West retires after 43 years with McDonough Library

By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent

Anyone under the age of 30, who doesn’t remember life without the Internet, might have a hard time imagining what a library was like in 1974. There were no rows of computers for web browsing or electronic searches for available books. Every available resource was printed and read the old-fashioned way — holding a book or magazine in your hand and turning the pages.

“It was a completely different world,” said former McDonough librarian Kaye West. “The library was basically about people coming in to use it as a leisure activity — reading for pleasure or about things they were interested in — or getting information such as for school assignments. But we had to recover all of that from books, magazines and newspapers back then.”

Kaye West (under a ‘Clocked Out’ sign) enjoyed a retirement party dinner given recently by the McDonough Library staff. She is holding a plaque thanking her for her years of service presented to her by Henry County Libraries Director Carolyn Fuller. Photo by Mickie Jackson

The McDonough Library had only recently moved into its spacious digs on Sims Street, in the building that the Henry County Probate Court now calls home, in 1974. That was the same year West, who had just moved to the area with her husband from Alabama, joined the library staff.

The facility now sits on Hwy. 81 in a much larger facility with dozens of computers as well as wireless Internet access, which is utilized tens of thousands of times each year. West has witnessed every bit of that evolution, working behind the desk at that branch until her retirement Aug. 31.

She arrived in town with plans to be a teacher, armed with a master’s degree in English and a love of literature. Her husband was a teacher for a number of years and her long-term goal was to teach in college, but when the library opportunity came along for her, “it just seemed like a good fit for me,” she said. “I decided to go for it, and it turned out to be almost the rest of my life.”

The Sims Street location was close to her home and seemed large at the time except for the parking lot. It is dwarfed by the current branch but in the 1970s was well-suited to serve the area.

“I thought it was the greatest just to be in that place and get to be a part of the community in that manner,” said West.

The Cochran Library in Stockbridge was in existence at this time, and the Fortson Library in Hampton was established shortly afterward. The branches in Locust Grove and Fairview came many years later.

There was not the system in place today that links so many branches electronically, although a patron who checked out a book at one branch could return it to another branch in the county.

“It was pretty informal,” said West. “We had people drive around and take books back and forth from time to time. Someone would call and ask about a certain book and whether you could send it to the other branch the next time you came. But there wasn’t any real structure to it. But there were a lot fewer people in the county at that time.”

Summer programs for students and story time for small children were always on the calendar at the library through the years. There are many more programs for all ages in place now, but that has mostly happened in recent years, she said.

One of the things West’s longevity has allowed is, much like a teacher, the opportunity serve multiple generations. Being such a familiar face in the same location for so long, she has recently assisted students in their library activities after having done the same for their parents two or three decades ago.

“That has happened to me a lot,” she acknowledged. “When you think about it, a lot happens in 43 years. I’ve had many people come in and introduce me to their children, then telling them, ‘Mrs. Kaye helped me in school.’”

West’s report on her first two weeks of retirement was a positive one.

“It’s been pretty good. I’ve been surprised at how the days have filled up despite not having that schedule. I’ve had some leisure time and have enjoyed it. It was time.”

Her husband retired several years ago. Now that both have left the workforce, their plans are fairly simple.

“We’re not really big travelers,” she said. “I’ve never been much of a traveler and neither has he. I think that I mainly just plan to enjoy things here. I have time with him to look forward to, and I also have a circle of really great friends that I intend to spend some time with whether they like it or not. Not being on a schedule all the time is one of the things I’m really looking forward to.”

It is a unique stage in her life, and she feels that her education is not yet over.

“One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is that my whole identity has been wrapped up in the library. Now I’m looking forward to finding out who I am without that — what the rest of me is. I think that will be interesting, too.”