A career spent in the stacks

November 14, 2013 10:01:36 AM

William Browning - [email protected]


She always loved reading. 


So much so that when she was a child her father, a Methodist minister, would make jokes about how impossible it was to get her nose out of books. Despite that teasing, Mary Helen Waggoner never left books behind. She grew up and became a librarian. 


Last month, after a 46-year career, she retired, and no regrets. 


"I loved it," Waggoner said. "It was always what I wanted to do." 


When Waggoner graduated high school in Amory and began college at Mississippi University for Women, her major from day one was library science. When she graduated in 1967, she began working at Columbus-Lowndes Public Library under Chebie Bateman, a local icon. Bateman helped push the library into a civic centerpiece during her time. Waggoner called her a "delight" to work with. 


Waggoner stayed at the Columbus library through the early 1980s, when she went to work at Fant Memorial Library at MUW. Then, in the late 1990s, she went to the Tombigbee Regional Library System. It was from that system, which encompasses 10 libraries across Choctaw, Webster, Monroe and Clay counties, that Waggoner retired from last month as director. 


That's four decades-plus of working in libraries. Inside that time the Internet was born. 


"There was no way anyone could have foreseen the changes that were coming in terms of technology," Waggoner said. 


Today, she can sit inside her 4th Street South home in Columbus, get online and put library books on hold, renew ones she has checked out, look up millions of titles and search databases for countless magazine and newspaper articles. When Waggoner began her career in libraries, the path toward what you were looking for started in a card catalog. 


Has the fact that so much information is available online made the number of people a library serves dwindle? Not hardly, Waggoner said. In fact, from her personal experience, the same number of people come through the doors today as in 1967. It seems people still enjoy checking out books. Also, many people, especially in rural areas, do not have computers. They depend on public Internet access. 


"They have an important place in our world, still," Waggoner said of libraries. 


She remains committed to the services libraries offer and to the librarians that staff them. A good librarian, Waggoner said, is a "navigator" who helps people find information, whether it's in a book amongst the stacks or a website. That is where Waggoner's satisfaction with her career is borne: knowing that she helped people. 


"Knowing I provided an access point for someone who was after some information," she said. "I always enjoyed that." 


Of course, being a reader, or at least having a working knowledge of authors, always helps when considering a career as a librarian. Waggoner said she couldn't count how many times she was asked for book recommendations during the last 46 years. 


At home in Columbus now, her working life behind her, she is a bit worried about what to do with her time. Immediate plans: enjoy her seven grandchildren, spend time with friends. 


Sitting on her porch earlier this week, a reporter asked if she was reading anything good. She said she had just finished Pat Conroy's "The Death Of Santini." And then, as was fitting for a lifelong librarian, she said, "And I wholeheartedly recommend it." 


A retirement reception for Waggoner will be held at Bryan Public Library on Commerce Street in West Point from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday. For more information, contact the library at (662) 494-4872.

William Browning was managing editor for The Dispatch until June 2016.