Ryan Wieber wanted to be a truck driver like his dad, but his mom had other ideas.
“My dad delivered beer in Lansing, and I wanted to do what he did. My mom didn’t (want me to), though,” the 50-year-old Weiber says, “so she made sure that I went to college.” There he fell in love with public history.
Three degrees later, Wieber’s career has brought him to the helm of the Kalamazoo Public Library, overseeing the central library and four branches and providing library services for more than 116,000 Kalamazoo residents. Not bad for a guy who admits he didn’t set foot in a public library until he was a senior in high school.
“We lived outside of Lansing, and it just wasn’t a habit in my family to use a library, but my parents recognized the value of education and instilled a love for reading in all of us kids,” Wieber says. “We always had books. We were always, always reading.”
How did you end up where you are today?
It’s kind of funny, you know. I don’t think many librarians set out to become a librarian. We just end up here somehow. My story is a good example of that.
After three years at community college, where I studied business but wasn’t that enthusiastic about it, I discovered that Western Michigan University had a program called public history. I had grown up liking to study my family history and the history of the landscape and city around me. I loved looking at old photographs. Public history is a form of history where it’s museum work, archival work and historic preservation. All of a sudden, I was engaged and enthusiastic about school.
That led me to the archives world. I quickly discovered that I couldn’t get a job upon graduation unless I went to grad school, so I got a master’s in library science, with emphasis on archival management, at Wayne State University. I never saw myself ending up as a librarian — I was going to be an archivist. My first job was in the Detroit Institute of Arts research library. Then I became an archivist at Cranbrook (an education, science and art center), in Bloomfield Hills, which is a beautiful environment with great architecture and a rich history.
But after three years our family was growing and we decided we needed to get back home either to the Lansing area or Kalamazoo. My first day looking for a job I saw an opening for a director at the Otsego District Library. I had not one day of public library experience in my past but interviewed and got the job. I ended up loving it.
I then became director at Van Buren District Library, which has seven locations scattered from Mattawan to Covert. I was there for four years and then this job opened up in springtime of 2017. I applied and here I am.
What do you like about what you do?
The best part is serving the community and proving the worth, the value, of the library to the community. I love to see the impact that the public library, with all of our resources and all of our programming, can make on individuals and families.
What’s been exciting about your job?
We’ve initiated a couple of new programs that are removing barriers, making it easier for people to get library access and enjoy the benefits of reading and using our resources.
The One Card program gets a library card in every student’s hand here in Kalamazoo. We worked with Kalamazoo Public Schools and found that staff, both at the schools and here at the library, were engaged and willing to make it happen, and happen quickly. We’re in our second year now and it’s gone quite smoothly. About 60 percent of students used their card during the first year, which is pretty good. And it’s our goal to keep building that up, you know, every succeeding year.
We also give the opportunity for all school district employees to get a library card too — it doesn’t matter where they live, they can come in here and get a library card.
The second thing was kind of a controversial move, but we are going fine-free this month. We discovered we had roughly 6,000 patrons in our system who do not come to the library because they’re at or above the $10 fine threshold and have been blocked from using the library. We found that residents from a lower socioeconomic level overwhelmingly make up that group. There are a lot of people who, once they hit that $10 threshold, it’s just not a choice to pay it. They don’t come back, and they don’t bring their families to the library.
We’re doing it because it’s the right thing. I’m excited to see hundreds, maybe thousands, of people coming back into the library. I think it’s going to have a big impact here.
What are you reading right now?
I’m a big fan of creepy Stephen King kind of fiction and am reading Dr. Sleep. I’m also a fan of American social history and enjoy reading anything about Abe Lincoln, so Lincoln at Cooper Union, by Harold Holzer, is on my nightstand right now.
— Interview conducted by Marie Lee and edited for length and clarity