RACINE — The last couple of years have been a time of upheaval for staff at the Racine Public Library.
The library was closed for a year during the pandemic, staff worked in a construction zone during a period of renovations, and in January a dispute over wages between employees and the library’s Board of Directors spilled out into the public arena at an emotional meeting of the Common Council.
Then on July 27, Angela Zimmermann, the executive director, abruptly resigned without notice or explanation, leaving staff feeling like they did not have time to properly process the news or say goodbye.
Nick Demske, who was recently named interim executive director, said despite all that has happened, library staff continued to show up for the public.
“This team served the community expertly the whole time,” Demske said. “In the face of crises, they put in 110%.”
Demske was out of town at a conference during the rocky first week after Zimmermann’s departure.
“I had virtually no concerns about that because I know our team is very, very strong right now, and I’m happy that’s what I’m inheriting,” he said of the interim period.
Priorities moving forward
One of Demske’s priorities moving forward must be the budget, which is due to the city at the end of the month.
They will not exactly be starting from scratch as there is last year’s budget as a starting place.
“At other organizations where I was responsible for creating the budget, that’s where you start,” he said.
He credited the library’s business manager, Evelin Garcia, for ensuring “we go through this transition gracefully rather than floundering.”
Demske described Garcia as someone “who is excellent in her role and really understands the numbers and financial landscape” of the library – despite having just joined the staff about a year ago.
While getting the budget completed before the deadline is important, he continued, equally important is ensuring the staff is “unified and respecting each other and still doing great at our jobs, still serving the public really well.”
“This is an emotional time,” Demske said. “Change is always an emotional time for people, but when someone really important leaves kind of suddenly, a lot of different emotions can come with that.”
“I am extremely, overwhelmingly proud of this team for what they do for the members of this community every single day,” Demske said. “They just create an incredibly valuable library for this community.”
A library success story
It has been 16 years since Demske began at the Racine Public Library. In 2007, he was living in his girlfriend’s mom’s basement and using the library as a warm place to fill out job applications.
One of the librarians noticed, handed him an application for the library, and soon after he began shelving books part-time.
He is now the executive director, at least in the interim.
“It is powerful to be able to say that I myself am a library success story,” he said. “This is far more than I ever anticipated getting to do with my life, and it is very much on the foundation of libraries.”
The librarian who handed Demske that job application still works at the library.
“She identified someone who she thought had a need, and she thought she could help with that need,” he said. “That is all libraries exist to do – all day, every day.”
“I would say I’m incredibly grateful, not just to this library, but also to this community because everything I have gotten to do has been through the support of the institution and of the community,” he said.
“These institutions that we have are all incredibly mighty, and they change lives,” he said. “When you change lives, you change communities, and when you change communities, you change the world.”
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