Receiving the Joan Larson Memorial Award by the Information and Technology Educators of Minnesota (ITEM) in honor of her dedication to libraries came as a surprise to Wanda Erickson, library services coordinator at the Great River Regional Library (GRRL) in Upsala.
Not only because she is the first to ever receive the award, but also because she credits much of the library’s success in Upsala to the community.
“It makes me feel very humble because there is no way that I could have gotten this award without the entire community of Upsala. They are the ones who are using and supporting the library,” she said.
As Erickson also works part-time as the librarian at the Cora Eckstrom Media Center at Upsala Area Schools, she credits the staff for her success, as well.
“I couldn’t have done this without the support from the staff at the school through the years I have worked here,” she said.
The award was named the Joan Larson Memorial Award in honor of Larson, who died Feb. 23, at the age of 89. She was a library innovator, diplomat, mentor, role model and spent the majority of her career as the coordinator of the Northern Lights Library Network.
What makes it even more special to receive the award is the fact that Erickson knew Larson. They were both very active in Minnesota Education of Media (MEMO), the name of which was changed to ITEM in 2002, and they often worked side-by-side.
“One main thing we did together was the book store that always accompanies the annual ITEM conference. We also worked together to bring authors to that conference,” she said.
Erickson started working at the public library in 1987 and is the library’s first librarian. Although she was instrumental in bringing the public library to Upsala, she is quick to redirect the credit to the Friends of the Upsala Public Library, a group of women that formed the organization when the branch was still being dreamed of and then later built.
“They are responsible for raising all the money that purchased all of the shelving, the desk, everything you see, and any of the early programming in the late 1980s and early 1990s,” she said.
The community support for a public library was huge. When asked, all of the town’s residents, except two, said they would use a library.
There are currently 657 borrowers at the Upsala library, with 376 patrons having been active within the last six months.
The active borrower percentage in Upsala within the last six months is 58%, while the area average is 40%, she said
Erickson said the opportunity to work at the public library was a dream come true. It was something she had desired since she was in second grade.
Growing up in Waite Park, it wasn’t unusual to find her at the library at the McKinley Elementary School after school hours. Eventually the librarian, a school teacher, became so accustomed to her being around that she gave her odd jobs here and there, such as stamping books, alphabetizing library cards and more. It made her fall in love with the profession even more.
“I just loved it. Her trust and willingness to work with me made all the difference for me,” she said.
Erickson graduated from St. Cloud State University in 1977 with a degree in secondary education, specializing in social studies. She also had an extended minor in information media, which qualified her to become a librarian, she said.
Before she returned to her mother’s hometown, Upsala, she worked as a social studies teacher for four years and as a librarian in Albany. She also worked as a paraprofessional for Heather Johnson, an elementary teacher at Upsala Area Schools for a year before the public library was built.
Erickson and Johnson, who had a library degree, worked together to modernize the school’s library. Since there also wasn’t really a set curriculum for teaching library skills, Erickson wrote one, which she and Johnson implemented.
The biggest breakthrough for the libraries in Upsala was when libraries across Minnesota received a portion of funding from the Minnesota Legacy Amendment under the Arts and Cultural Heritage funding allocation. It opened the doors for more programming, Erickson said.
Since the 1990s, Erickson has brought more than 60 authors to visit the libraries, including several nationally known, such as Lauraine Snelling, Beverly Lewis, William Kent Krueger, Julie Kramer, Joe Kimball and more.
Many of the author visits have had a great turnout with about 40 - 60 people coming. That is not only a great number for a rural area library, but one that even perplexes librarians from libraries in large cities.
“They’ve wondered how we get so many people to come when they can’t even get more than 10 people to show up,” she said.
For that, Erickson gives the credit to God.
Throughout the years, the libraries have had many visits from various musicians and instructors who have taught music and drama and more.
The last three years, she has worked on re-shelving the fiction books at the school library. Rather than having the books alphabetized by the author’s name, it is categorized by genre.
“I’m only part-time and am also doing other things there, so it has taken me a while,” she said.
Although Erickson loves what she does, she is considering retiring in 2021.
When she is not working, she enjoys spending time with her husband, Craig. In the past, they drag raced a lot and while they no longer have a car to race with, they like to watch. They also like muscle and fast cars, own a couple and are active in the Community Cruisers, a local car club.
As faith is an important part of their lives, they are very active in the Community Covenant Church in Upsala.