SUTTON — Nancy Bertels spent 35 years presiding over a library in this small community with coal-mining heritage as it grew from 180 to 1,500 residents.
The Sutton Public Library grew in that time too, from a 2,400-square-foot red building behind the store to an airy 6,000-square-foot facility with a garden courtyard and ample room for community council meetings and other gatherings.
Now Bertels, the longest-serving employee in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, is leaving the librarian post she first entered in 1983. She retires at the end of August.
"It just felt like after 35 years of being here, maybe it was time for a fresh perspective," Bertels said Tuesday.
A community send-off is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at the library on Chickaloon Way. Plans call for a gathering of local dignitaries, teachers, parents, patrons and kids, organizer Joseph Davis said.
Davis, who lives in Glacier View out the Glenn Highway, called Bertels "a startling example of our local government employees fulfilling the highest good of service."
A carved wooden sign hanging above the library's main desk gives her a different title: "Conan the Librarian."
Bertels is currently the longest-tenured employee at the borough, officials there say. The record is apparently held by a platting assistant who retired several years ago after 40 years. The librarian at Big Lake, Jo Cassidy, will take the longest-serving crown when Bertels retires.
Bertels, who lives in Sutton with her husband and former community council president Mark, doesn't have a specific plan for the future. Mark Bertels is semi-retired. They have new grandchildren in Alaska and Idaho.
She took an unlikely path to her longtime seat at the library's helm.
Bertels, who came to Alaska from Minnesota with her parents in 1961, graduated from Bartlett High School and then completed a forest technician program. Then she met her future husband, married and moved to Sutton, where he had family roots.
Bertels worked for a time as a clerk at the old Koslosky's department store in downtown Palmer. Then a position came open at the Sutton library. She applied — and somehow got the job.
"I've always been around libraries a lot," she said. "I was a library kind of kid."
Bertels presided over a library that changed and grew with its patrons.
Decades ago, books held those pockets with slips recording the names of everyone who checked out the book. Residents liked that, Bertels said: If a neighbor liked a book, maybe they'd like it too.
By the mid-1990s, automation took hold, she said, noting that the cyberattack that hit the borough last week had taken the library back in time for a bit.
It took a decade to cobble together the funding and support for the new library. The building was completed six years ago. It's modeled on the historic coal washing plant, the ruins of which anchor the Alpine Historical Society park next door.
Bertels said she hopes to continue in some role at the library where she's helped generations of patrons.
"It was a hard decision to make," she said of retiring. "But I'm hoping whoever works here wants some help with story time."