By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

A real page turner

Marcus Larson/News-RegisterDenise Willms of the Willamina Public Library joins Dylan Smith and his mother, Katrina, in completing animal puzzles. Willams, who started as a volunteer, has been youth services librarian for 13 years.
Marcus Larson/News-Register
Denise Willms of the Willamina Public Library joins Dylan Smith and his mother, Katrina, in completing animal puzzles. Willams, who started as a volunteer, has been youth services librarian for 13 years.
Marcus Larson/News-RegisterYouth services librarian Denise Willms helps Dylan Smith, Crystaline Meeds and Christina Meeds feed fish at the Willamina Public Library. Willms loves working with local kids. Marcus Larson/News-Register
Marcus Larson/News-Register
Youth services librarian Denise Willms helps Dylan Smith, Crystaline Meeds and Christina Meeds feed fish at the Willamina Public Library. Willms loves working with local kids. Marcus Larson/News-Register

She’ll willingly be the target for a dozen or two young readers, armed with water balloons and hoses. After all, the annual water fight is a key part of the celebration marking the end of the summer reading program.

She’ll cradle an orphaned duckling all day, keeping it warm as she goes about shelving books or helping customers. The library is a community gathering spot, where abandoned animals are dealt with as routinely as information requests.

She’ll get out her own deck of cards to play a game of “Magic: The Gathering” with some teens, who were undoubtedly surprised someone they consider “old” shares their interest. Later, she may listen to one of those teens talk about relationship problems, or recommend a steampunk novel to another.

And she’ll tell you just how important libraries are.

“Libraries are more needed and useful now than ever,” said Willms, who has been on the job for 13 years.

“We have books, movies, magazines, databases that people can access from home or from the public access computers right here. We partner with schools and other agencies to provide services,” she said. “We offer the most important things our community needs to keep the community healthy and informed.”

Willamina’s library is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.

Like other city libraries, Willms said, it’s a place that serves the whole community, from toddlers who don’t yet read to adults from all walks of life.

“It doesn’t matter what you look like, or where you’re from,” she said. “If you come here looking for information, or something to read, I’ll help you.”

Willms didn’t grow up dreaming of becoming a librarian.

She spent her early years in Los Angeles, where even a trip to the school library was a rare event. Her class went once a week, checked out books, and left.

It wasn’t until her family moved to Lafayette in 1979 that she had free access to books. She began spending as much time as possible at the libraries at McMinnville Junior High, now Patton Middle School, and McMinnville High School.

She remembers the moment she went from reading because it was required to reading because she wanted to: “I was in sixth grade. I somehow read Madeleine L’Engle’s ‘Wrinkle in Time,’” she recalled. “I was hooked.

“The world opened up,” she said, recalling that moment of transition. “Since then, if it has words, I have to read it.”

She freely admits that reading is an obsession. For her, though, that’s not a bad thing. “It’s nice to be able to channel my obsession in a positive way.”

After finishing school, Willms married and moved several times, ending up in Willamina.

She had two sons and a daughter in quick succession. They’re 24, 25 and 27 now, and all live in the Willamina area.

In the 1990s, when they were young, she took them to the Willamina Public Library. She volunteered to help with storytime and craft activities for all the kids in attendance.

Later, the family moved to Corvallis so her husband could attend Oregon State University. She went to Linn-Benton, earning a degree in anthropology.

When they returned to Willamina, she landed a paid job at the library, one of 18 in the Chemeketa Regional Library System.

Now she runs storytime, the summer reading program and special events year-round, including beloved traditions such as the annual rubber ducky races and “The Great Willamina Egg Drop.”

The latter attracted 60 kids this year. Each one wrapped an egg in recyclable packaging and watched to see if it would survive being dropped from atop the fire department’s ladder truck.

About 95 percent of the materials used in the egg drop end up at the recyclers, said Willms, who uses her position to encourage people to recycle.

“We’re a community hub,” she said. “We have to set an example.”

In addition to being the youth services librarian, she is the technical services librarian for both Willamina and Sheridan. And along with librarian Melissa Hansen, she does whatever needs to be done — a necessity in a two-person operation like Willamina’s.

The job has helped her blossom from someone who was very introverted into a self-described social butterfly.

“Standing in front of the public every day, presenting at conferences ... that pulled me out of myself,” she said. “Now I can talk about everything.”

For Willms, a favorite part of the job is working with Willamina’s youngsters. “I like my little people,” she said, explaining that she refers to them that way, instead of “children,” because it’s important to treat them as equals.

“Don’t talk down to them,” she said. “Talk to them like they’re real people and you’ll learn amazing things. They tell it like it is.”

She loves seeing things through children’s eyes, she said. Something may be dull to an adult, but it’s new to a child, “and that makes it new to you, too.”

Willamina has great kids and great parents, she said.

Often, whole families come for story hour. The weekly events attract an average of 20 children, but if only one shows up, storytime goes on anyway.

To accommodate a variety of ages, she said, she chooses all sorts of reading material, from short picture books to chapter books. She also lets older kids help with planning storytime, reading aloud or even running the whole show.

She provides enrichment activities for older children, as well. She may give them a worksheet about the word of the week, for instance. “We had ‘facetious’ as the word ... they drew some cool pictures with that,” she said.

She does outreach with local Head Start programs, too. She’s pleased to be able to expose young children to the many things a library offers.

“The Head Start kids think I live in the library,” she said. And aside from her own home, the library is her favorite place, she admitted.

“There are so many libraries I would love to visit,” she said. First and foremost, she said, the Library of Congress.

Next comes the Bodleian Library at Oxford University in England. “Anthropology, history, and then you thrown in books .. the Bodleian would be heaven,” she said.

Increasing fluency and other reading skills is important to Willms. She also wants to help children keep up their literacy level during school vacations, and help parents learn how to help their children learn.

She teaches classes on library use and computer/Internet use for youngsters, as well as adults. She’s available by appointment for private lessons, and spends the last Wednesday of each month offering technology and e-reader help at the Sheridan library, as well.

Wherever she goes, she also wants to teach children and adults about the joy of reading — and to make them just as obsessed with books as she is.

Willms’ own reading list is eclectic.

She reads fiction and nonfiction, drama, light novels as well as more substantial volumes. She likes love stories, fantasy, science fiction, mystery.

One of her dependable favorite authors is Clive Cussler. His books are well-written and always deliver a captivating adventure without too much gore or sex.

Lately, she’s been enjoying contemporary steampunk novels. The genre is a mixture of fantasy, distopia and apocalyptic science fiction, with authors such as Cherie Priest (“Boneshaker”) and Scott Westerfeld (“Uglies,” “Pretties,” etc).

“Steampunk is an awesome way to get people reading, especially the guys because of all the science stuff,” she said.

True crime isn’t her favorite genre, but she reads some of it in order to make recommendations. She loved Patricia Cornwell’s Jack the Ripper book, “Portrait of a Killer: Case Closed” and liked Cornwell’s earlier novels about medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, as well.

She didn’t care for “Fifty Shades of Grey,” a novel she felt she had to read so she could advise library patrons about it. “I skipped a lot of it to find the actual story,” she said.

Having a chance to talk with readers about books is one of the best things about working in a small library, Willms said. “My patrons know me and I know them.”

Sometimes, she said, a library patron will call and ask her to find something he or she will enjoy reading. She jumps at the challenge. Other times, she will be cataloging new books or shelving existing ones and discover the perfect book for someone.

“I like knowing their tastes,” she said. “I like coming across a book they’ll love.”

Starla Pointer, who is convinced everyone has an interesting story to tell, has been writing the weekly “Stopping By” column since 1996. She’s always looking for suggestions. Contact her at 503-687-1263 or



Congrats Denise, this is a great article!

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