Betty Cobb became the Children’s Library manager in 1999, and has worked tirelessly ever since for the children and families in our area. Ms. Betty—as she is affectionately known to the thousands of kids who have grown up listening to her storytimes—is retiring after 25 years of dedicated service.
You would be hard-pressed to find a children’s librarian as beloved and as hardworking as Betty Cobb. The relationships she nurtured over the last 25 years with kids, families, volunteers, daycares, preschools, and schools have been instrumental in building the Children’s Library into the gem that it is today.
In February 2023 alone, the Children’s Library offered 59 programs, with a total attendance of 1,601, and circulated 28,366 physical items to the kids in our community! These impressive numbers are due to Betty and the fantastic staff she has assembled and led over the years.
We recently asked Betty to reflect on her career at the Library and what the experience has meant to her.
When did you start at JCPL? Did you start out in a different position than you have now?
I started on May 5, 1998 as a library assistant in the “old library” on Roan Street. At that time we only offered preschool programs. I saw the need for school age programs and started our Story Stretchers program for kids in kindergarten and grade 1. This program eventually became what is now Book Worms.
When we moved into the “new library” [our current location] during the summer of 1999, we needed more help. So with the blessing of Arlyn Wattenbarger, the children’s manager at the time, I started the teen volunteer program, which still exists today.
Our present facility opened in August 1999 and the Children’s Library manager position opened the following month. I was lucky to be offered the position by Mark Thomas, the director at the time. I’ll always be grateful to him for giving me the opportunity.
What are some ways you’ve seen library services for children change throughout your career?
The main way I’ve seen library services change over the years is through the kinds of technology we offer. We’ve tried to stay current with the times in what we offer children.
Our storytimes used to be mainly books and fingerplays, then we went to using music on cassettes, then CDs, and now we stream the music we use.
Years ago the public computers were a big thing. Kids would make a beeline to them and want to use them for long periods. Now, children enjoy the AWE computers, which have educational programs, for short periods. I think this has changed because computers are so readily available now.
We used to offer books and music on cassettes, then we added CDs. And because CDs are going away, we just added VOX Books to our collection. These books have audio built into the book cover. Videos were replaced by DVDs, and now our users can stream movies on hoopla digital and access ebooks and e-audiobooks through Tennessee R.E.A.D.S. and the Libby app.
Our users can now check out their own books with the self-check kiosk in the Children’s Library. It’s quite convenient for parents and the children love feeling so grown up when they use it!
It’s not just technology that has changed though. We offer more interest-based programs today than we used to, which are really popular! Our Pokémon Trading Card Day, Family Escape Room, and Tech Take-Apart programs come to mind.
And we’ve added new collections over the years as reading trends have changed. We started our graphic novel collection when they were just becoming popular. Kids love graphic novels and heavily illustrated books like Diary of a Wimpy Kid. It’s actually been harder to bring the parents on board to have them accept them as legitimate books. There are some great graphic novels, like El Deafo, which actually won the 2014 Newbery Award.
But never fear! While there have been changes over the years, the one constant to all libraries, including ours, is the books. The Children’s Library circulated 28,366 items this February, our highest circulation in any February since I’ve been at the Library! There are classic books that continue to circulate constantly. The Harry Potter series is still very popular and rarely stays on the shelf even after more than 20 years. Kids will forever enjoy reading books and having stories read to them.
What impact do you think the Children’s Library has had on our community?
Libraries are the great equalizer. Anyone and everyone can come, meet friends, check out materials, attend programs, and enjoy a free space.
I think our Library in particular does a great job of welcoming old and new friends. It’s rare for a day to pass that someone new to the area doesn’t come in to visit. And I’ve heard many anecdotal stories recently about how we affected children’s lives. One of our young preschool storytimers from years ago stopped by awhile back to have pictures taken for her Master’s in Library Science degree. She’s becoming a librarian! A grandmother recently told me about bringing her own children to storytimes. The other day, a Library user from years ago was introducing a new little one to us; his two grown sons are now living in New York.
Families who make reading a priority and visit the Library regularly instill the importance of it in their children, who then come back with their children. What a wonderful cycle to be part of!
When you look back on your time as the Children’s Library manager, what are some of the highlights of your career?
There have been so many! A couple of big events that come to mind were when we hosted the Teacher Inservice Days here. It was awesome to bring school librarians together to discuss the best ways to get children enthused about reading. Along the same lines, I loved when we hosted the State Summer Reading Conference. Again, it was about bringing people together who wanted to ignite a reading flame in children.
One of the funnest times was when Linda Hammons, a previous children’s librarian, and I performed “The Three Little Pigs: An Introduction” at an ETSU student opera performance. What fun it was to act like the three little pigs and see the children’s faces light up as they watched!
Dr. Seuss Week was also a great time! We invited all the kindergarten classes in the city and county for a program highlighting books by Dr. Seuss. The fall and spring festivals we had were always fun and well attended.
But of all these, the most satisfying times were when I suggested a book to a child and they came back to tell me how much they enjoyed it. That’s what it’s all about!
What are a few of your happiest memories of your time at the Library?
Any time children and parents were engaged in storytime just gave me an awesome high. Leading Mother Goose Storytime [for ages birth-18 months] can’t help but make me happy! Seeing the babies with their loving parents, the babies learning rhymes and how to socialize, always makes me smile. Many Summer Reading programs come to mind, times when we filled up the meeting room with great performers. The cave we made for the Dig Into Reading summer program was pretty cool, too. The kids loved going in it to play. And of course, there’s staff Pi Day, when our staff members compete to win a pie contest!
One thing that made me extremely happy was when we opened the doors to the newly renovated Children’s Library in 2021. From almost day one of moving into the new building [in August 1999], I had always wanted a wall separating the children’s section from the rest of the Library. It was a safety issue. Children could slip away from their caregivers so easily. Since we’ve added the wall and doors to the Children’s Library, there is a different feel to our department. It is obvious that the space is totally focused on children. Kids and parents love it and the staff appreciates it as well.
What has leading the Children’s Library meant to you?
I have grown so much as a supervisor and as a person over the years. I’ve learned that to accomplish the most and to be the best Children’s Library we can be takes a dedicated team who care about each other and our users. I’ve learned that even though we want to do everything, prioritizing what we focus our time, energy and resources on is important.
It’s been an honor to lead this department and to know that so many children benefit from the choices we make—whether that be programs, services, or the materials we put in their hands. Johnson City Public Library has been a huge part of my life and I’m going to miss it.