Magazine article American Libraries

Merritt Fund Aids a Colleague in Distress

Magazine article American Libraries

Merritt Fund Aids a Colleague in Distress

Article excerpt

As director of Hooper (Nebr.) Public Library, Karla Shafer worked to transform the institution into a vital place in the community for six and a half years. Those efforts ended abruptly in 2010, however, when controversy erupted over Shafer's teaching of English classes to immigrants in a nearby town on her days off. She resigned her position as the work environment became intolerable.

Three months later, the city won an appeal that canceled her state unemployment benefits. "I had to repay money that my family badly needed for basic necessities," Shafer said. With money running out and bills for medicine, housing, and lawyers mounting, Shafer turned to ALA's Merritt Humanitarian Fund for help. In 2009, Shafer applied for the ALA/ Dollar General "The American Dream Starts@yourlibrary" grant program. "It was a great fit for our community, especially for the few Spanish-speaking individuals who wanted to learn English," Shafer said. Hooper is a small community with fewer than 1,000 residents, including a small number of Spanish-speaking immigrants.

The library won a $5,000 grant, making it the smallest library in the country to do so. It won a second grant through the program in 2010. Both grants were distributed to and spent by the library's Friends group.

Shafer did have some concerns about anti-immigrant sentiment in the community. (A nearby town, Fremont, earned national notoriety in 2010 by passing an ordinance banning the rental of housing to anyone who could not document their legal status.) "I thought if I could become a strong advocate and friend to even only a few, there would be an improvement," she noted.

Start of the storm

The classes had an impact. Shafer recalled one 5-year-old who thanked her for "teaching her mom to 'know' English, because she wanted to do like her mama and then become a doctor when she 'got big.'" But when Shafer began teaching classes in nearby Nickerson, on her own time and using her own vehicle, the city council stepped in. According to Shafer, Hooper City Council President Gene Meyer told her not to teach in Nickerson because it would appear that the classes were approved by Hooper. (Meyer disputes this in the October 24, 2010, Omaha World-Herald, saying, "I just said it was pretty unusual that we paid the librarian to go to Nickerson.")

Shafer asserted that her personal time was her own and that her off-duty activities were not subject to the council's will. In response, she said, "I was told my work hours would be reduced and I could only be in the library for certain hours--or that the library might be closed and service offered to the community through a school library--and that I could not teach English or Spanish even on my own time with my own money."

Even worse, she adds, were insinuations that she had kept some of the grant money for herself. "Of course, all the grant records were complete and honest, but it broke my heart that I would even be suspected," Shafer explained. "I knew I would no longer be able to do all I had done in the past, and all I had planned for the future, with any doubt of my honesty and integrity. I knew I had to resign, and so, I gave two weeks' notice."

Before she had finished removing her belongings from the library, the city clerk and a police officer met her there. …

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