Mississippi Mills loses its popular Chief Librarian, Peter Nelson, today. The Millstone sat down with him for a final interview before his retirement which takes effect today, October 8.
Peter came late to a settled career. In his youth, he worked at such a lucrative job in Alaska that he was able to finance 12 years of shoe string world travel. He is recording those journeys in Peter Nelson’s travels published weekly in the Millstone. The series is comprised of letters written during those travels some 30 years ago. As Peter will freely admit, he has been extraordinarily lucky throughout his travels. He related, as an example, that in 12 years of travel, living in cheap hotels, residences and workers’ barracks, he suffered only one robbery, a pack of cigarettes that he kept to trade for goods and services in South America – and he didn’t even smoke.
Peter, American born, came to Canada with his Canadian wife Elaine in 1977 to take over a farm near Perth Ontario, which Elaine’s parents had inherited. Peter had never heard of Ontario at this point, but after one last journey through South East Asia, he and Elaine abandoned their peripatetic lives to raise a family (now grown) in the countryside near Perth.
After several years of part time jobs, including that of bartender, Peter decided to try to use his education – a B.A. in Art History and Anthropology, to establish a career. During his travels he had worked in various libraries, using experience he had acquired in the United States as a student library assistant. He discussed the possibility of pursuing a library science degree with his wife and in the 1980′s, they uprooted themselves once again, but this time only to move to London Ontario, where Peter completed his degree at the University of Western Ontario in 1986.
Back in Perth, a chance conversation with the children’s librarian in the Perth Library alerted him to the fact that the Almonte Library was looking for an employee. He immediately applied and on the basis of his degree and his, by now, extensive library experience, he was hired. Eighteen months later, the head librarian moved on to a larger community and Peter applied for her job. He succeeded and has been head of the Almonte, and now Mississippi Mills, Library since 1987, a job he clearly loves. As he points out, there are only four libraries in the area, and the chance that he could find employment without going to Ottawa or Kingston were slim, so once again, he was blessed by chance.
When asked what he will miss he said, without hesitation: the work,the people and the place. Peter is immensely proud of the library and its staff. The library is one of the busiest in Ontario: together, the Pakenham and Almonte libraries check out 100,000 books per year. Peter considers that the library belongs to the community and takes suggestions for acquisitions from patrons as well as from staff. He wants patrons to consider the library “their library”, and accepting their suggestions helps establish their ownership of the collection. Peter is quite chuffed when new residents come into the library and say that they chose the community because of the library.
Peter’s own reading runs to science, as well as ancient Egypt and chess. His travels, during much of which he relied on a single book that he carried with him, Thucydides, taught him the value of always having a good book at hand. Even when travelling in the car, he carries several books, just in case.
Peter recounts the amazing changes that have occurred during his library career. When he joined the Mississippi Mills library, the collection consisted of books, magazines and newspapers. Now, material is available in 30 different formats with hugely expanded search capability. He noted that the library bought its first, rather rudimentary computer in the late 80’s for $5,000. The library now boasts 20 computers. The library has also nearly doubled in physical size during his tenure. The library building was constructed in 1980, but the size significantly increased with 1996 additions.
We asked Peter about the most satisfying moments of his career. He said he loves finding material for patrons and that his greatest thrill is finding a book which makes a five year old beam.
Peter has promised to stay in touch with this community and you can still follow his travels weekly in the Millstone.