Familiar face stepping away after 50 years at OC library

Sharon Duarte, a half-century employee of the Oil City Library, retired Friday. (By Judith O. Etzel)

Observing that “50 years is long enough,” Sharon Duarte, an institution within an institution, has retired from the Oil City Library.

“I want to play,” said the smiling 66-year-old Duarte, a fixture at the local library since working part-time as a library page in 1967 while still in high school.

“My husband, Rick, retired as a captain in the city fire department in 2012 and he’s been waiting for me to retire. We just like to hop in the car and just go or spend time at our cottage on the river. And we want to visit our son in Pittsburgh more often. Now, we can.”

When Duarte graduated from Oil City High School in 1970, the library hired her for a full-time job. Jean Stormer was the acting library director at the time.

Since then, the library has had 10 directors with Dan Flaherty now serving as director of the Oil Region Library Association that represents public libraries in Oil City, Franklin and Cooperstown.

“I outlasted all of them, except Dan,” said Duarte, with a laugh. “I’ve worked with so many wonderful people.”

‘I’ve done it all’

Duarte has overseen every position from interim library director to typist during her long tenure at the 114-year-old library.

“From cleaning the bathrooms to greeting patrons, I’ve done it all except being the children’s librarian,” said Duarte. “But, I have washed the little kids’ smudges off the doors and windows. It’s wonderful to see all those children come through our library.”

As for children, Duarte describes one of the best aspects of her job was issuing library cards to new, young patrons.

“Oh, they just can’t wait until they get one. They are so excited and I always tell them, ‘it’s your ticket to the world’ because it opens up all that we offer. It’s a big deal for them and you can tell by the wonderful smiles you get back,” said Duarte.

While enjoying all the work slots she filled at the library, Duarte was most fond of manning the circulation desk and cataloging books on the shelves.

“We got to know our patrons very well. They’d check out books or tapes on, for example, a vacation or a cookbook and the conversation would start about where they were vacationing or what they were going to have for dinner,” she said. “Nearly every time, that person would walk out of our library and just look happy, partly due to the conversation.”

The overall atmosphere of the library is “positive, happy” and that is due in large part to the library staff, said Duarte.

“Most people who come in are so friendly. Occasionally, though, you get the curmudgeon. But, we can usually turn that around and there will be a big smile on his face when he leaves,” she said.

Well aware that a public library has “way more than books,” Duarte said she has embraced all the changes, especially in the technological realm, that libraries have undergone.

“Our resources are amazing. You can take out on loan a GPS system, fishing poles, tools as well as books on CD, movies,” she said. “And our programs are great from our children’s services to the Genealogical Club and Audubon Society and Heritage Society – their programs pack our library with people. And we take calls from all over asking about information on families and former businesses and our history. We respond to every one of those.”

‘We empower people’

At the Oil City Library, there is an atmosphere of civility, safety, learning and more and that makes the facility “a very special place for our city,” said Duarte.

“I think we empower people by providing the resources, whether it is because you want to create a resume or need to learn a language or want a film on the constellations,” she said. “We provide the services for what I call our ‘fill in the gap’ role’, whether it is a place for a birthday party, questions like where is such and such or information on election results. We can do it.”

New technologies have transformed a public library’s offerings and Duarte has coped well with those changes.

“It’s technology we have to accept and we offer a wide variety of those services,” said Duarte. “Is it old-fashioned to still check out a book? I don’t think so because a lot of people want to touch the page, smell the book, hold it in their hands so I believe it will never go out of style. And, for me, I can still find most of the information I want in print.”

The future of public libraries, described in some quarters as tenuous, is secure, believes Duarte. There are caveats, though.

“It may struggle for a little while because of questionable funding. It would be wonderful to have a county-funded system so all areas could have free access,” she said. “And we need our schools to interact a little better with us. But a library is so essential – when people look at a community to move to, or to stay in, the question is what does it offer? Well, there has to be a library.”

As for calling it quits at her profession, Duarte and her husband have no plans to exit their hometown.

“There is no reason to leave, absolutely not one. It’s the atmosphere. People now have a positive attitude and they really want to see this town survive and prosper. I see it re-inventing itself and that is even more reason to stay,” said Duarte.