Resourceful fellow: Spillers reflects on long career in library science
WORTHINGTON -- On the surface, Roger Spillers fits the stereotype of the librarian to a T -- mild-mannered, soft-spoken, well-read, studious, unassuming. But the man who has served as director of the Nobles County Library for almost three decades has a more adventurous side, too, having lived in venues across the United States and around the world.
Roger will retire at the end of the year after 29½ years of serving the library program in Nobles County through both the main library in Worthington and the branch location in Adrian.
"I lived in Michigan, Montana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado and overseas," before coming to Worthington to assume the library director's job, Spillers listed.
The path to a library career began after Roger graduated from high school in Michigan.
"I was interested in research, and that's what drew me into it," he explained. "I did a lot of research as a student, because of the degree I was pursuing."
Roger's initial area of interest was Eastern European studies, fueled by the Cold War era. He embarked on that field of study in Pennsylvania and later continued his education in library science at Western Michigan University and did graduate work in England.
"My very first job was at a technical library in Michigan," Roger detailed. "It was a company library, a special library service for a large engineering firm -- a corporate library service. That's where I started when I was a student, and in those days, we got union scale. It was an aircraft operation, building nose cones, and before I even got there, the union scale had gone up to $1.25. I got a raise before I even started the job. That was in the 1950s, and $1.25 stretched a lot farther in those days.
"I guess, when you consider student jobs, I've been working for at least 60 years," Roger added, "53 years with a degreed job."
Roger's first job with a degree in library science was at a college library in Pennsylvania. From there, he went to Montana, where for 12 years he headed up a library system based in Helena that covered a huge service area, probably about the size of Rhode Island.
Throughout his career, Rose has been supported by his wife of 43 years, Rose, a native of Greece he met while traveling in Europe. The Spillers have three children, Heather, Daphne and Frank; and two grandchildren.
But the Spillers were only a family of four when Roger accepted a contract post in Africa after living in the United Kingdom.
"Not too many people in the States would do that, but in Britain it was very common to go as ex-pats for a period of time," Roger reflected about taking the job with the Zambia Ministry of Education. "We spent seven and a half years in Zambia."
Just as now, political unrest was common in the Africa at that time, with many nations just beginning to move toward independence.
"We had considerable problems when we lived there. We left about a year before Zimbabwe became independent," Roger recalled, referring to the struggle that was occurring in a neighboring region. "... In a war zone like that, you learn to survive, because the fighting spilled over into our area. We had plenty of problems -- finding food, staying alive, staying out of jail."
Son Frank was born during the years they lived in Africa, and he's the only one of the family who has returned to Africa since.
"He was doing research for his first degree at the University of Minnesota and had the opportunity to go back and observe the political structure," Roger said. "He got reacquainted with some of our old friends."
After living by their "wits and connections" in a tumultuous country, it was difficult for the Spillers to assimilate back into American culture when they returned to the States and settled in Ohio.
"We were just like immigrants when we came back," Roger said. "Your whole approach to life changes, and then you come back to the Western world and have to learn all over how things are done."
As an example, Roger said that it was difficult to grasp American political jokes, because in Zambia they were primarily exposed to British affairs and culture.
"When we got back to the States, we found a British comedy show on TV, Dave Allen, and all his jokes were about the British political scene so we understood them. It took a few months to be able to relate to things here."
After a short stint in Ohio, Roger accepted the position as director of the Nobles County Library and uprooted his family one last time for the move to southwest Minnesota.
"I wanted to get back into this type of library system, the same type as I had worked at in Montana," Roger said.
During his tenure here, Roger has witnessed the evolution of library science, most notably the "advent of the automated library system" with computer technology.
"When I worked in Montana, all we had was a little machine to stamp the date due," he recalled about the limited technology available when he got his start in the field.
Now, the library is not only a place to check hard copy materials, but a computer center where people can access a wealth of information via the World Wide Web.
"Libraries are no longer just warehouses for books and magazines," Roger explained. "The printed word is still there, but the role of computers in helping people access information is especially important, especially in rural areas like ours.
"The clientele has also changed," Roger continued. "Our community has become culturally diversified, and that has given the people of the community a much broader outlook on culture. It also adds to the complexion of our service needs. We have to help them get information that they need to survive in daily life."
The library has been the recipient of grants not only to expand and upgrade technology, but to facilitate serving people from other cultures, including specialized language programs. Being part of the Plum Creek Library System helps the local library to "deliver services and programs in a highly cost-effective manner" and access additional materials to meet the needs of the people it serves.
Although he has spent almost 30 years shaping the direction of the county's library programs, Roger is quick to credit his staff with running a successful and efficient facility, and the library board with providing direction and support.
"The staff are the ones who have made the provision of materials, programs and services successful," he credited. "It's the staff that are out there on the front lines, working with the public, finding out what they want and getting it for them as efficiently as possible."
With his time at the Nobles County Library drawing to a close, Roger has no specific plans for retirement, although he anticipates "spending a lot of winter days behind the snowblower."
Although she continues to substitute teach, Rose retired last summer after many years teaching English and social studies at the high school in Round Lake. Come spring, the Spillers might do some traveling, not only to see their children and grandchildren in Texas and Oregon, but also to renew friendships and visit relatives in other parts of the world.