Pandemic showed mettle of retiring Monterey librarian

MONTEREY — To hear her colleagues tell it, not only is Inga Waite a highly effective library manager, but she is also someone who has led teams through horribly rough seas with a calming and motivating demeanor — something highly prized during the worst of the pandemic.

Waite is the library and museums director for the city of Monterey and after two decades of work in the library system, she is packing her books and heading to the mountains. Her last day at her library office on Pacific Street — the first public library in California — will be on July 31.

She and her husband have 11 acres in Mariposa County, not far from Yosemite National Park. She said she’s not entirely sure of all the things they will do once away from the maddening crowd.

“Maybe raise some goats,” she said, laughing.

Several people The Herald spoke with about Waite stressed how she led the library through the darkest times of the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when the city’s tourism-based economy tanked, tax revenue collapsed and roughly 80% of the library staff were laid off — from 23 full-time equivalents down to four. It was a time Monterey City Manager Hans Uslar said Waite showed her leadership and creativity by stepping up with “professional knowledge paired with a creative mind.”

“While the COVID pandemic forced us to close the library, Inga and her team were the first library in the county to offer curbside library services,” Uslar said. “Our virtual programming also took off and helped thousands of folks to stay engaged and connected. Monterey was lucky to have had Inga at the helm.”

Naturally, Waite points to the people that surrounded her for the success in implementing programs to keep providing the community with information resources while the library doors were closed to the public. “We were all grieving for people who lost jobs and were experiencing survivors’ guilt,” while at the same time struggling to provide services, Waite said.

For example, as the library scrambled to establish critical internet services, she said David Kuhn, the library’s “can-do, inventive technology person” deserves much of the credit for getting online services when the library doors closed.

As she wrote on the library’s website about perseverance during hard times: “Sometimes in life the walk is an uphill battle. Sometimes there may be a deep ditch, or a slippery slope into a shallow pond. Or maybe a pebble gets stuck in your shoe. It hurts for a moment and then you keep going. You keep walking.”

Former Monterey Assistant City Manager Jim Thomson, who was the recent chairman of the library’s board of trustees, notes that Waite has a strong work ethic that enabled much of the library’s success in spite of sometimes overwhelming pressures on it and her. He, too, found her demeanor a valuable asset for the library during the pandemic closure.

“She worked very hard, long hours, but more importantly she didn’t rattle easily,” Thomson said. “She understood what a situation was and would talk things through. It would have been easy to get in a downward spiral — a depression if you will — but leadership, and especially the kind Inga presented, calls for as much positivity as possible. It must have been difficult to always be upbeat.”

Museum and Cultural Arts Commission Chairman Bill Wojtkowski, who also serves on the board of the Monterey Public Library Friends and Foundation, said this week that Waite has earned his respect both for her skills as a librarian and her dedication to helping raise funds through the foundation. During a recent fundraising campaign, the foundation set its target at raising somewhere in the neighborhood of $200,000, but with Waite involved the final tally ended up at about $350,000.

He said he also admires her work ethic, particularly, as the museums director as well as the library director, she put in a lot of time managing three museums with only one half-time employee.

“She’s very conscientious and very much a problem solver,” Wojkowski said. “If she doesn’t know something, she will get right back to you when she has the answer. I have the highest regard for her.”

That sentiment is echoed by Jennifer Fellguth, the new chair of the library’s board of trustees, who said Waite’s compassion for people and dedication to providing library services was unmatched.

“She has shepherded the library through the last few troublesome years,” she said. “I was wondering what more does this woman have to deal with? And yet she did it with so much grace.”

As for Waite, she said technology was and continues to be a key factor during the worst of the pandemic. A radio frequency identification system she ushered in dramatically speeds up the check-out and return process. And a smartphone app allows users to scan an item’s barcode using a phone’s camera feature. This is particularly valuable for people who remain cautious about close person-to-person interactions.

While digital media and online booksellers now compete with libraries, what they can’t do is provide community meeting places, Waite said.

“The trend now is for libraries to serve as gathering places, as conveners,” she said. “Libraries can provide symposiums, book discussions — a poor man’s university. Many people have told me that they see the library as a refuge, even for kids when home life was in chaos.”

Waite’s tenure solidly focused on providing services to disadvantaged users, be they people challenged by transportation, language barriers or the elderly who cannot make it down to the library. A critical resource for them has been the 30-foot bookmobile that Waite calls the little library.

“Even though we are a small community not everyone can get to the library,” she said. “We’re going to preschools where kids don’t have the ability to come to the library. We want to serve Spanish speakers and low-income residents who may have fewer cars and are less likely to get to the library. Kids who have books at home do better academically.”

So, as she heads off to the land of John Muir, if she wants to know anything about how to raise those goats, there’s sure to be a book in the library about that.

Contributed by local news sources

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