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After 37 years, Yolo librarian closes book on long career

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Dec. 26--Libraries have always played an important role in Mary Stephens' life.

She grew up on a ranch in Esparto and fondly remembers the weekly trip to Woodland so her could check out books at the library while her mother shopped.

In high school and college, she worked summers at the library, continuing to cultivate a lifelong love of books and learning.

After earning a history degree at Occidental College and a master's degree in library science at the University of California, Berkeley, Stephens became the Yolo County librarian in 1969. She is retiring at the end of the year after 37 years of advocating for and expanding the presence of libraries in Yolo County.

Yolo County residents have benefited from her fierce advocacy and tireless energy, said Supervisor Helen Thomson.

"We've been very fortunate all these years to have her," Thomson said. "She's thoughtful, strategic and she doesn't give up."

Stephens credits growing up on a ranch for her "can-do attitude."

"My first job was herding sheep, and that was good training for my future," she said, laughing.

With an annual budget of $4.5 million, Stephens has been charged with putting together a library program for seven branches throughout the county. Budget constraints have made it a challenge at times, but Stephens never backed down.

After Proposition 13 passed in 1978 and capped property tax rates in California, libraries in Yolo County lost 50 percent of their funding, resulting in layoffs and temporary building closures.

One branch was permanently closed as a result, and Stephens considers that time the most difficult of her tenure.

Since then, she has spent the bulk of her time cobbling together enough money to keep the remaining libraries going. An especially proud accomplishment came in 1989, when Davis voters approved a parcel tax for libraries, allowing the city to triple the size of its branch and open it Sundays. Stephens oversaw the $6 million expansion, which was completed in 1993.

Stephens also helped establish the Yolo County Archives, which date back to 1850, and oversaw the 1999 opening of the $1.2 million library branch in her hometown of Esparto.

The Yolo County Library system's card catalog was automated during Stephens' tenure, allowing it to be accessed online.

"A lot of years have been lean," said Kim Sheppard, an electronic technical services librarian who has worked with Stephens for 17 years. "But she was very interested in introducing a new system, getting us online and then migrating to an even newer system."

Improvements and expansions will continue after Stephens is gone, thanks to the groundwork she laid, Thomson said.

Plans are under way for a new library in West Sacramento, which will be a joint effort between Yolo County and the city.

In Winters, the county teamed with the city and school district to build a branch on the Winters High School campus. The $5.2 million, 10,000-square-foot project has been approved and is in the design phase, Stephens said.

Yolo County Supervisor Mike McGowan likened Stephens to "an iron fist in a velvet glove."

"She has an incredibly strong commitment to getting things done, and you can't help getting caught up in that drive," he said.

Stephens credits her dedicated staff for their hard work and the Yolo County community for "coming up with the nickels and dimes to keep things open."

The 67-year-old Davis resident looks forward to gardening her favorite colorful pansies as well as traveling to Hawaii and India with her husband, Les DeWall, whom she married in May.

She also looks forward to more time for leisure reading, and spending time at the library as a regular patron.

"The library is a community living room," Stephens said. "It is a source of information for all levels of society."


Copyright (c) 2006, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Business News.

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