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'It's been a wonderful career, it truly has'

After nearly four decades in the city library, Ellen Heaney calls it quits

Ellen Heaney is making preparations to embark on the next chapter of her life - but the plotline has yet to be determined.

After nearly four decades in the children's department at the New Westminster Public Library, Heaney is retiring in April.

"It has been a wonderful career, it truly has," she said. "The New Westminster Public Library, I would say, is probably one of the few places you could work for 38 years and still be pretty well satisfied with your station."

Heaney, the mom of two grown sons, said she'll miss the kids when she retires and may take on some volunteer work that involves children. Other than a trip to Europe with her husband in May, Heaney has no firm plans for retirement.

Having worked at the New Westminster Public Library for nearly four decades means Heaney has touched the lives of a lot of local families.

"There are many people who I remember from when they were in elementary school coming back with their own children," she smiled.

Heaney was born and raised in Saskatchewan, where she got her undergraduate degree at the University of Regina. She later moved to Edmonton, where her husband was pursuing a doctoral degree at the University of Alberta.

"I got a job at the Edmonton public library," she recalled. " He said, 'if you're interested in being a librarian, why don't you go to library school while we are here?'"

Heaney attended a one-year postgraduate degree program at the University of Alberta, where she met Shirley Ellison, who had been seconded from her position as the head of the children's department at New Westminster Public Library to teach at the university. It was Ellison who influenced her decision to become a children's librarian.

"I was probably inspired by Shirley and being reintroduced to children's books. I was a big reader when I was growing up," Heaney said. "Also, I am kind of a performer by nature, I guess. I think people who become children's librarians and stay children's librarian tend to be people who are comfortable being out there. It is something that takes a fair amount of energy because you are 'on' a lot."

Heaney and husband John moved to the Lower Mainland, when he landed a postdoctoral fellowship at Simon Fraser University. Heaney had no qualms about heading west, knowing it wouldn't be too hard to find a job.

"At that time, this was in the early '70s, there were lots and lots of library jobs," she said. "There were lots of children's librarian jobs.

Heaney worked as a branch children's librarian for the Vancouver Public Library for a couple of years, before becoming the head of the children's services at New Westminster's library on Dec. 23, 1974.

"I was always a library user," she said. "My sister and I, when I was in elementary school, used to be those children that went to the library on Saturday, lean on the desk and say, 'can we stamp something?"

Stamping books at checkout is only one of the many changes in library services that Heaney has witnessed through the years.

"I would like to think that if I was still doing what I was doing back in 1974 when I started working here, I would not have been here for 38 years," she said. "It is considerably changed - for a lot of reasons. The community has certainly changed. The needs of the community have certainly changed."

Heaney's decision to retire came about gradually, but was driven in part by the changing nature of library work.

When the library moved to an automated system of cataloguing and checkout back in 1993, Heaney was one of the staff "in the know" about the changing technology. Nowadays, she doesn't feel like she's able to look after people in the way that some people need with technological advances.

"Things like e-books, tablets, and iPads," she said, "everybody has a different device."

Those changes hit home last summer when one child taking part in the summer reading club questioned whether reading on her iPad counted toward the summer reading club medal. Another said he didn't have to go to the library anymore because he had books on an electronic device.

"I haven't kept up with a lot of that kind of thing," Heaney said. "It doesn't interest me personally."

Although Heaney has sought out information in the past so she could help others and to do her job, she said she's "reached a bit of a wall" with technological changes. Her retirement also comes at a time when the New Westminster Public Library is making some organizational change, so the timing seemed right to retire.

While e-books and iPads have given people an option to bypass the library, Heaney isn't concerned as long as people are continuing to read.

"I think people's relationships with books are going to be different," she said, "but there are still a lot of paper books being borrowed."

In 2012, library users borrowed 120,000 books from the children and teens' section of the New Westminster library.

"In February of this year, there were over 11,000 children's books borrowed from the library," Heaney said. "There were about 4,000 other types of items - DVDs and audio books and things like that."

During her time at the library, Heaney has been involved with various literacy initiatives, storytime programs and outreach programs for schools and community groups.

"Part of our job is promoting the library," she said. "Part of our job is promoting the idea of using books."

Heaney has also been an integral part of the library's summer reading club, using songs and puppets to enhance the program.

"I will be having my first summer without summer reading club since 1985, when I was on maternity leave with my youngest son," she noted. "That will be kind of strange."

Members of the community are invited to attend a "Come and say farewell to Mrs. Heaney" event on Wednesday, April 17. A one-hour open house will take place following an all-ages storytime from 3: 30 to 4: 15 p.m.

"I still enjoy reading children's books. I do enjoy the programming. Although I am head of the children's department, I still do a lot of the storytimes," she said. "I enjoy working with the other librarians."

Heaney, who was involved with the Vagabond Players years ago, enjoys performing for children.

"I do love introducing singing to children," she said. "I don't think they always have a chance to make music the way they could."