community-based resources. And while we’re at it, let’s consider the parallels between libraries and national parks as essential components of a robust and healthy community.

It does not matter who you are, where you come from, what spiritual, political or socio-economic background you bring with you, a library welcomes you. The same holds true for national parks. Where else can one go anymore and be assured the freedom from judgment, hostility, persecution or excessive persuasion?

Libraries and National Parks are public spheres that protect and preserve vital historical, cultural, and natural resources with the intent to awe future generations to come. And each share the common goal to both preserve resources while making them accessible to tourists/patrons. The origin story of both organizations derives from the basic principle of connecting people to information and wonder, the essence of which is a meaningful connection. And in this increasingly noisy and intrusively distracting world, that is a treasure worth our time, attention, and funding.

In celebration of wild places and quiet spaces, Anya Helsel, librarian for Glacier National Park, shares the gems of working at a national park library.

1. Tell us a little about your beginnings and journey as a librarian?

When I was growing up in the south suburbs of Chicago, my mom was a reference librarian at our local public library, and I would often tag along with her to work. I spent a lot of time in the young adult section, frequently rearranging books that had gotten out of order. I have always loved organizing things and hunting down information. When I graduated college in 2008 with a BA in American Studies from Carleton College, I got a job at a small company, Professionals Library Service Inc., that provided library services for law firms in Chicago. While working there, I decided to pursue my master’s degree in Library and Information Science through a distance program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Three years of working full time and going to school part time were rough, but my job offered hands-on experience for the concepts I was learning in school.

2. What brought you to Glacier’s Research Library?

While I was getting my master’s degree, I happened to subscribe to a Google Group called “Careers in Federal Libraries.” Almost every day I’d get an email with new job postings, which I would usually skim and then delete. One day in May 2015, I happened to notice a job posting for a librarian at Glacier National Park, which piqued my interest. While I’d never visited Glacier, I had developed a lifelong love of national parks from family camping trips, and the idea of working for the park service as a librarian thrilled me. I applied for the job without any expectation that I’d actually get it and now here I am. It was a tough transition leaving behind a stable job of 7 years and all of my friends and family in Illinois to move by myself to a place where I didn’t know a single person, but I knew I would regret turning down such an opportunity.

3. Who uses your library? Is it mostly the general public, or researchers, staff, or a combination of all?

It’s a bit of a combination. The library is primarily intended for park employees and partners, who use it both for work and personal enjoyment. However, I am often contacted by the general public and researchers. Sometimes it’s someone who just wants to satisfy their own personal curiosity, but I’ve also helped journalists and authors find information to help them write articles and books about the park. For these requests, I often work in tandem with the park’s archivist, who has the primary sources to match the library’s secondary, published resources.

4. Can you give us some examples of some of the collection materials the GNP library has collected? What kinds of stories do you think these collections tell us?

As you’d expect, most of our resources relate to the park and its natural and cultural history. We have books on plants, animals, geology, climate change, archaeology, Native American tribes, history, and art, as well as information about the National Park Service in general. We have a great rare book collection containing a number of works from the early 1900s–many published not too long after Glacier National Park was established in 1910. One of my favorite rare books is a collection of nature bulletins from 1927-1938, which contains stories, essays, wildlife observations, poems, and drawings by park naturalists that tell a story of what it was like to work for the park service in the early days.

We also have a collection of scientific reports and articles that are built on data collected in the park, as well as a number of official government reports related to the management of the park and its resources over the years.

One overarching theme of our collection that really resonates with me is what it was like for early workers, visitors, and inhabitants of the park. We have accounts from early homesteaders, travelogues from early visitors, and reports written by early park employees. I’m personally very interested in the notions of the frontier and the wilderness in American history and identity, and the national parks are a great lens through which to examine that. A common theme running through many of the resources we have here is just how transformative a place like Glacier can be for a person.

5. Tell us a bit about what a typical day is like?

A typical day usually depends on the time of year. In the summer, both the size of the Glacier workforce and public visitation are at their peaks, so a lot of my job is just responding to questions and requests as they come to me, managing circulation, and advertising the library and its services to the staff. This summer, I also assisted the park’s Crown of the Continent Research Learning Center with processing research permits for visiting researchers conducting scientific studies in the park.

In the fall, as the park winds down for the season, I work on inventorying a segment of the library collection, cleaning up catalog records, and processing any new additions to the collection.

Winter and early spring can be very quiet for the library. During this time, I continue with inventory while also working on any other special projects that may have come up. Last winter I organized all of our periodical archives. This winter I hope to tackle a collection of oral histories we have stored in boxes. Right now there is no easy way to know what kind of information they contain. They need to be indexed and added to the catalog so people can actually know what is in them and use them.

In late spring and early summer, the seasonal interpretive rangers return to the park and come to the library to research the summer programs they will present to visitors. As the season starts to ramp up, I once again start shifting my focus to responding to requests and performing outreach.

Throughout the year, I am a part of the park’s social media team, in which I am one of several people who will create and share content on the park’s various social media channels. People often ask us questions on the Facebook page that I (or one of my fellow social media team members) try to answer.

6. What surprised you the most from doing this work?

What has surprised me the most is just how dedicated everyone here is to their jobs. While there are certainly common frustrations, there still seems to be a shared sense of how lucky we are to live and work in such a spectacular place. I previously worked in a more corporate setting where I was constantly counting down the hours or days until the next weekend. Here, though, the days and hours seem to fly by. While my salary may be less than it was at my old job, my job satisfaction has gone way up.

7. What didn’t you know when you started that ended up being important?

There have been many little things about the park and federal employment that I’ve had to learn along the way but I luckily never ran into anything that was insurmountable or made me doubt my decision to come here.

8. What is the most challenging aspect of your work here?

The most notable challenges of my job are similar to those facing other libraries and the National Park Service as a whole. Resources can often be limited, so one must work with what is available. For example, the library doesn’t have a huge budget to purchase new materials for the collection, but we are fortunate that many local authors donate copies of new books they write about the park.

9. What is most satisfying aspect of your job?

The most satisfying aspect of my job is when I’m able to track down a resource that perfectly answers someone’s question. In the year that I’ve been here, I’ve become very familiar with the collection and the park, but I still uncover unexpected gems when I’m browsing the shelves. Each research question is a chance to learn some new facet of the park and its history. Last month someone came in looking for information about early mining operations in the park, which I admittedly didn’t know much about, but I was able to find a book that succinctly laid out that information and now I know where to look the next time I get that question.

The other most satisfying aspect is the feedback I get from people I’ve helped. I once had someone say they wished there was a Yelp page for the library because they wanted to leave a five-star review. That’s always so gratifying to hear.

10. Do you see a lot of bears on your way to work every day?

While I haven’t seen any bears on my regular drive to work, I have seen them in the park on multiple occasions! Luckily, it has always been from inside my car or from an otherwise safe distance. Many people come to Glacier with the desire to see a bear, but I’d rather they keep to themselves!

Check out these great library resources on the National Parks:
Glacier National Park - National Geographic Channel documentary
National Parks Guide U.S.A. by Sarah Wassner Flynn and Julie Beer National Geographic guide to National Parks of the United States, Eighth Edition National Geographic Secrets of the National Parks: The Experts' Guide to the Best Experiences Beyond the Tourist Trail
National Geographic the National Parks: An Illustrated History by Kim Heacox Fodor's The Complete Guide to the National Parks of the West Lonely Planet USA's National Parks - writer Christopher Pitts The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America's National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams
Suspense Novels Set in Glacier National Park
Mortal Fall: A Novel of Suspense by Christine Carbo

Mortal Fall: A Novel of Suspense by Christine Carbo

Formats Available: Print | eAudiobook

Suspecting foul play when a highly experienced wildlife biologist falls to his death from the sheer cliffs near Going-To-the-Sun Road, Glacier National Park police officer Monty Harris discovers that the victim had made dangerous enemies while advocating on behalf of the region’s endangered wolverine population.

The Wild Inside: A Novel of Suspense by Christine Carbo

The Wild Inside: A Novel of Suspense by Christine Carbo

Formats Available: Print | eAudiobook

A haunting crime novel set in Glacier National Park about a man who finds himself at odds with the dark heart of the wild—and the even darker heart of human nature.

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