Citizen Spotlight: Kankakee Public Library director Steve Bertrand

 Steve Bertrand will be celebrating his 13th year as director of Kankakee Public Library in December, though his family’s roots go much further back in the community. “The Bertrands go back a million years in this town,” he said. “My dad used to say we’ve been here since they ran water down the river.” READ MORE

Back in the early 1900s, the building that served as the Kankakee Public Library was painted by Louie Bertrand Paint Store. A century later in 2008, Louie’s great-great-grandson Steve would become director of that same library — just in a new building.

“I was going through an old library board book from 1905 and there was a [paint store] ad stuck in there,” said the latter Bertrand. “The Bertrands go back a million years in this town. My dad used to say we’ve been here since they ran water down the river.”

The director — who will be celebrating his 13th year of the position in December — said that his day-to-day responsibilities have changed drastically over the last year due to COVID-19.

“What I’m doing right now is responding to and developing procedures for coming out of the pandemic,” he said.

Under normal circumstances, he said, his day-to-day is what one would expect as a library director.

Normally, the library has as many as 45 employees. It currently has about 36, and Bertrand said they’re “rebuilding that.”

However, it wasn’t just the pandemic that made for changes in Bertrand’s library career. Developments in technology changed the entirety of a library’s core structure, and he says that while those changes have been an advantage for the public, it’s been a call for evolution for libraries.

“What the internet has done has made the kind of information we had available at the library, available at their fingertips,” he said of the technology’s impact on library-goers.

Bertrand started his library career at Kankakee Community College in 1990 and worked there for seven years before moving over to Kankakee Public Library.

“Back then, we were checking books out on the computer — we weren’t far enough back that it was still stamping — we were at the beginning of the internet age,” he said.

Part of his job at the KCC library was to file card catalogs into drawers that were organized to catalog what was in the library’s collections.

He did that for most of his seven years and said that was “one of the really old-fashioned things that was still around when I got started.”

When moving over to Kankakee Public Library, he started as the reference librarian at the old building in 1997.

People would come in or call and ask the reference desk questions such as, “I was watching a movie yesterday and there was an actor in it ...” and they would have books where they could look up the name of the actor. This was how people Googled before Google.

“Google pretty much killed reference at this library,” stated Bertrand. “Our number of reference questions per week just plummeted when Google came out. We used it for a while and there were a lot of people who didn’t know how to use it, so we acted as kind of an intermediary. Once it became ubiquitous, that was it.”

Because of online search tools such as Google, the library doesn’t have a proper reference collection anymore, and the reference collection was moved into the circulation collection.

This was at the same time when Bertrand became assistant director.

This was when the library changed the name of the reference department to Adult Services and the primary role for that department became public programming. The staff found a new high-demand service that the public wanted to replace the previous one of reference that they had been doing.

“That was exciting,” Bertrand said. “We started video recording our programs and started our YouTube page to share the speakers that we had. We’ve done quite well with that. So, that’s an example of technology pretty much killing a service that we had done. We had to evolve into something else.”

Merchant Street MusicFest

After the then-director moved up north, Bertrand took his place with Allison Beasley moving into the assistant director position.

Nina Epstein, the mayor of Kankakee at the time, had lunch with Bertrand and Beasley and the three discussed ways to make downtown Kankakee more of a destination.

The two library staff members offered to take over coordination of the annual Merchant Street MusicFest and worked to develop it into what it’s known as today.

“The first year that we did it, we expanded to a second stage,” said Bertrand of MusicFest, which was originally a one-day and one-stage affair. “It just kind of grew and grew, and the year that it exploded was when we got Tone Lõc in 2012. That year everybody and their brother showed up and that’s when it stopped being a small-time kind of affair and became what people think of as MusicFest now.”

After putting the event on hold last year due to the pandemic, Bertrand said he is excited to bring the fan-favorite festival back (with the exception of the Kids Zone) to downtown Kankakee this summer on July 30 and 31. He also expressed his gratitude to all of the community members who help make the event a reality.

“It is primarily made possible by all of our volunteers. We’ve had a rotating list of names through the years of people who’ve contributed,” he said, sharing that the list includes local businesses that contribute financially and the names of library staff who participate.

“Allison is kind of our core manager. But the scores and scores of private citizens who, on their own time, put four or five hours in to work a beer tent or sell tickets or pick up garbage is really what makes it possible.”

Resume reading

With MusicFest back on its feet, Bertrand is looking to do the same for the library and is encouraging the public to come back now that the state has reopened.

“With Phase 5, we will be completely open and all of our services will be back in place,” he said. “Programming will resume, and we want people to come back and try the library again.”

While he can’t say exactly what ideas they have as they’re still in the planning stages, they are “going to be trying some new things to get people to come back.”

He did mention the idea of developing spaces where creators can come out and use the library to do what they do best — create. Bertrand added that this idea was inspired by the former Kankakee music and creative space, Feed.

Bertrand and his team are working hard to bring the library back to its roots of bringing the community together, and he said he looks forward to more patrons returning.

“When I went to library school, I never thought I would end up being the director of my hometown library and that was really a gift,” he said.