Longtime librarian closes book on career

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“A library isn’t one person. What makes a library great is all the people involved.”

Those are the words of Elaine Steingrubey, one person who has helped make the Morrison-Talbott Library in Waterloo great for the past 39 years.

Steingrubey retired June 30 from a career at the library which included 28 years as director. She began at the library in 1981 as a circulation clerk after marrying her “high school sweetheart” and moving to Waterloo from New Athens, where she worked at the school’s library.

“I was looking for a part-time job while taking care of my two young daughters,” Steingrubey recalled. 

Nearly a year after applying for a job, Morrison-Talbott Library called and asked if she was still interested in a position. 

She began working 17 hours a week before becoming a full-time employee. When then-director Jean Burke retired in late 1991, Steingrubey was chosen as successor and began as director in January 1992. 

She has seen plenty of change during her tenure. One of the first purchasing decisions during her career involved deciding which electric typewriter would be best to replace the manual one the library used to type cards for books, card catalogues and book requests. 

The library installed in-house circulation computers in 1990. Fortunately, as the number of systems for libraries were reduced from 18 to two due to budget cuts, communication technology has made sharing easier.

“When I started, (the library) sent requests to the library system and waited weeks to receive items,” Steingrubey remembered. “Now, this process has become seamless” due to online systems that connect libraries, allowing users to get books within days of requesting them. 

Another major change is the availability of electronic materials and e-resources. 

“A patron can virtually check out items 24/7 and immediately download them to whatever electronic device on which they wish to read them,” Steingrubey noted. 

In addition to the drastic changes to library functionality and content offerings due to computing and Internet advances, Steingrubey has also watched the community grow substantially.  

“It amazes me to think of all the changes that have occurred during my tenure at the library. Waterloo’s population has almost tripled, the library staff has tripled and the library facility has more than tripled,” Steingrubey remarked.

One of the most visible changes was the move from the Col. William Morrison home, which had housed the library since 1911, to the current library building in 1996. She is retiring as major renovations to that building are nearing completion.

“We built (the current library building) knowing that we would use the basement” for meeting rooms and archives, Steingrubey said, adding that funding cuts and other delays pushed back plans to expand building use. 

Renovations began earlier this year after the library received money as the beneficiary of a life insurance policy. That money, along with library reserves saved for potential renovations and a matching grant from the Illinois Library Association made it possible for the library to move forward. 

 While she would like to have seen the project through to completion, Steingrubey has “no qualms leaving” since the library board hired Jamie Wratchford as her successor. 

“I am thrilled to leave the library in her guidance,” she said.

While Steingrubey said there were too many memories to mention, she did say her time at the Col. Morrison home was special. 

“The ‘old library’ will always hold a place in my heart.” 

During an interview, she shared several stories about her time at the old library building. She recalled her son Jacob, who was born shortly after she joined the library staff and adventuring through the crawlspaces in the third floor of the old library building. 

She also shared a story about  trying to find a book for a patron about “Rommel’s asparagus” with Burke. The two were searching through catalogue cards when they left for the night. When they resumed their search in the morning, being in the same spot, a person who had seen them the night before asked if they had spent the night in the library.

In her resignation letter, Steingrubey told the library board she “would like to offer help in any way I can to revitalize and restore (Col. Morrison’s) home. It is a piece of Waterloo history that needs to be tended with loving care.” 

The building has been vacant since the Waterloo school district moved its administrative offices from there in 2013.

As for the future, Steingrubey wants “to spend more time watching the sun rise and enjoying the world around me. I want to spend more time with family and friends.” 

She said she also has plans to travel.

“I’ll see where this new road takes me,” she said, adding she has to wait until “we have beaten COVID-19.”

Steingrubey says she will miss people the most, along with “patrons, the staff, the board, other librarians and community leaders – all the people with whom I’ve had daily contact with, worked with and helped over the years and who have helped me so much over the past 39 years,” adding she’s “not leaving town, so the Morrison-Talbott Library will still be my library – just from the other side of the desk.”  

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