In almost every town in America, there is a magical place. A place where everything is free, where the people are helpful, and where all your questions have answers. In Valparaiso, and throughout Porter County, that place is the library. As the Director of the Porter County Public Library System (PCPLS), Jesse Butz fully understands the magic and the importance that his role holds.
If you haven’t stepped foot in one of PCPLS’s five branches, you are in for a surprise. Fully based in the 21st century, Butz and his team think creatively to support the needs of readers, families, schools, and businesses. Full of resources, today’s PCPLS includes video editing equipment, teacher toolkits, and everything you need for a family game night.
This unconventional approach to libraries takes a person like Butz–someone who came to the library system in an uncommon way.
Butz didn’t grow up thinking he would become a librarian. The thought never even crossed his mind. A childhood full of sports, Butz was an athlete more concerned with touchdowns than with reading.
“I wasn't a library user. I wasn't even a reader heavily early on,” Butz said. “I was a sports kid, so I was all about football, weightlifting, track and field and whatnot. Then I met my wife, and she was from a library family. She got me into reading.”
Despite this new love of reading, Butz still didn’t feel like the library was the place for him. He explored roles in education and in business before making a connection and realizing that libraries were the place for him.
“I wanted to be a high school history teacher and football coach. My advisor let me know that I had no shot of actually getting a job teaching at the time, especially history or PE while being a football coach because education jobs were limited then.”
Thinking outside the box, Butz’s advisor was the first person who planted the idea of libraries in his head.
“She said, ‘Have you ever thought about being in a library?’ She put me in contact with someone out in DC, another gentleman who had followed my kind of path. He let me know that libraries are not at all what you think they're like. Libraries are all about teaching and helping people,” Butz said.
Butz has enjoyed being a part of library revitalization and restructuring during the last decade.
“I got my degree in 2011, but even in that time libraries have shifted. It's gone away from that more academic, traditional 70s-80s library. Today the library is a community center. Everything is customer service oriented.”
Since Butz became director of PCPLS, he has instilled a zero fine policy, started curbside pickup, installed the Rotary Library Garden across from the Valparaiso library, and increased access to online and print material.
“Fines provided a barrier to access to 1000s of people,” Butz said. “There were somewhere around 20,000 kids who had their library cards blocked since 2005. They couldn't come in anymore, and that was out of 160,000 potential patrons. That's a huge barrier to access.”
Butz also works with his team to ensure that every aspect of the library is focused on what each patron needs.
“We've begun cross-training our staff in every department,” Butz said. “Every desk can help you at any moment in time. We do curbside pickup now. We were one of the first to do that–right at the very beginning of the pandemic.”
Adding access to print and online material is another addition to PCPLS.
“We’ve quadrupled our collection,” Butz said. “Patrons now have access to millions of items they didn't before. We went to the eBook consortium–it's the largest consortium in this in the country at this point.”
Full of ideas and creativity, Butz and his team have several exciting projects on the horizon. They are looking to expand community gardens to all five branches, increase the ways they can support teachers and businesses, and add take-home kits for families to use during outdoor activities.
“We’re always looking at quirky, unique ideas that we can to try to help expand the library, break down barriers, and then re-engage with the community in ways we've never done before,” Butz said.