WILTON — David Olson didn’t set out for a career spent in libraries — he says no one does. But since stumbling upon his first library gig as a reference librarian when he was finishing his undergraduate degree in an unrelated field, Olson has spent 30 years working in public and academic libraries across the country.

Now, after serving as the director of the Wilton Free Public Library for the last 10 years, Olson is retiring from the profession that he has grown to love, a profession he said needs to be passed on to the next generation so libraries can continue to thrive in the communities they serve.

“I feel it is really time to turn it over to younger people,” he said during an interview at the library last week. “I know that sounds like pie in the sky stuff, but this profession is important to me. It’s time for younger people to take over.”

Olson’s last day at the library is Aug. 10, though he still remembers the day in 1978 when he found his first library position in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. After serving as a medic in the Far East during the Vietnam War, Olson returned to Wisconsin to finish his undergraduate degree in advertising and he was looking for a part-time job.

As he was walking by the public library, he thought it might be an interesting place to work, so he went inside and asked to speak to the director, who informed him that they were looking for a reference librarian. Olson told the director he could start the next day.

“It was that easy, and that’s how I started working in libraries,” Olson said “I pretty much grew up in a library. I spent lots and lots of time there as a kid, all by myself, reading and noodling around. So libraries had always been important to me.”

Olson worked in several libraries in Wisconsin before earning a master’s degree in library science in 1982 from the University of Iowa. Olson then moved farther west, serving as the library director at the University of Montana, where he also was the president of the Montana Academic Library Association.

He ended up in western Maine in 1987, when he began working as the library director at the University of Maine at Farmington. One thing Olson said he couldn’t help but notice when he moved to the Northeast was the region’s dedication to its libraries.

“Libraries, and learning in general, have always been important in this part of the U.S.,” he said. “I was surprised when I came out here and saw so many. I saw libraries everywhere and some of them were just one-person libraries in a house in a place like Mount Vernon.”

‘WORKING WITH PEOPLE’

After 10 years at UMF, Olson left his role as director and veered away from libraries for a decade, operating an information technologies business in the area. But when the Wilton Free Public Library was looking for a director, Olson took the opportunity to serve in the public sector.

The populations that academic and public libraries serve are different, and therefore the library staff in academic and public libraries serve different roles, he said. With the academic libraries serving students, Olson said, the library is used as a learning tool, and the staff is there to teach the students how to use it. The books the libraries consist of are also often purchased to match the curricula, not necessarily what people want.

The purpose of public libraries, which serve a diverse community, is entirely different, Olson said.

“I prefer public libraries because it’s more working with people, and I like working with people. That’s the important thing. It’s that connection between librarians and people or the library staff and people that really makes the library work. It’s not the books, really, or the materials we check out so much. It’s our presence, our assistance, our modeling, and programming, that makes the library work,” Olson said.

The Wilton Free Public Library, located on Main Street in downtown Wilton, serves Wilton, Dryden, East Wilton and East Dixfield. Olson said the library has flourished in offering the types of programs and resources that make public libraries an asset to residents. With reading groups, writing groups, children’s programming, educational programming for adults, music events and even art shows, he said, the library is offering a broader umbrella of information than people expect. “It’s about information; that’s what libraries are about,” he said.

“Libraries need to get the word out about what we actually do, because people think it’s just about books; and really, that’s just a small part of what we do,” Olson said. “It’s more social activism. We want to make things better and this is how we can help.”

Jen Scott, who worked at the Farmington Public Library before coming to the Wilton library in March, will be interim director after Olson is done. The library still is looking for a full-time director.

She said working with him has been good and she intends to continue his vision of a community-oriented library service.

Scott, who also has worked in New Vineyard, said her work in area libraries will help her in her new role.

MOVING FORWARD

While the advent of the Internet is bringing an endless horizon of information directly into people’s homes, Olson said it’s actually adding to the ways in which libraries can serve as a resource, not taking away.

“Public libraries have pretty much always been about giving people access to material to read and helping them find answers to questions they wouldn’t be able to find at home or through some other means,” he said. “It used to be with reference books, and now we help them find things on the Internet or maintain databases that people wouldn’t be able to use at home.”

Cassie Savage, children’s librarian at the Wilton Free Public Library, said that in last five years she has worked with Olson, there has never been a day where she has not looked forward to going to work, thanks to the library atmosphere he creates.

“It is such a pleasure to work with someone with such forward thinking who is always supportive of new ideas and trying new things. He truly cares about doing whatever we can to provide for the needs of such a great community,” Savage said.

A project Olson recently began, establishing a patio for public use on the library grounds, will enhance the library’s community-centered vision after he retires.

Work on a fence around the area where the patio will go has started, and Olson envisions the space being used for the public to sit and admire the stream that goes around the library, and perhaps read a book or use the library’s wireless internet access.

The library got a $1,000 grant from a community development program to get the project started this May. A GoFundMe page also has been set up for the project.

Olson plans to stay in Wilton after he retires. His adopted hometown serves as the perfect place for him to spend more time reading, writing and taking photographs, along with what he said is his favorite pastime — “sitting and thinking.”

Lauren Abbate — 861-9252

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Twitter: @Lauren_M_Abbate