When Kevin Kenkel wants to unwind with a good book, he prefers thumbing through a volume of historical non-fiction. Or perhaps a good murder mystery written by Louise Perry.
But for the moment, his schedule is full, helping people in the Mitchell community find their own personal selections of books as the new librarian at the Mitchell Public Library. Kenkel, a former longtime director of learning resources at the McGovern Library at Dakota Wesleyan University, assumed the position July 20.
“It’s going well,” Kenkel said in an interview with the Mitchell Republic. “I’m having fun and getting to know the staff and the patrons who come in.”
Kenkel, 57, took the job of city librarian after 27 years of working at academic libraries throughout the region. The Defiance, Iowa, native, attended college at St. John’s University in Minnesota, the University of Minnesota and the University of Iowa en route to a career in the library sciences. He spent time working at Huron University before moving on to DWU, where he remained for 24 years. Eventually he looked into the head position at the Mitchell Public Library, where he stepped in for longtime former city librarian Jackie Hess.
“She was here for 40 years. What an amazing tenure at one library,” Kenkel said.
After more than two-and-half decades working in an academic setting, Kenkel said he was looking for a change, and thought working in the public sector as a librarian would be a good way to both continue his time in an environment he enjoyed as well as a chance to expand his horizons and experience in the field.
He said he thoroughly enjoyed working at DWU and assisting students in their research and academic pursuits, and it did fulfill his desire to contribute to the community. But working with the general public at a city-owned library was a chance to engage with a different, broader portion of the community on a regular basis.
“There are certainly a variety of issues that are different. At the college level, there is a focus on teaching the students on how to use the library, how to locate information for their assignment and paper they were writing and how to critically analyze and evaluate information in determining if the information they were finding was something they should or should not use,” Kenkel said.
Being a guide to the information on tap at the city library is similar to helping those students, just with a larger segment of the general population.
“Some of those things we do at the public library. We want people to evaluate information and help people find quality sources of information and meet their needs and wants,” Kenkel said. “And in public libraries, we have a variety of people come in. It’s just a wider variety of people that you have to accommodate.”
A wide range of patrons requires a wide range of programming and services, and Kenkel said the Mitchell Public Library is in a position to provide that range. That is true even in the era of COVID-19, the outbreak of which in the last several months has changed some procedures at the library, but not the mission.
Modern technology and innovative thinking has helped solve some problems that may not have been possible in the past.
“With the COVID-19 pandemic, our ability to offer the programming that we’re offering is not what traditional has been offered in years past,” Kenkel said. “We haven’t been able to offer any face-to-face programming this summer.”
But staff at the library are still connecting with patrons. They do daily book readings on Facebook for children to watch at home, and Kenkel said the program appears to be popular, with parents apparently continuing to access the video archives as a way to have their children practice their reading. It’s just one way the library has managed to use modern methods to adapt a traditional practice and continue it.
Kenkel said he has inherited a library that has a smart, experienced staff and has had enough upgrades over the years to keep it modern and inviting to the public. Still, to keep the library on the cutting edge, he said he would explore ideas on how to improve library services well into the future.
“A few years ago the library was renovated and built on to, so there is additional space, but libraries can always adapt to new technologies and offerings,” Kenkel said.
Those changes may include a popular concept called "makerspaces," where more hands-on enrichment activities can be experienced by the public. Anything from crafts to lessons on writing poetry could be explored more in-depth.
“That can refer to a number of different things. It’s a space where people can come and be creative and explore their creativity. Some libraries have makerspaces with sewing machines and hold classes on how to sew,” Kenkel said. “If we had sewing machine makerspace, we could have a time where people could come in and work on masks. So, we’ll be looking at the different ways we can bring in some of those types of programs.”
Despite continuing improvements with information technology and other ways to enhance the library experience, the classic staples of the library are still available. The book sale nook in the entry hall has been moved to a less-enclosed area, the shelves are still lined with books of nearly every imaginable topic and the staff is ready to assist visitors with their inquiries.
Kenkel encouraged those who may have not visited the library to come in and see what it has to offer. They are happy to offer everything from recommendations to guidance on finding facts.
The Mitchell Public Library is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays. Kenkel said the library urges that people wear a mask on the premises and limit their visits to 30 minutes to help limit the number of people on the building at a time.
More information, including policies specifically related to COVID-19, can be found at https://www.cityofmitchell.org/156/Library.