ESCANABA - Don't waste your time asking Patt Fittante when she's going to retire. The children's librarian at the Escanaba Public Library will simply smile and say, "Why quit something when you love it?"
And it's obvious when you see Patt in action that she really loves her job. When she reads a story book to a group of youngsters, it's more than just listening to words and looking at illustrations. It's an adventure in progress. And this adventure has been ongoing since 1984 and will probably continue for many, many more years.
A native of Escanaba, Patt was the eighth of 13 children. Although she has memories of attending the former Franklin Elementary School, that wasn't the only grade school she attended.
From left, Maggie Martin, 4, and her sister Anna, 2, check out books at the Escanaba Public Library with children’s librarian Pat Fittante before joining her for Toddler Time. (Daily Press photo by Holly Richer)
"It seems that every time my mother had a baby, we moved," she chuckled.
After graduating from Escanaba High School, Patt attended Northern Michigan University where she obtained a degree in education. Her first teaching assignment was in Ishpeming.
But once her three children arrived, Patt decided to be a stay-at-home mother instead of working outside her home. Commenting on the decision, she said, "We didn't have a dish washer, but it was a good trade-off."
When Martin, her youngest child, was in high school in 1978, Patt decided to return to the classroom and began subbing at Webster Elementary School.
Patt said her new career as children's librarian began in 1984 when Library Board member, Joanne Banks, came across the hall from her classroom at Webster School and informed her that the children's librarian at the Escanaba library was retiring and suggested that she apply for the job.
"Me? A librarian?" Patt questioned. "Was she kidding? I was trained to teach."
But with teaching jobs in scarce supply, Patt decided to give it a try. "Besides, I thought that if I didn't like it, I'd just quit. But here I am 27 years later - giving it a try and loving the job as much, if not more, than I did back in those days in the basement of the old Escanaba Public Library."
Although the requirement for a librarian is a bachelor's degree in the field, Patt said her training was "on-the-job" with participation in a lot of workshops.
"The best way to learn is talking with other librarians and picking their brains," she declared.
When Patt first began her career as a librarian is a far cry from what it is today.
"Everything was done by hand back then," she said. "We had alphabetized cards and it took a week to send out overdue notices. There were three cards for each book. Others took more. It's so much easier today with computers."
When the decision was made to build a new city hall/library complex, Patt was involved in the design of her children's area and she was instrumental in picking out color schemes for furniture and accessories.
"As we watched the progress of the new library, it felt so immense and our thoughts were that we would never be able to fill all the space," she said. "Wrong! With the birth of public computers, increased book collections, as well as increased circulation and patron traffic, and new programs, the complexion of things really changed. Now the problem is needing more space."
Over the years, additions to the children's library have included a well-lit, well-ventilated room with a shielded patio for outdoor programs, a room designated just for children's programs, a toy area and a real sailboat for the children to sit in and read. In addition, game computers with programs to promote reading and teach foreign languages, have been added.
"Gone are the days when the fingers and clothes turned purple from the archaic gummy, disgustingly messy, inky gel mimeograph trays on which to make copies," Patt said. "Even our first Xerox coy machine was a revelation. Now we just push 'print' or 'copy.' Isn't it difficult to realize that all these changes transpired in just the past two-plus decades?"
Patt does all the buying for the children and young adults at the library and said she is frequently disappointed with the selections that are offered.
"It's very different than it used to be," she said. "Some books are so bad, I wonder how they they ever get published. And I don't understand the fascination with fantasies about zombies and out-of-this-world books. And all this vampire stuff. But I know it keeps kids happy. That's what they want to read. I have to keep a balance. But picture books are always so popular."
Patt said her particular favorite authors are Patricia Polacco, a Michigan author who writes mainly for youngsters in grades 2-5.
"She (Polacco) does a lot of writing about her family and her own Russian heritage," said Patt. "Her books have so much depth and she does her own illustrations, which are also very good. I really like her and all her books are in our library."
Although children are far more advanced nowadays than what they were when she first began teaching and working as a librarian, Patt said she has difficulty imagining her life without working with them.
"Kids breath fresh life into you," she said. "They're so genuine and so trusting. That's the beautiful part of them. But they are definitely more advanced in their learning. What children are now doing in third grade, they used to be doing in the fifth."
But despite the new sophistication of today's children, Patt takes time to appreciate the fact that they are still children and she is making an impact on their lives. One memory is of a mother who made a special trip to the library to inform Patt that prior to attending a Summer Reading Program, he son refused to sit down and open a book. Since that time, the boy's grades at school have improved and he is now an avid reader.
She further recalls a child who was crying and when asked what was wrong, the child's mother said, "She doesn't want to leave."
"What nicer compliment to pay an institution?" Patt declared.
"Has it been 27 years?" she asked. "Can't be. From the basement of the old Carnegie Building to a beautiful new building. From alphabetizing hundreds of book cards each day to cataloguing new books on computer. From occasionally showing black-and-white book-related films on a clunky 8-mm projector at Story-hour, to having kids play book-related computer games. Do I like my job as much as I did when I started in 1984? You bet?"