2017-12-07 / Life in Leelanau

Merz guided Leland library to new heights

Dedicated board and millage
By Jennie Berkson
of the Enterprise staff

SYLVIA MERZ will retire this month as director of the Leland Township Library. She is shown here with new director Mark Morton. SYLVIA MERZ will retire this month as director of the Leland Township Library. She is shown here with new director Mark Morton. When Sylvia Merz joined its staff in 2002, the Leland Township Library was only open 24 hours per week, books were stamped in and out by hand, there was a paper card catalog, a typewriter was used for business, public programs were limited to personal travelogue slide shows and the budget was controlled by the Leland Township Board.

Now, on the eve of her retirement, she can look around at a fully renovated building open 40 hours a week that hosts public internet access, a cloud-based operating system and regular educational programs to help residents improve computer skills.

The number of library patrons has significantly increased, and the library is funded by an independent millage that’s allocated through an elected library board.

“Good fortune smiled on the Leland Library when Sylvia came on board . . .” recalled Alan Hartwick, who was president of the Leland Township Library Board from 2003-2015. “At that time, the Board was attempting to look at the library 15 years into the future. We recognized that many organizations often take a ‘that’s the way it’s always been done’ approach when facing new challenges. Fortunately, Sylvia’s style was one of transformation management.”

Added Susann Schaberg, long-time library volunteer and Friends of the Leland Township Library board member, “Sylvia has brought the Library into the 21st century with technology, services and programs which have turned our little Library on the river into a true multimedia center ... while retaining the cozy, small Library feel that our community so loves.”

Even with its success, the Leland Township Public Library is continuing to find ways to be more responsive to community interests and aspirations, added Board President Berkley Duck. “We have Sylvia to thank for this.”

Surprisingly, Merz has no formal training in library science. Before working for the Leland Library, she spent 30 years with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services identifying unmet community needs and working with other agencies and individuals to establish programs to fill those gaps.

“Some examples of programs I was involved in establishing included Big Brothers Big Sisters, Leelanau Christian Neighbors, the Leelanau County Family Coordinating Council, just to name a few,” Merz said. “I wrote and administered a lot of grants, recruited, trained and supervised volunteers for numerous human services programs.”

Merz’ background and familiarity with computers helped in her job as director.

“While maintaining a strong connection to current patrons, she was able to introduce new methods and services to improve the operations,” commented Hartwick. “Technology was used to a much greater degree to provide patrons with options and services.”

Merz added “project manager” to her director title during a library renovation in 2009 that came in under budget and was funded by completely by donations.

Rivers recalled that Merz “really involved the community in the project.” She and Merz researched modern library design, traveling to different libraries and “taking the best of what was there.”

Remarkably, the library remained open throughout the renovation.

“We successfully stayed open and transformed the Munnecke room into a ‘mini’ library during the construction,” said now-retired assistant director Donna Stowe, who worked alongside Merz for 12 years. “The remodeling of the library opened up the footprint of the building to allow a flowing floorplan and lots of extra light.”

Following modernization of the Library’s technology and space, a movement for independence took hold.

According to Duck, Merz proposed that the Library reorganize under PA 164 of 1877. Under that Act, the Library would be funded by a voted millage, separate from Leland Township’s revenues, and be governed under an independent, elected board of directors.

“Anticipating the need for it, Sylvia had been accumulating a great deal of data regarding the Library’s operations and the legal and practical issues presented by the proposed reorganization, and had made a number of contacts within the library community that proved to be useful in the effort,” Duck recalled. “As a result, we were able to present a coherent argument to the Leland community in support of the millage, which passed by a large majority.”

Merz and the Library Board then turned their attention to the future.

“In order to remain relevant in an ever-changing world, libraries must continuously evolve to meet the changing needs of their communities,” Merz said. “To that end, the Leland Library and staff engaged our communities in a strategic planning effort. The results from these conversations formed the framework that will now guide us in making intentional, community-centered judgments and choices that will be our road map toward achieving greater impact and relevance in our community.”

That strategic plan is now being carried out by Merz’ replacement, “Cybrarian” Mark Morton. He had been in charge of technical services at the Library since 2012 and will assume her duties when she retires in December.

Although Merz is retiring, her influence remains. The Friends of the Library have established the Sylvia Merz Fund for Children’s Education.

“The Friends Board felt they could best honor Sylvia’s dedicated service by creating a lasting legacy in the form of a fund to be used by the Library for children’s books and educational programming,” said Lynne Lyons, president of the Friends Board. “The community can add to this legacy by making a contribution...”

And what’s next for Merz in 2018 and beyond?

“I’m not a person who can sit still for long,” she said. “I love being with people. In my opinion, Jake (Moran, the Library’s circulation clerk) has the best job. I might look for work in a local tasting room, talking with customers and enjoying a good time.”

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