Off the Shelf: Farewell from Southwest Public Libraries director Mark Shaw

Mark Shaw
Southwest Public Libraries

When I came to Southwest Public Libraries in January 1986, it was then known as the Grove City Public Library. The Grove City library was on Park Street across from the Grove City police station, and Westland Area Library was a tiny branch of 6,000 square feet known as the Prairie Branch Library.

My first job with SPL was treasurer. In 1989, I added the title of operations manager with responsibility for technology and buildings. I became director in 2002 upon the retirement of Frances Black. When I first came to SPL, I did not intend to stay long. My goal was to become a portfolio manager and financial analyst.

Mark Shaw, pictured Jan. 5 at the Grove City Library, is retiring as the Southwest Public Libraries director effective Jan. 29.

But I fell in love with the library. I love the concept of libraries connecting patrons with library materials and information and entertainment regardless of wealth or status. I love the fact that anyone can walk into a public library and access the whole universe of knowledge without spending one dime. I loved it so much that I made it my career and life’s work.

SPL has experienced tremendous change over my career. Computers were just starting to become a force for libraries when I started but are now ubiquitous. The internet was a decade away but is now so entwined with daily life that we use it without thought. Patrons no longer are limited by what is on the shelf at Grove City or Westland. Millions of items, both paper and electronic, are a click away.

In partnership with the city of Grove City, a new Grove City Library was opened on Broadway in 2016, shining today as one of Grove City’s jewels. The Westland Area Library has grown from 6,000 square feet to 27,000 square feet, including a beautiful new youth-services department that was opened in 2019.

But these accomplishments are certainly not mine alone. I have spent the past 35 years surrounded by hundreds of talented and hardworking staff members, volunteers and community partners who have worked to help SPL grow and continuously improve library service.

Countless volunteers have served on SPL’s board of trustees and with SPL’s Friends of the Library over the course of my tenure, dedicating thousands of hours toward SPL’s progress.

Grove City resident Jeff Davis and his team of committed volunteers helped garner voter approval of the first successful levy in SPL’s history in 2010, setting the stage for the expansions of the past 10 years. David Donofrio, both a  Friends of SPL board member and South-Western City School District board member, was instrumental in helping get that levy renewed just last year. Grove City Mayor Richard L. “Ike” Stage and city administrator Chuck Boso worked tirelessly for years to make the new Grove City Library possible and bring it to fruition.

Finally, but not least, the support of our patrons and community has made SPL what it is today. Without our patrons, we could not have passed our critical levy, and without our patrons, it would not have been renewed in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. We are deeply grateful.

Alongside the highs of my time at SPL, there also have been lows. During my tenure, there have been four major economic downturns that forced me to make painful cuts to staff and services. The financial crisis of 2008-09 was particularly brutal and forced me to make the heartbreaking decision to lay off a sizable portion of the loyal and hardworking library staff to address budget cuts. That time was the low point of my career. Before passing a levy in 2010, we had failed seven levies in a row, which was a bitter disappointment.

In December 2017, I informed the trustees of my intention to retire in early 2021. Little did I know back then that my final year would be upended by a worldwide pandemic. I spent my entire career trying to make libraries more inviting, accessible and user-friendly, and yet in this past year, I have been forced to scale everything back in an effort to keep everyone safe. The past year has brought unprecedented disruption to library service, and I am grateful that our patrons have stuck with us as we have adapted service to respond to conditions we never thought we would experience.

I have pledged to the board of trustees to do whatever is necessary to ensure a smooth and successful transition to a new director. It has been an honor and a privilege to serve the SPL community over the past 35 years, and I extend heartfelt gratitude to all of those who have helped and supported me along the way. I will always love SPL.

With gratitude.

Mark Shaw has served as director of Southwest Public Libraries since 2002 and is retired effective Jan. 29.