QUINCY -- Retired high school English teacher Betty Lillard shudders to think of what the Quincy Public Library would be like if portions of the library's staff were laid off due to budget cuts.
"I would be so disappointed if that happens," Lillard said. As a resident of Taylor, Mo., Lillard said she has paid $100 per year for more than a decade to be a member of the local library as a non-Quincy resident. Lillard said that over the years she has relied on reference desk librarians, such as Farrah McDaniel or Katie Kraushaar, to point her in the direction of new books, new authors and her membership as a member of the Bookies Book Club, which has given her an outlet since her retirement.
McDaniel came to the Quincy Public Library in 2015 after graduating from the University of Wisconsin in Madison with a master's degree in library science. McDaniel is one of eight staff members at the library to have a master's degree. An additional three librarians have library certificates.
Quincy Public Library Director Kathleen Helsabeck said having librarians with professional training should be a source of pride for the city's government and populace.
"A librarian has to be professionally trained to know resource sharing, interlibrary loan and reciprocal borrowing," Helsabeck said. "With regards to reference services, a master's degree in library sciences is essential for answering patron questions and providing readers advisory and bibliographic instruction. In lower-populated areas of the state, librarians with master's degrees are not always available, but Quincy Public Library is fortunate to have eight on staff."
Since coming to Quincy, McDaniel said she has come to view the community as her home and that she loves being able to share her specialized skillset with fellow Quincyans.
"I will always be grateful to Quincy for giving me this entry into my profession and to give me the opportunity to hone my craft," McDaniel said. "The reference desk of today is not your grandmother's era reference desk where you had all of your reference in books. The internet has frankly changed that."
Instead of searching through fine-printed reference materials, McDaniel said the work of a reference librarian begins much like the work of a seasoned detective who works to piece information together in order to fulfill a patron's request that can be rather vague or specific.
"As you search, you find little pieces here and there," McDaniel said. "You'll continue to find little pieces until things start to line up. After that happens, then we begin combing our databases and catalogues looking for larger pieces. Once we start to get things together, we take it back to the patron."
Patrons such as Donna Lawson and Christina Langley, both of Quincy, say they are always amazed by the work of the reference librarians.
"They are so knowledgeable," Langley said. Langley, a two-year thryoid cancer survivor, said the reference librarians helped provide her with new books during the height of her radiation treatments, which included a three-week stay in isolation.
"I was isolated for three weeks because of my treatments, but because of the books that I had, I wasn't bored or lonely," Langley said. "I believe when you have a good book in your hands, then its the same as having your friends beside you."
McDaniel said it is the work of reference is sometimes confused as magic.
"We make it seem like magic, but its not," McDaniel said. "It is really sifting through and searching through millions of possible answers to find the information the patron is looking for."
McDaniel said that during a recent shift, she was asked to look up a phone number for an out-of-state company, to find books by a particular author and to find details about a lacrosse player who died after being mauled by a dog in San Francisco. These requests are in addition to the numerous requests for assistance with computers, printers, scanners or other technology.
She also has fielded requests for genealogical research assistance and helped members of the public track down information related to defunct businesses or communities, such as Oak Hollow, that no longer can be found on maps.
Kraushaar said the job of reference librarians is more important than ever, especially in the age of search engines like Google and new technology, such as Alexa or Siri.
"There is an assumption (that reference librarians have been replaced), but I think now we are getting a lot more specialized questions because of those things," Kraushaar said. "We tend to get more questions that require much more specialized, in-depth questions."
According to statistics from the library, the reference desk last year fielded 48,646 questions from library patrons and guests, which is the equivalent of each resident in Quincy asking a question of the reference desk.
"We tend to think of ourselves as a vital service to the city," Kraushaar said. "True, we are not an emergency service like police or fire, and we respect them so much and appreciate everything that they do, but we are essential to the community, too. The library should be a place where people can come and find the information that they are seeking."
McDaniel and Kraushaar are just two of the 36 library staff members at Quincy Public Library. Helsabeck worries that more staff will need to be eliminated if the library is forced to take another budget cut.
Last year, the library took a 4 percent cut, which effectively removed $72,000 from the library's operating budget. To cope with that cut, the library eliminated its Sunday hours of operation in addition to reducing staff.
Helsabeck said "nothing is sacred" when it comes to the realities of the budget, especially as she eyes having to potentially take austerity measures to reduce expenses. She also added that no decisions have been made as to what positions or programs would be cut this year if the city further reduces the library's funding.
Becky Heimonen, of LaGrange, Mo., drives 20 miles to visit the library and has paid the annual fee to be a library patron for many years. She said she worries what the library would be like if the reference desk was discontinued.
"I see people over there all the time," Heimonen said. "I think there would be a lot of people who would be lost or confused if that desk disappeared."