By Brenden West Assistant Editor
The Clinton Herald
---- — CLINTON — Today’s Amy Birtell is as straightforward as they come. Clinton molded her.
She didn’t mince her words when Clinton City Council members blamed the library’s governing board for the Lyons library branch closure in March, a self-described disheartening and frustrating casualty of 2014 budget cuts. Clinton’s Public Library director marched to the podium and pointed the finger right back:
“It was the council that approved the budget cut for us,” Birtell said.
“It’s an unfortunate thing,” she later added. “And I would hope in the future you would consider the services we offer and the things that we do for this community.”
She’s outspoken on her beliefs, too, serving as public ambassador for the library’s role in the city. More than once, she’s decried domestic violence — like when she encouraged Clinton County to continue funding the YWCA women’s shelter last year. Birtell has also publicly disclosed her own brushes with an abusive ex-husband.
“Amy is very honest, which is completely respectable,” said Jessica Kinser, close friend and Clinton city administrator. “She has a high level of integrity as well. If she sees something that needs to be changed, she’s going to change it.”
Kinser said she and Birtell bonded quickly when they were hired within weeks of each other in 2011. Kinser was Clinton’s finance director then, and describes her counterpart as “endlessly optimistic” and “innovative.”
She was unaware that a year prior, Birtell was not so outgoing. The mother of five was seeking sanctuary in a women’s shelter, the victim of something akin to introversion.
Instead, Kinser saw Birtell connecting a then-disjointed library system — no easy task with a department many viewed on the outskirts of city government.
“Prior to her starting, the library was very disconnected to the rest of the city organization,” Kinser said. “Since she’s been with the city, she’s been that very open, honest, positive, bubbly person... That’s the biggest piece that’s going to be missed.”
Last week, Birtell announced her resignation. She will oversee the Eastern Shores Library System in Sheboygan, Wisconsin — a chain of 14 libraries that serves two counties and more than 200,000 citizens.
No longer shy about her thoughts, Birtell said she’s not leaving because of the branch closure, council disputes or “disrespectful” behavior she observed toward her fellow city employees. To her, it comes with the territory — from day one.
“The person sitting in this chair is the person who will show up on the first day of work,” Birtell said. “If you don’t like this person sitting right here, then I’m not the one for you.
“The whole budget process did not influence me at all. Budgets are what they are. Taxes are what they are. Councils are what they are. Those are things that a director in a public library position is going to have to deal with. There are times of famine and there are times for feasting.”
Rather, she called Sheboygan “a dream job,” one she turned down several times before CPL arrived in a “good place” to transition.
“When I presented, the one librarian said, ‘I knew you were the one for us because you related to us,’ “ Birtell said. “I feel like we were to a point where the work here that I started was to a point where it was going to continue.”
Four years ago, when she was hired, Birtell said she was overcoming a period of recovery. Clinton, it turns out, was her first full-time job, but she arrived ready to stand up for the library’s needs after counseling and leadership classes.
Birtell decided (after moving to Eldridge and partaking in a trial that brought her children to the stand and ultimately sent her ex-husband to prison) to pursue a master’s degree in organizational leadership at St. Ambrose University. Through this she became more outgoing.
“I started taking classes again, being with other people and started relating to people,” she said. “I had a panic attack before I went in, I didn’t get much out of the first day. But that day I also decided I wasn’t going to let my husband have any power over me. And from then on, I decided, I was going to be the first person to have my hand in the air.”
With libraries her passion, Birtell set out to obtain a career at one. When Clinton’s director position opened up, she cut her master’s pursuit short.
After years of abuse, Birtell said “respect” was her top value as CPL director. In her view, it’s the reason speaking out against perceived “disrespectful” actions has come so easily.
“There has to be respect for the people that were hired to do a job,” Birtell said. “When they come back and say this is our recommendation, based on a job, based on facts, the people need to respect that the labor’s not done in vain.”
She added later: “Respect is a big issue with me.”
To Kinser, the accomplishments are many.
Birtell reeled in a previously distant library, regularly attending city meetings among other advocacies. She encouraged librarians to become more involved in the community and created an open dialogue with her staff.
“Amy was more than a manager,” Kinser said. “Amy’s a leader and that’s what I’ve seen as her staff has kind of developed.”
Through this, the library overcame many previous obstacles. Birtell helped populate the CPL calendar with numerous community activities, found use of the vacated Lyons branch (it now exists as a functioning community center), set up a book mobile, bolstered the city’s summer reading program and steered the main branch (located on South Third Street and Eighth Avenue South) toward renovations to come.
All of this while facing continually slashed budgets. Birtell said she entered Clinton with roughly half the reading materials the library now maintains — 50,000 to date. Within her first week, the council had already asked to make staff reductions.
Yet, she improved the system’s popularity.
“Amy has changed the Clinton library,” Kinser said. “She’s contributing a valuable part to our (city leadership) team.”
Now, like Birtell, CPL will undergo a transition. The library is waiting to fill four vacancies on its board of directors before pursuing Birtell’s successor. Meanwhile, her duties will be split between acting director Beth Mosher and current archivist Brad Wiles.
Having worked under Birtell a number of years, Mosher said the director’s task seems daunting but manageable until a full-time replacement is found.
However, the pain of seeing her director leave is difficult to bear.
“I’m going to miss her,” said Mosher, who is not interested in being a full-time replacement at this time. “She’s laid down a very good infrastructure, or base, to move forward. I think (her replacement) can look at the basis of things that have been set up and see a good plan, and be able to move forward with it. That being said, I don’t want to see her go, but I think she’s got us to a place where we can carry on.”
For Kinser, Clinton should hope for a similar replacement. It speaks to the improvements Birtell has made in three years — a relatively short amount of time.
“The one thing I tend to do here in my job, when someone asks how things are going, I like to look back to where I started in 2011,” Kinser said. “To see where the library has come... the connections that have been made between the library and the city... that just wasn’t happening before. Amy has done so much bringing us all together. She’s going to be missed.”
Given past trials and triumphs that await, Birtell said she couldn’t be her straight-forward self without her time in Clinton.
“What I see in my family and what I see in myself is that people gave us a chance,” she said. “Clinton gave me a chance for me to be a library director.
“There’s a phrase: What won’t kill you will only make you stronger. It’s very true. You have to rise up and begin again.”