Metro-East News

‘I’ve given my heart and soul’: Collinsville-area library district’s director retires

Vicky Hart and Barb Rhodes inside the Collinsville Memorial Library Center.
Vicky Hart and Barb Rhodes inside the Collinsville Memorial Library Center.

Barb Rhodes says it didn’t sit well with her when, more than a decade ago, some students in the Collinsville Unit 10 School District couldn’t get a library card at the Collinsville Memorial Library.

“So we fixed that,” said Rhodes, who was the executive director of the Mississippi Valley Public Library District before it was a library district — beginning her career there 21 years ago.

Rhodes, 62, retired on May 27, and the thing she’s most proud of in her tenure, she said, is actually that switch: from municipal library answering to the city to its own taxing body. The change allowed students who live outside of Collinsville to have access to the library.

“Anybody that lived outside of the city limits wasn’t paying a library tax, was not entitled to a library card. So when students would come in, and you would say ‘I’m sorry, but you can’t have these things for your project unless you pay us or your family pays us’ that was usually a very hard sell and you hated not to help them,” Rhodes said.

Since expanding its boundaries, the district now serves more than 35,000 individuals in Collinsville, Caseyville, Hollywood Heights, State Park and Fairmont City.

“There’s no student, no family in Unit 10 that is not able now to get a library card,” she said. The students are covered by three library districts in addition to the Mississippi Valley district: Maryville Library District, Caseyville Library District and Six Mile Regional Library District in Granite City.

For the Mississippi Valley district, expanding still presented questions about how to improve access for its patrons.

35,129 Individuals served by Mississippi Valley Public Library District

5 Communities included in the district

“Once we went district and took in all of this extra area, then you start looking at, ‘Well, how can I serve these people if they can’t all make it to this building?’” Rhodes said. “So we decided to open up a second building, looked around for quite a while, and finally found a building in Fairmont City, which was an American Legion.”

Rhodes said it was a win-win for the library and the legion members at the time.

“We were not only serving the community, but preserving a piece of their history because the American Legion couldn’t handle keeping the building anymore,” she said.

The set-up was also a first for a library in Illinois.

“When we first started down there, our library in that building would close at 6 and the American Legion bar would open at 6,” Rhodes said. “... As far as the State Library knows, we were the only library that has ever been housed in a building with a bar. I like firsts. I’m the only one that did that. What can I say?”

Today, Collinsville Memorial Library, 408 W. Main St., and Fairmont City Library, 2870 N. 44th St., each provide the basics — books, magazines and newspapers — as well as audiobooks, DVDs, Blu-rays, LPs, CDs, and video games. There’s also virtual collections available online, including ebooks and reference databases.

Both locations have a computer lab with laptops, Chromebooks and tablets. Patrons can experiment with technology that they might not otherwise have access to — 3D printers and scanners, drones and Raspberry Pis, which are credit-card sized computers.

In addition to the libraries, the district includes a historic home that can be rented for events, The Blum House, which was donated to the district in 1997. More local history is housed in a museum, Collinsville Historical Museum, for which Rhodes helped raise funding to move the artifacts from the Collinsville library’s basement into its own building.

“I’m a grant writer. ... Just in general, I love grant writing and it paid off,” Rhodes said. Beyond the grant that funded the museum, Rhodes said she wrote several construction grants for the Fairmont City Library and technology grants for the Collinsville Memorial Library.

They’ve enriched my life and they’ve enriched this library.

Barb Rhodes on everyone she met during her time at the Mississippi Valley Public Library District

Saying goodbye — for now

Rhodes, of Collinsville, said she was feeling grateful as she neared retirement.

“I’ve given my heart and soul here, found a lot of support from the community,” she said. “Even those that weren’t as supportive, I learned something from.”

Rhodes said of everyone she’s met, “they’ve enriched my life and they’ve enriched this library.” But she’s not saying her final farewells because it might not be the last time people find her at the Collinsville Memorial Library.

Her plans for retirement begin and end with some traveling she wants to do. Beyond that, Rhodes says, “I want to just go sit on the swing, have a beer, enjoy looking at the St. Louis skyline, watch the birds, watch the squirrels steal the bird’s food.”

“That’s the kind of active life I want at this point,” she said.

Rhodes is hoping her replacement, Vicky Hart, formerly of the Tri-Township Public Library District in Troy, will let her come back to the district to volunteer.

“Let you come back?” said Hart, “I have her cellphone number.”

Hart and Rhodes have known each other more than a decade.

“I think they’re going to be very happy with Vicky,” Rhodes said of patrons and staff. “It’s all going to go very well.”

Meet the new district director

Hart has worked in libraries of all kinds — college, university, public and more — for more than 30 years. She was previously the director at the library district in Troy for seven years.

“I got my first library job when I was a freshman in college and I never looked back. I knew right then,” Hart said. “I loved the customer service. I am, yes, a people person. I can talk to people any time — chit-chat, work a room, that’s me.”

For Hart, another important aspect of working in libraries is the atmosphere.

“It’s not a life and death job. If a decision doesn’t get made today, well, it’ll be here tomorrow,” she said. “It’s not as stressful as certain jobs can be. And I like that part of it.”

Rhodes joked that if Hart isn’t stressed, “you have worked here long enough then.” One of Hart’s first unexpected challenges at the Collinsville library was when the front railing fell off the building. But Hart said she handled it just fine.

“Well, that didn’t seem to faze me too much. I was like, ‘All right. Well, we’ll just get it fixed.’ Things like that happen,” Hart said.

Hart prides herself in her ability to supervise and manage. Her progression into administrative roles in libraries and districts was a natural one, she said.

“I found that I’m pretty good at it. I like what I do. I look back at my career and I can’t imagine having done anything else but be a librarian because I love it,” Hart said. “People don’t understand that sometimes.”

Hart wants to put to rest a misconception she said people commonly hold about librarians — she is often asked: “What do you do, read all day?”

“I don’t remember the last time, except at like my lunch break, that I ever actually read at work. ... Being a librarian is not about reading,” she said. “It is about loving books.”

I got my first library job when I was a freshman in college and I never looked back. I knew right then.

Vicky Hart, new executive director of the Mississippi Valley Public Library District

What the future holds for the district

The district calculated that on average each day, more than 500 people visit both library centers and take home about 750 items. The computer labs are used more than 150 times, and there are almost 900 hits on the virtual databases.

Hart’s philosophy is “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.”

“...This library is a wonderful district, great staff, that part is great,” she said. “What I want to look for, for the future, is I want to look at our big picture and see what else can we do? Or what are we doing that is out of date? What can we do instead?”

Hart said she’ll be looking at the changing needs of patrons in deciding how to shape the district’s future.

If Rhodes has hopes for the district’s future, she’s not sharing them.

“When I finally made my mind up to retire, I decided I couldn’t plan for anybody else,” Rhodes said. “I wasn’t going to load her with ideas and possibly send her in a wrong direction. I think once you hand it over, you hand it over because you want fresh ideas. ... That’s what I’m hoping for Vicky — once she becomes familiar with all the daily ins and outs here — that she is able to sit down and really be creative.”

What the district is already doing well

Home delivery services for people who can’t make it to the library centers and year-round programing for children, teens and adults are some of the services offered by the district that Hart thinks are especially important.

“Those are some of the things that I’m excited about, that I can be proud of — how we serve the community,” Hart said.

“Homebound” programs, through which materials can be delivered to patrons’ doors, are offered from both Collinsville and Fairmont City locations. Information about how to register is available on the library centers’ websites.

For children who are out of school, Hart said summer reading programs started this month to help prevent their skills from declining over the months they are out of the classroom. There’s “a lot of active programming, in general,” Hart said, for teens and adults as well.

A variety of technology classes are offered at the Collinsville Memorial Library, for example, including how to use tablets, Google Drive and Microsoft Office applications like Excel. One of the programs for young adults is a club that plays with “Pokemon” and “Magic: the Gathering” cards, as well as teaching people how to play. That group meets at the Fairmont City Library Center.

“I have to hand kudos to the staff, who really keep those programs going,” Hart said. “They buy in and they’re really involved and it’s wonderful.”

Rhodes thinks the most valuable things that the district has to offer are its staff, collection and technology.

“To me, the most important thing is our staff because I can’t tell you how many times people will come in and they have cards from other libraries and they say, ‘We come here because we know we’re going to get the service. We come here because we get a friendly smile. No matter what our day’s been like, we know we can at least walk out of the library and feel better,’” Rhodes said.

As for the ever-expanding collection, Rhodes said it was another motivation for the district to open the Fairmont City Library Center.

“We had so many books here, and we needed room for new books, so that was an outlet to put some of the books in another location and have them useful,” she said. The collection gained more and more technology over the years, which Rhodes said was an important move, especially for low-income patrons in the district.

“In communities like ours where not everyone is on the same page, where not everyone can maybe afford Wi-Fi in their homes or have a computer in their homes or be able to ever touch a 3D printer, would love to see a drone operate but don’t have that ability, we provide that opportunity,” Rhodes said.

Lexi Cortes: 618-239-2528, @lexicortes

Moments in the district’s history

  • 1915: Library is established in Collinsville by local Study Group, later known as the Woman’s Club
  • 1923: Collinsville Memorial Public Library is established with City Council’s approval.
  • 1967: Historical Museum opens in the 1,500-square-foot basement of the library.
  • 1993: The first personal computer is added to the library.
  • 1995: Then-assistant director Barb Rhodes begins her library career in Collinsville.
  • 1996: Rhodes is made director.
  • 1997: The Collinsville Building and Loan purchases the Blum House, which is adjacent to the library, and donates it to the library’s board of trustees.
  • 2004: The library is converted from a municipal to district library.
  • 2005: Collinsville Historical Museum is built, funding for which came from a grant written by Rhodes.
  • 2006: The Collinsville Memorial Library District expands its boundaries throughout the entire Collinsville Unit 10 School District through a successful referendum. The district also changes its name to the Mississippi Valley Library District because the service area extends beyond Collinsville.
  • 2008: Fairmont City Library opens at the American Legion Hall.
  • 2010: The district purchases the American Legion Hall in Fairmont City for the library.
  • 2015: The Collinsville Memorial Library celebrates its centennial.
  • 2016: Rhodes retires and Vicky Hart takes over as district director.

The district at a glance

Collinsville Memorial Library Center

  • Address: 408 W. Main St., Collinsville
  • Contact: 618-344-1112
  • Website:

Fairmont City Library Center

  • Address: 2870 N. 44th St., Fairmont City
  • Contact: 618-482-3966
  • Website:

Collinsville Historical Museum

  • Address: 406 W. Main St., Collinsville
  • Contact: 618-344-1834
  • Website:

The Blum House

  • Address: 414 W. Main St., Collinsville
  • Contact: 618-344-1112
  • Website: